If you’re like millions of other people, you’ve been working remotely part or full-time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Literally overnight, teams were challenged with finding new ways to communicate and collaborate, and the bonds of trust those teams had established were put to the test.
High performing teams thrive on trust and research has shown that trust in one’s team leader is one of the two primary factors that drive employee engagement. There are four elements of trust that characterize trusting relationships among team members.
Trusting teams are able. They possess the skills, knowledge, and expertise to perform their work. They achieve their goals and demonstrate the ability to make smart decisions and solve problems. Trusting teams are also believable. Team members are honest in their dealings with each other, act in alignment with team and organizational values, and treat each other fairly. A third characteristic of trusting teams is being connected. Team members look out for each other, have each other’s best interests in mind, share information readily, and find common ground with each other. Finally, trusting teams are dependable. They keep their commitments, are accountable to each other, and are responsive to the needs of the team and organization.
Whether your team has performed with flying colors during this pandemic, or if they are clearly in need of help, there is no better time than now to do a trust tune-up. Remember the old management saying, “What gets measured gets managed?” Well, it applies to trust, too. The only way to know if your team has high trust is if you measure it. If you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it.
To help you in this effort, I’ve included in this post a survey you can use to gauge the level of trust in your team. Have each team member download and complete the survey below. Tally up the scores, identify the lowest scoring element of trust, and then involve your team in creating action plans to strengthen that particular element of trust. Keep your team’s level of trust tuned-up so they continue to perform their best.
After you’ve surveyed your team, please come back and share the results of what you learned and what you’re doing about it. The Leading with Trust community will benefit from your experiences!
In my last two articles, I’ve explored the concept of a team’s Conversational Capacity®. Conversational capacity is the ability to have open, balanced, non-defensive dialogue about tough subjects and in challenging circumstances. Teams that have a high conversational capacity know how to stay in the “sweet spot.” The sweet spot is where candor and curiosity are in balance. Dialogue flows freely, people share their input willingly, and listen to the feedback of others without judgment. Good work happens in the sweet spot.
The challenge, of course, is getting and keeping your team’s conversations in the sweet spot. There are two primary factors that pull us away from the sweet spot and lower our conversational capacity: fight and flight. The fight reaction shows itself in team communication when people engage in “win” behavior. They argue, try to dominate conversation, discount the input of others, or even refuse to listen to alternative viewpoints. The flight reaction is manifested when team members “minimize” their contributions. They shut down, don’t offer their ideas, discount their own opinions, avoid conflict, or offer half-hearted, wishy-washy viewpoints to avoid upsetting others. Both tendencies, win and minimize, pull a team away from the communication sweet spot and lower the team’s overall capacity to have productive conversations. Fortunately, there are four skills we can learn and develop to counteract our tendencies to win or minimize.
Testing and Inquiring
Let’s look at how to tame our desire to win. Since winning behavior results from a drop in curiosity, we need to learn how to become more curious about the perspectives of others. We do that by learning and using the skills of testing and inquiring. We test our perspective and inquire into the perspective of others.
What does it look like to test our perspective? It looks like holding our viewpoint as a hypothesis to be tested, rather than a truth to be proven. A simple way to do this is to ask questions that invite others to examine our viewpoint: What’s your take on this issue? How do you feel about what I’m suggesting? How do you see this from your angle? Is there a better way to make sense of this? I know I don’t have it all figured out, so what am I missing?
The skill of inquiring involves drawing the thinking of others into the conversation. It’s not just asking a few questions to invite their input, but rather delving into the rationale and thinking other people bring to the topic at hand. It’s the process of asking as many questions as necessary to get the other person’s view into the pool of information being considered. The goal of inquiry isn’t agreement, it’s understanding. Sample inquiries include: Tell me more about why you believe that? Can you provide a couple examples that illustrate your point? Help me understand how you reached that conclusion. Testing and inquiring raise your level of curiosity and combat your tendency to win.
Stating a Clear Position and Explaining Your Thinking
Let’s look at our tendency to minimize. Minimizing results from a drop in candor; we aren’t openly and confidently sharing our viewpoints with the team. To increase our candor, we can use the skills of stating our clear position and explaining our thinking.
