Do you congratulate yourself on the fact that your team never argues or even disagrees with each other? Hold on. That might not be a good thing. Results from a study of 55 executives teams by consulting firm RHR International found that while internal cohesion and psychological safety are important to executive team performance, they are not the most critical at the enterprise level. Rather, it is the team’s ability to manage conflicting tensions—as opposed to seeking agreement—that predicts top-team performance. Even if you don’t lead an executive team, you know that conflict happens on most teams at all levels of your company. Indeed, with the emphasis on creating diverse teams, it’s likely that the different backgrounds, experiences, and expertise will lead to more wide-ranging points of view. The trick is not to avoid conflict, but to understand that disagreement is often a step in the conversation process on the way toward understanding the larger system you within which your team operates.
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A recent survey found that one of the top frustrations of CEOs is aligning strategy and people. This was interesting to me because of the amount of research and experience available to companies about strategy, change management, employee engagement, etc. Moreover, aren’t companies meant to move an idea or strategy from the abstract to concrete reality by way of their employees? I was curious to see what made aligning strategy and people so difficult even today. To find out, I interviewed some colleagues in Human Resources, and here are the top three challenges that emerged from our conversations:
1. Top leadership was removed from the day-to-day realities of the business.A common impediment cited when aligning strategy and people was that senior and executive management remained separated from the reality of frontline employees during both the planning and implementation stages of initiatives. That is, top leaders often built a strategy and an implementation plan on untested assumptions and inadequate information (which caused initiatives to fall short or fizzle), mostly because they did not get vital information from employees who did the work. This, of course, lead to allocating misguided or inadequate resources and setting inadequate or unrealistic goals and milestones. Also, by remaining removed from what was happening near the point of customer contact, employees didn’t see the strategy or tactics as realistic, which in turn made senior management lose credibility. Further, by remaining distant from the frontline realities, top leadership didn’t act as role models for everyone else. Instead, they seemed to take a “do what we say, not as we do” attitude by imposing their perspectives and plans on employees as they directed the work from afar. Thus, employees viewed senior leadership as avoiding accountability and passing the buck, which led to employee resentment that undermined employee engagement and, ultimately, the initiative itself.
2. The organization fails to intentionally prioritize and align strategy, vision, goals, and daily workAnother challenge that came up was a lack of shared understanding of how to translate strategy and goals into actionable tasks and behaviors that would make the desired difference. Often, top leaders assume that once goals were communicated to each respective area of the company, the people would automatically know what to do to get the desired results. Each successive layer of leadership throughout the organization provided little guidance throughout the organization about how employees needed to adjust and redirect their focus, energy, and targets. Further, many companies failed to prioritize how and where to deploy resources at various stages throughout implementation. This created confusion around the cadence and priority of work among departments, divisions and teams. Instead, when implementation began, it became painfully clear to those performing the work where different areas of the organization stepped on each other’s toes, were working at cross-purposes, or were pursuing uncoordinated outcomes. The end results were internal conflict around competing interests between departments and divisions, confused communication, and even resentment between areas.
3. The organization lacks shared values and behavior norms.Another reason that for the conundrum of aligning strategy and people was that the organization had not intentionally identified, defined, and prioritize its values. This meant there were few if any norms for how people were expected to work together. Without shared values and norms, each company area and each individual substituted their own values or their own interpretations of company values as they performed their work, made decisions, and interacted with each other. For example, one department valued creating profits for shareholders over everything else, even though that was not a primary goal of the initiative. This caused confusion and resentment as the one department worked at cross purposes with other departments. In other words, without shared values and norms, misinterpretations and miscommunication occurred frequently, leading to mistrust between different areas of the organization. To conclude, in the 21st century, CEOs still struggle with aligning strategy and people, which goes to the heart of what leadership is all about. To do it better, most in leadership positions need to focus on what others in the organization need from them. First, senior leaders and executives to engage with employees at all levels of the organization to inform the strategy and implementation and remain engaged as role models throughout. Next, senior leadership must intentionally and clearly translate the strategy into current priorities and monitor and adjust those priorities throughout the initiative being mindful of and helping to resolve competing interests along the way. Finally, top leadership must foster an intentional, common culture that defines and reinforces a common language and common value-based behaviors to enhance collaboration. WANT TO USE THIS IN YOUR NEWSLETTER, BLOG OR WEBSITE? You can, as long as you include this information with it: Beth Strathman works with executives and senior leaders to create team environments that optimize ownership, accountability, learning, and results. Learn more at firebrandconsultingllc.com.
In the U.S., most people are taught from an early age to be individually competent and independent. It’s no wonder that most of your employees have some difficulty in knowing how to work effectively within a team. Here are five things you can do to forge a collective sense of “team”:
1. Create Routines That Signal Start of Team SpaceBeing part of a team is like being a partner in a marriage -- both require individuals to give up some of their individual desires and aspirations in service to the group. (Read a previous post I wrote about the ego “sacrifice” required here.) As a team leader, you can reinforce this notion with routines that are designed to signal that the group is entering “team” mode and to put their individual goals to the side. Examples of these routines are:
- At the beginning of team meetings, consider starting with a few seconds of silence to allow everyone to bring their focus into the meeting.