Stating our position is like a clear topic sentence in a paragraph. It’s clear, candid, and concise, and can be communicated in one sentence, or no more than two. I think we should invest the funds in project X. Option 2 gives us the best chance for success. We should disband the team and use the resources elsewhere. It sounds simple, but just think about how often you fail you exercise this skill. Too often we beat around the bush, inadvertently hide our point in a convoluted story, or soften our opinion to prevent disagreement with others. When we fail to state a clear position, we open the door to misunderstanding and muddled dialogue.
However, it’s not enough to just state a clear position. You must also explain your thinking. This is the why behind your position. Explaining your thinking means you need to share the data that informs your position and how you’re interpreting that data. W. Edwards Deming’s famous quote, “In God we trust, all others must bring data” illustrates this concept. For example: We should disband the team and use the resources elsewhere (clear position). They have missed their quota by an average of 34% the last 5 quarters (data), and we know from previous experience that teams who aren’t hitting quota by quarter 3 usually don’t improve (interpretation). Stating a clear position and explaining your thinking increases the level of candor and combats the tendency to minimize.
Communication is the engine that drives team performance. Honest and open communication fosters teamwork, innovation, trust, and just about every other positive organizational dynamic. The best teams have learned how to balance candor and curiosity to remain in the communication sweet spot. The skills of testing and inquiring help to boost curiosity and temper the need to win, while the skills of stating clear positions and explaining our thinking allows us to increase the level of candor within team communications. Team members using these four skills will keep their team dialogue in the sweet spot where their best work happens.
In my previous article I wrote about the conversational “sweet spot” that unlocks team performance. The sweet spot is defined as the balance of candor and curiosity in team discussions. It’s a reflection of a team’s Conversational Capacity® – the ability to have open, balanced, non-defensive dialogue about tough subjects and in challenging circumstances.
Teams that have a high conversational capacity know how to stay in the sweet spot. The sweet spot is where dialogue flows freely, people share their input willingly, and listen to the feedback of others without judgment. Good work happens in the sweet spot.
Teams with a low conversational capacity frequently get pulled away from the sweet spot. When a tough topic arises, some people heat up while others shut down. Some people dominate the discussion while others don’t say a peep. Sometimes the conversation turns argumentative and nothing gets accomplished, or if a decision is reached, it’s often forced upon people and there is collateral damage of hurt feelings and damaged relationships. Good work isn’t possible when the team is pulled out of the sweet spot.
The challenge, of course, is getting and keeping your team’s conversations in the sweet spot. There are two primary factors that pull us away from the sweet spot and lower our conversational capacity: fight and flight.
When faced with challenging and tense situations, the human brain is programmed to respond in two basic ways. One is to fight, engage with the threat, and try to exert control over the situation. In team conversations this response is manifested in “win” behavior. We argue, try to dominate the discussion, discount the input of others, or even refuse to listen to their viewpoints. When we let winning behaviors take over, we become less curious in other peoples’ perspectives. That pulls us, and the team, out of the sweet spot and lowers our conversational capacity to reach better and higher quality outcomes.
Flight is a second way our brains respond to threatening and stressful situations. We want to remove ourselves from the situation, whether that’s physically, mentally, or emotionally. In team conversations this response is manifested in “minimize” behaviors. Examples of minimizing behaviors include shutting down, not contributing, discounting our value or opinions, avoiding conflict, or offering half-hearted, wishy-washy viewpoints to avoid upsetting others. When we minimize, we reduce the amount of candor in the team conversation, thereby pulling us away from the sweet spot.
Imagine a sliding scale with “minimize” on the left and “win” on the right. When you think of your natural response to difficult team conversations, where would you place yourself on that scale? Do you tend to become less curious and try to “win” the conversation by exerting control, dominating the discussion, and convincing others of your position? Or do you tend to become less candid, not share your true thoughts and feelings, and acquiesce to those who are trying to win? The goal, obviously, is to stay in the sweet spot by balancing the amount of candor and curiosity in the discussion. In a future article I will share specific skills you can develop to reduce your tendency to minimize or win and boost your ability to stay candid and curious. After all, the sweet spot is where good work happens!
The desire to contain the spread and impact of the COVID-19 virus has led many organizations to require their employees to work from home. For some, working virtually isn’t a big change. Many workers are already accustomed to working remotely on an intermittent or regular basis. It’s been reported that 43% of Americans work from home occasionally and at least 5.2% (8 million people) work from home full-time.
However, there’s a big difference between occasionally working from your kitchen table and setting up shop in your home for an extended period of time (or permanently).
Before you pull the trigger on sending your team members home to work virtually, I suggest you formulate a thoughtful strategy. Having led and been a part of virtual teams for many years, I can testify that working from home is not a panacea. It has its advantages compared to life in a cubicle, but it has its own unique challenges as well.
Incorporate these four areas in your strategy to have team members work virtually:
Clarity—Your team needs clear direction about the expectations and responsibilities of working remotely. Questions or topics to address include: Will team members be expected to maintain specific “office” hours? Does there need to be a different process for securing a backup if someone needs to be away from their desk or has a personal appointment? What technology platforms will you use, and when, to replace face-to-face meetings? If webcams are required for meetings, will be people be allowed to opt-out because they’re having a “bad hair day” (when, likely, they just didn’t feel like changing out of their pajamas)? Are there norms established that govern how the team makes decisions, communicates, and collaborates? Don’t assume the implicit expectations of a few team members working from home occasionally are explicitly known by everyone and that they apply to having the entire team function virtually.
Communication—Effective communication is the key to working successfully in a virtual team and of primary importance is establishing trust among team members. Trust is built through interpersonal interactions, and unfortunately, working virtually reduces the amount of interpersonal connection we experience compared to working in the office. We lose the random encounters in the hallway, break room, or at the water cooler that are so important in fostering personal connection. We also lose the visual cues provided by body language that place a person’s communications in context. The reliance upon email and IM in the virtual world easily leads to misinterpreting a person’s intent, usually in a negative fashion, so be proactive about using the phone and webcams to make communications more personal. Stay disciplined about holding one-on-one and team meetings to bring people together to combat loneliness and foster a sense of team identity.
Community—There are many benefits to working remotely. Included are increased productivity, a greater sense of autonomy and control over one’s work, and better work-life balance. But it comes at a cost—isolation and loneliness. Any veteran remote worker will tell you that loneliness is a frequent visitor to their home office and intentional effort is required to prevent that visitor from settling in permanently. Remote workers need to be proactive about reaching out to other team members to connect socially, even to just chit-chat for a few minutes. It’s also important for team leaders to create opportunities for team members to bond. Strategies can include having a virtual team lunch via webcam, have team members share pictures of their pets, or give virtual tours of their home offices. Shifting employees to work virtually, either temporarily in response to the coronavirus, or permanently as part of a larger strategy, requires leaders to increase the amount of training they provide the team. Whether it’s specific training on how to lead or work in a virtual team, or general leadership and other skill-building training, remote employees should not be treated differently from office-based team members. The out of sight, out of mind pitfall often befalls virtual workers, thereby limiting their personal development and advancement opportunities. Virtual workers must advocate for themselves and need their leaders to champion their efforts in being included in the broader organizational community.
Shifting employees to working virtually requires leaders to increase the amount of training they provide the team.
Care—Virtual workers need to take the lead in self-care if they are going to be successful over the long haul. In addition to the challenges of isolation and loneliness, virtual workers often end up working longer hours because work is ever present. It’s hard to resist the temptation of sending just one more email, writing a few more lines of code, putting the finishing touches on that critical presentation, or doing just a bit more data analysis when the glow of the laptop screen is beckoning. To combat this challenge, have a dedicated work space, preferably with a door, where you can leave work behind at the end of the day. Establish personal norms for yourself regarding work hours and breaks, just like you would have in a physical office. Establish boundaries with housemates about noise and activity levels in the house, and how household responsibilities are handled during the workday. Build routines into your schedule that allow you to connect with others and recharge your batteries. It may be going to the coffee shop in the morning, walking the dog around the block, eating lunch outside, or taking an afternoon walk at a local park. Treat working from home much the same way you’d treat working in the office. Getting dressed in office attire puts you in the mindset of being at work, and believe me, it works in your favor when you need to join an impromptu webcam meeting!