- Use a team “check-in” to allow each individual to engage with the rest of the team from the start.
- During an initial team or project launch, ask each individual to share what baggage they intend to leave behind (past quarrels or resentments, habits, tendencies, etc.) that won’t serve the team purpose and stakeholders.
2. Frequently Revisit Team PurposeTo maintain the focus on the collective team endeavor, always remind your team of its purpose. Reminding the team why your team exists is a fundamental way to establish and re-establish team focus. Everything team members do -- from the behaviors needed to achieve team success, to the goals and objectives they strive to achieve, to the processes they create for high quality output, should all come from to the team’s purpose. This is also true for each decision made and the roles and responsibilities assigned. In short, team purpose informs everything your team does. Team purpose reminds your team that their collective endeavor is not about them as individuals as much as it is about the team as a whole and the benefit it provides to others.
3. Keep Stakeholders at the Center of the Team’s WorkIt’s easy for team members to get overly focused on their individual agendas and responsibilities. Yet, your team’s success is ultimately measured by how well its collective work provides beneficial value for stakeholders. In fact, stakeholders and their needs are the reason for your team’s purpose, which in turn drives your team’s work. (Read a previous article on how to take yourself out of the center.) To keep your team’s focus on stakeholders, connect with them from time to time. Staying in touch allows your team to discover how well your team is providing valuable benefit to them and whether the relationship is good. When your team sees its stakeholders as central to team operations, you prioritize the collective team endeavor of serving stakeholders over individual team member interests.
4. Make Vulnerability and Fallibility OkayOne of the big reasons individual team members can be overly focused on themselves is that they want to appear capable. Yet, each human on your team has flaws. To mask those flaws, individuals often balk at admitting they sometimes lack skills or that they make mistakes. That’s why it’s important that you as team leader show that it’s okay to admit you aren’t all knowing, may lack some ability, and will own up to mistakes in the spirit of learning. Additionally, your team might consider creating norms around these concepts. Acknowledging human frailties permits team members to accept each other as individuals. It also can focus them on learning together as a team rather than protecting their individual egos.
5. Create Team Accountability for Individual Team Member DevelopmentAs suggested by Keith Ferrazzi, you can forge a deeper focus on the team by creating a Team Relationship Action Plan. The key to such a plan is to ensure each individual team member identifies their own areas for growth. Then, they ask for what they need from other team members to make gains in those areas. This creates mutual accountability between each individual and whole team for individual development that furthers the team purpose and goals. To conclude, individual talent and creativity are necessary contributions to team success. However, successful teams are able to create a singular team focus to serve their stakeholders. Don’t rely on this happening naturally; consider trying some of these ideas to routinely reinforce what it means to be a team. WANT TO USE THIS IN YOUR NEWSLETTER, BLOG OR WEBSITE? You can, as long as you include this information with it: Beth Strathman works with executives and senior leaders to create team environments that optimize ownership, accountability, learning, and results. Learn more at firebrandconsultingllc.com.
How does a sense of team emerge where the whole is prioritized over the individual, especially in Western cultures where the emphasis is on the individual? A team is a specific type of group where individuals come together to accomplish a shared purpose. In a team, the individual team members bring their unique talents and perspectives and work interdependently to achieve a unified outcome. This requires mutual responsibility, accountability, and support.
Move from a Focus on Individual Team Members to a Focus on the Team PurposeWith the complexity of today’s world, many companies are finding that individuals working by themselves but together with a common goal doesn’t rise to meet the demands of today’s complex and changing world. The creates an “every person for themselves” approach that falls short. Thus, the challenge for many companies today is to create true team where its “all for one and one for all”. Forging individuals into a team requires the ability to create conditions where team members express their individual talents in service of the team, while keeping their focus on achieving the team’s purpose and serving the team’s stakeholders. This is easier said than done because most people have been raised to focus on their own talents, needs, and goals. When this is the case, a focus on individuals is at the center of decision-making. Instead, this is where the team’s collective purpose, goals, and stakeholders should be. Consequently, the team can easily devolve back to being a group of individuals, each in pursuit of looking good individually. As with most things in life, it’s a balancing act. A healthy team must strive for a balance between encouraging the individual team members to fully contribute while ensuring the shared team purpose drives the work. Here are some things to monitor if you want to forge a collection of individuals into a high-performing or even transformative team:
Strive For Your Team’s Individual/Team BalanceA team leader along with the team must strive to create conditions where individual team members:
- know which unique skills, knowledge, and abilities they contribute to the team.
- are willing to reflect on their abilities and their limits to grow through the challenges of working with others.
- have interesting and purposeful tasks to perform.
- are willing to engage in productive conflict to find creative solutions with others.
- are willing to ask for and offer help when needed without judgment.
- agree upon a shared purpose, norms, goals/aspirations, and priorities.
- recognize and appreciate individual contributions and encourage individual growth.