For many occupations today, work has become something you do, not somewhere you go. Requiring people to work from home in response to the coronavirus gives many organizations a chance to see that people can be just as productive, if not more so, working virtually as compared to working in the office. This is a fantastic opportunity for organizations to build trust with their employees by giving them the opportunity to work remotely, and it’s also an opportunity for employees to prove themselves trustworthy in response.
Growing up playing sports, coaching my kids’ sports teams, and being a sports fan in general has taught me numerous lessons about life and leadership. A few that standout are the value of setting goals and working to achieve them, persevering through failure, and the importance of everyone knowing their role and working together to make the team successful.
However, the most important lesson I’ve learned about being part of a successful team, or leading one, is the need for trust. Great teams thrive on trust (click to tweet).
It doesn’t matter if it’s a sports team, a military team, a work team, or any other kind of team, the best teams have developed a high-level of trust among team members to the point that each individual knows they can count on each other to do their part. If someone is falling short or needs help, another team member will be there to fill the gap.
But how do you build that kind of trust in a team? Well, it doesn’t happen by accident. It takes intentional focus and effort. It also doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and shared experiences for people to bond with one another. It’s the team leader’s job to structure the team and its environment in a way that allows trust to flourish.
Here are five strategies leaders can use to build high-trust teams:
1. Hire and develop great team members—You may be asking what this has to do with trust. Well, any leader will tell you that the team is only as great as its members. Team members need to be competent in their roles and dependable in their performance if they’re going to be trusted by their fellow team members. Of course, the best option is to recruit and hire top performers, but even if you can’t afford to pay top-tier talent, you can still train and develop team members to perform their best in their specific roles. As Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great points out, it’s not just about getting the right people on the bus, but getting the right people in the right seats on the bus.
2. Teach them about trust—One of the truths about trust is that it’s based on perceptions. My perception of what constitutes a trustworthy team member is likely different from your perception. Differing perceptions among team members is why it’s critical to establish a common definition of trust. I’m a proponent of using the ABCD framework as the “language” of trust. ABCD is an acronym that describes trustworthy team members. A team member can be trusted if he is Able (demonstrates competence), Believable (acts with integrity), Connected (cares about others), and Dependable (honors commitments). Having a common language of trust allows team members to identify actions that will build trust, and to discuss low-trust actions in an objective, behaviorally focused manner.
3. Have clear roles and expectations—One of the primary ways mistrust develops in a team is a lack of focus and clarity on the team’s purpose, goals, and roles of its members. This causes team members to step on each other’s toes and question each other’s motives. It drags down their morale and productivity and fosters disengagement. High-trust teams are crystal clear on their purpose and goals, each other’s roles on the team, and how they work together to make the team a success. A team charter provides this clarity from the get-go. Whether it’s a temporary ad-hoc team or a permanent, operational team, a team charter details the purpose of the team, the roles of team members, behavioral norms of how team members relate to each other, and how they’ll make decisions. A team charter functions like banks for a river. It provides direction and boundaries for the team to operate and channels their energy toward their goals. A river without banks is just a large puddle, and without a team charter, teams flounder and their productivity wanes.
4. Create an environment of psychological safety—Psychological safety describes an individual’s perceptions about the consequences of taking interpersonal risks in their work environment. It consists of taken-for-granted beliefs about how others will respond when one puts oneself on the line, such as asking a question, seeking feedback, reporting a mistake, or proposing a new idea. A safe environment cultivates trust because it allows team members to take risks and potentially fail without fear of punishment. If team members fear the consequences of being vulnerable, they will withhold their trust from others and won’t put themselves at risk to help their teammates. Team leaders set the tone when it comes to creating a safe environment. By role modeling vulnerability, authenticity, admitting their own mistakes, and treating team member errors as learning moments rather than opportunities for punishment, the leader gives permission for team members to do the same.
5. Let them experience challenges together—Part of astronaut training at NASA includes experiencing 7 to 10-day wilderness expeditions. NASA brings together a crew and puts them in an uncomfortable environment in the wilderness where they are forced to rely upon and trust one another. It’s the breeding ground for the trust they will need to have in each other when they are living and working together in space. The key variable in this exercise is dealing with and overcoming challenges together. Now, obviously, it’s not practical or possible for most organizations to send their teams on wilderness expeditions to build trust, but it is possible to structure other activities to accomplish the same purpose. Team building events like ropes courses often get a bad wrap as being gimmicky, but if done in the context of a broader, more strategic approach, can be helpful trust-builders. The key is to let team members experience challenge together, either on the job or off it, and let them work through it themselves. We do a disservice to our teams when we try to prevent or rescue them from hard times. It’s the perseverance through struggle that builds team trust and unity.
The most successful and high-performing teams are built on trust. I agree with Mike Krzyzewski, the legendary coach of Duke University’s men’s basketball team, who said in his book Leading With The Heart, “In leadership, there are no words more important than trust. In any organization, trust must be developed among every member of the team if success is going to be achieved.”
Teams are everywhere. Our organizations are made up of teams in all forms—project teams, work groups, executive, and leadership teams. Teams are not just a nice-to-have perk; they’re a major strategy for getting work done.
Fast-paced, agile work environments require teams to operate virtually around the globe. The demand is for collaboration and teamwork in all parts of the organization. Success today comes from using the collective knowledge and richness of diverse perspectives. The team is the only unit that has the flexibility and resources to respond quickly to changes that have become commonplace in today’s world.
Despite this critical dependence on teams, many organizations don’t invest in the upfront training and tools to equip their teams for success. In 2017, The Ken Blanchard Companies, in partnership with Training Magazine, surveyed 1,300 people about teams and team leadership. We learned that…
People spend more than half their work time in teams
On average, people are on five or six teams with each team composed of 10 or 11 people
Only 27 percent of the respondents felt that their teams were high performing
Only one of four people felt their organization does a good job of team leader training
The top obstacles for teams identified in our research included disorganization, lack of clear roles and decision rights, poor leadership, and poor or no planning. Teams are clearly the vehicle for organizations to seize new opportunities and tackle persistent problems, but our experience working in teams leaves a lot to be desired. Clearly, something is not working.
Our research and experience has shown that high performance teams exhibit a mindset that sets them apart from low performing teams. A mindset is a set of beliefs or a way of thinking about something. High performance teams are defined by four key mindsets:
Teams Need Clarity Above All Else—The biggest truth that our research uncovered is that clarity and alignment are critical factors for team success. Without a shared or common purpose and clear goals, the team will not get very far. Clarity on why and how the team is working together sets the foundation for progressing on their goals.
Teams Embrace Conflict in Order to Grow—Conflict is inevitable. For teams to be resilient and innovative, they must be willing to roll up their sleeves and tussle, and keep everyone engaged in active debate on the tough subjects in order to find the best creative solutions.
Teams Thrive on Trust—The ability to trust one another and trust in the power of the team is as important to the success of the team as clarity is. Good teams know what they are doing—clarity—and believe in each other enough to do it—trust. As I wrote about last week, a worker is 12x more likely to be fully engaged if he or she trusts the team leader.
High Performance Teams Lead Themselves—As the team grows in their ability to work collaboratively as a strong unit, team members will share leadership with the team leader and other team members. This belief doesn’t mean there is no leader. It means members are less reliant on the direction of the team leader.
Being able to lead productive, effective teams is critical to leveraging the strengths of team members, addressing cross-functional challenges, and getting work done in any organization. But it doesn’t happen by accident. Team leaders and members need training to learn the stages of team development, how to build trust, how to channel conflict into productive problem-solving, and how to sustain their high performance over time.
ADP Research recently released the results of a massive global study on engagement that involved over 19,000 people across 19 countries and 13 industries. The study included full-time employees, part-time employees, gig workers, those with multiple jobs, and people with full-time jobs plus gig jobs on the side.
As my colleague Drea Zigarmi and I wrote in a March 2019 article for Workforce Magazine, employee engagement is a broad and complex problem that organizations spend $720 million a year trying to solve, according to a Bersin & Associates report. Yet when it comes to engagement there isn’t even a commonly accepted definition of the term. Descriptions vary widely, with elements that include commitment, goal alignment, enjoyment and performance, to name a few.