- prioritize its work together with the stakeholders and shared purpose at the center.
- take collective responsibility to improve as a team and to assist each team member in their individual development
- engage in dialogue and productive conflict to find creative solutions
Warning Signs That You’re Losing the Individual/Team BalanceTo strike that individual/team balance, there are also things to avoid. For example, signs that the focus is too much on individuals include:
- individual opinions and preferences drive decision-making over what’s best for the team and its stakeholders.
- the team allowing a louder or outspoken team member to dominate team discussions frequently.
- the team allows individual preferences or behavior to derail group progress towards a shared goal.
- group think sets in -- team members don’t challenge interpretations or points of view out of habit or because they fear not being seen as “team players”.
- a dogmatic or misguided group personality emerges that isolates the team and creates difficult interactions with others outside the team.
- the team as a whole dismisses individual contributions (+ and -) that could lead to breakthroughs.
Failure happens when a desired or expected outcome doesn’t materialize. It can happen whether or not there was something you could have done about it, too. Whether the mistake is a small glitch or a major flop, failure often weighs heavily on you personally because you’ve been conditioned that, without exception, “failure is not an option”. This is a lot to overcome. In most people’s experience, nothing is perfect; you and the people around you are flawed, and the world is constantly changing. Thus, you’re not always going to get things right on with mistakes, foibles, and failure and re-frame them as ”learning”:
1. Failure points to weaknesses in behavior, skill, processes, your overall system, or level of support provided.Use an error to examine a weakness in how you are performing the work. People involved may need to build technical or interpersonal skills. The steps designed to produce the work output may be inadequate. Also, you might need to increase follow ups or check ins during a process to increase the ability to get and give needed guidance.
2. Failure provides you new information and data about what does and doesn't work.Mistakes help you home in on what will ultimately work well, especially when you are in uncharted territory. Repeated, incremental failures can help you fine tune toward success.
“Mistakes are the portals of discovery.” – James Joyce
3. Failure can highlight false assumptions.Consumers didn’t embrace the Ford Edsel in the late 1950s in part because the company mistakenly assumed consumers wanted big cars when they wanted smaller, more economical ones. The maker of Coke incorrectly assumed that it would convert Pepsi drinkers if it made its product taste more like its rival. While it’s too bad that these companies went all the way to market with ill-conceived products, they did learn that their thinking was flawed at a fundamental level.
4. Failure can create curiosity that leads to inquiry and more engagement.With an eye towards learning, you can use failure to focus your team on the work. To do this you must avoid blaming and shaming individuals, which can drive a wedge in the middle of your team. Instead, focusing on what happened can bring your team together to solve problems. Additionally, your team can go one step further to share what they learned with others in your organization. Perfection is not the goal. Nothing and no one will ever be 100% error free. Rather, view the performance of work as a creative process that can teach you a lot through the errors, mishaps, and failures that occur along the way. Be grateful you have opportunities to discover what and how you can improve the next time. WANT TO USE THIS IN YOUR NEWSLETTER OR BLOG? You can, as long as you include this information with it: Beth Strathman works with executives and senior leaders to create team environments that optimize ownership, accountability, learning, and results. Learn more at firebrandconsultingllc.com.
Mythologist Michael Meade wrote, “All meaningful change requires a genuine surrender. Yet, to surrender does not simply mean to give up; more to give up one’s usual self and allow something other to enter and redeem the lesser sense of self.” Your employees do this every day as they surrender or “sacrifice” at least some of their individual expression and preferences in service to the team. It is a profound things we ask of people but don't realize what we're asking until we encounter some of the issues that arise with teams. The word “sacrifice” means to surrender something as an offering to something greater. It comes from ancient words that mean “to make holy”. In turn, the word “holy” comes from words meaning to make whole.
The Sacrifice of Individual IdentityWhen you form a team, you ask individual team members to bring an individual contribution to a unique collective group. That is, you ask each individual to contribute in a way that will transform a collection of individuals into something qualitatively “more” – a team. Like a well-composed piece of music, visual art, or dance, the individual parts (people) by themselves have their own qualities and aims. However, when assembled in a deliberate way, that collection of individual "parts" transforms into an entirely different, cohesive whole. They form a cohesive composition that becomes more than the sum of its individual parts. While not usually stated explicitly, when you ask individuals to join a team, you are asking them to surrender personal focus and concerns in favor of the team’s collective interests in serving stakeholders. Thus, working on a successful team asks team members to let go of or sacrifice parts of their egos in service of the cohesive whole of the team and to contribute their time, talent, and energy as offerings in service of the team's stakeholders.
Personal Development from SacrificeIn doing so, individual team members can evolve to become (more) whole themselves. On an individual level, team members can develop new capabilities. Also, they can let go of old ways of being to become better people. For example, you might expect team members to sacrifice or give up any or all of the following:
- Insistence on having things done their way;
- Personal dislike of others they interact with;
- Making the team’s work about themselves and their personal contribution to the work; or
- Judging and blaming others to avoid responsibility for mistakes and failures.