ADP Research and Marcus Buckingham define engagement as “a positive state of mind characterized by ‘vigor, dedication and absorption'” (Schaufeli & Bakker, 2004). Vigor describes the willingness to invest all of one’s self into work and refers to high levels of conscientiousness, persistence, energy, and mental toughness. Dedication refers to being strongly connected to one’s work while experiencing a sense of significance, pride, enthusiasm, and challenge. Absorption implies being deeply involved in one’s work, such that time passes quickly and disconnecting from work becomes difficult.
So, what did the results of their research find? The two factors that stood out above all others that characterized highly engaged employees were:
Being on a team increases engagement
Trust in the team leader is the foundation of engagement
Workers who are part of a team are 2.3 times more likely to be fully engaged than those who are not. These results were consistent across country, industry, virtual workers, or those co-located. Too many organizations discount the power and importance of teams. Our own research at The Ken Blanchard Companies has shown that organizations charge teams with solving their most persistent and difficult problems, but few organizations support their teams with proper training and tools to be successful working as a group. ADP’s research indicated 64% of respondents worked in more than one team, and 75% report that their teams are not represented in their employer’s organization chart. Teams exist all across the organization, but they live in shadows and carry out their work without much official organizational support.
A worker is 12x more likely to be Fully Engaged if he or she TRUSTS the team leader.
ADP’s research also revealed that by far, the best explanation for employees’ level of engagement was whether the team members trust their team leader. Of those who strongly agreed that they trusted their team leader, 45% were fully engaged. Of those who didn’t strongly agree, only 6% were fully engaged. Team members who trust their team leader are 12 times more likely to be fully engaged.
How can you lay the groundwork for teams to be successful and well supported in your organization? Here’s a few ways to get started:
Officially endorse and charter teams—Most teams get started by a leader deciding to pull some people together to tackle a problem. Someone gets designated as the team leader and then the team gets to work. Instead, take the time to officially charter the team. Clearly identify its purpose, goals, norms, communication strategies, and decision-making processes. Provide the team with budget, manpower, and other organizational resources that will enable it to be successful.
Establish a common language of trust—Trust doesn’t happen by accident and given the importance of team leaders having the trust of their team members, it’s critical that organizations take the time to train their employees on how to build trust. Trust is based on perceptions, and those perceptions are formed by the behaviors we use. Each one of us has a slightly different idea of what trust means to us, and unless the team shares a common definition of trust, trust will be harder to build. Team leaders will be perceived as trustworthy if they exemplify the ABCD’s of trust—Able, Believeable, Connected, and Dependable.
Help teams navigate conflict—Teams inevitably experience rough patches and must deal with conflict. Not all conflict is the same, so it’s important for team leaders to understand the different types of conflict and how to deal with each of them. Some conflict is over positions, strategies, or opinions. If handled correctly, this can be healthy conflict that leads to better decisions and outcomes. Other conflict arises from power issues, personal agendas, or lack of trust. This kind of conflict can poison a team from the inside-out and must be dealt with quickly and effectively. Check out 4 Types of Team Conflict And How to Deal With Each Effectively for more information.
Trust is the foundation of any healthy and vibrant relationship, so it’s not a great surprise to find that ADP’s research identifies trust in team leaders as the foundation of engagement. The answer is obvious, so now the question becomes what are you going to do about it?
I was following the college baseball World Series a few weeks ago because my beloved Michigan Wolverines were in the final against Vanderbilt. While watching one of the games, I learned a powerful lesson about success and teamwork from a 19 year-old college baseball pitcher.
His name is Kumar Rocker and he’s a 6’4, 255 lb. freshman at Vanderbilt. Coming out of high school in 2018 he was the 3rd ranked right-handed pitcher and rated the 8th best overall player in the nation. He would have been a first-round MLB draft-pick but was committed to attending college (which means he can’t be drafted by MLB for 3 years…after his junior year in college).
When asked what his baseball goal was while attending Vanderbilt, what do you think he said?
“I want to be the best teammate Vanderbilt baseball has ever seen.” Wow!
He didn’t say what you might expect: “I want to break all the school pitching records,” or “I want work on my game before I turn pro,” but “I want to be the best teammate Vanderbilt baseball has ever seen.” Quite a bit of humility, maturity, and wisdom from a 19 year-old who has had people fawning over his athletic skills for years.
So what does that mean for us as teammates at work? I think it’s pretty clear. How can each of us be the best teammate possible? If that was our goal, how enjoyable would work be and how well served would our customers feel?
So what does being a good teammate look like? To me, it looks like servant leadership in action. It looks like:
Putting the needs of my teammates ahead of my own
Honoring my commitments
Doing what’s best for the team/customer even if it’s not the best for me personally
Doing what I can to set my teammates up for success
Running the play that’s been called (i.e., following processes, standards, etc.) rather than making up my own play and throwing the rest of the team into chaos
Being more concerned and committed to the team winning versus garnering personal accolades
The legendary Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler was famous for preaching these words: “The Team! The Team! The Team!”
That’s what success is all about. The team! Ask yourself today—What can I do to be a better teammate?
A few days ago I was tidying up the back yard when the noise of several crows caught my attention. That’s not out of the ordinary for my neighborhood. Although I haven’t done an official tally, I’m pretty sure the ratio of crows to humans is 1:1 in my neck of the woods. Anyway, there was a real commotion going on.
When I looked up, I noticed there was a red-tailed hawk circling overhead and the crows weren’t too happy about it; hence all the racket. The hawk seemed to be minding his own business. He was majestically gliding through the air in circles, occasionally flapping his wings once or twice, but mostly being powered along by the air currents pushing him gently higher and higher into the sky.
The neighborhood flock of crows (or murder if you prefer the old-school term for a group of crows) had nominated three of their brethren to express their displeasure to the hawk about him invading their turf. The three delegates flew about the hawk in a menacing manner, dive bombing him from different directions and trying to knock him off course, all the while hurling bird epithets at him with their squawking and cawing.
Despite the crows’ ruckus, the hawk seemed to take it all in stride. Occasionally the hawk slightly deviated his course when he was closely buzzed by a crow, but for the most part he kept circling in a consistent pattern. The crows had to expend a lot more energy than the hawk to maintain their efforts. They furiously flapped their wings to match the speed of the hawk, forcing them to take turns in harassing the larger bird. Upward and upward the hawk climbed, and the more altitude he gained, the more difficult it was for the crows to keep pace. Eventually, the crows tired of their of their pursuit as the hawk soared out of reach.
I thought to myself, “Why were those crows harassing that hawk?” As with all of life’s existential questions, I turned to Google for help. It turns out those crows were engaging in what’s known in the animal world as mobbing behavior. The hawk represented a threat to the crows, so they cooperatively worked together to mob the hawk in an attempt to drive him away.
Mobbing behavior isn’t limited to birds; people engage in it, too. And sometimes being a leader can feel like being a hawk getting pestered by an angry mob of crows. I don’t think any hawks read my blog, but I know some leaders do, so here’s five lessons I think we can learn from our avian advisers:
Expect to be crapped on—It turns out that one of the primary behaviors of mobbing birds is to defecate on the intruder. Nice, huh? Talk about dropping a bomb…anyway, leaders get crapped on, too. We should expect it because it comes with the territory. Gossip, backbiting, passive-aggressiveness, or outright resistance are all forms of crap leaders occasionally have to endure. Expect to occasionally encounter your fair share of crap so you aren’t caught by surprise when it happens. No matter how pure or noble your intentions, there will be people who don’t like what you’re doing and will let you know about it.
Understand defensiveness—The crows didn’t mob the hawk for no reason; they mobbed him because they were afraid. It’s hard to get inside the brain of a crow (although I have been called a bird-brain before), but I imagine they were concerned the hawk might be looking for some delicious crow eggs for lunch, or maybe even a small baby crow if he was feeling extra hungry. In this way, people are similar to birds. When they perceive a threat in their environment, it creates fear and causes them to react defensively. If your people are starting to show signs of developing a mob mentality, figure out the root of their fear and address that issue. Too often we make the mistake of addressing the symptoms of a problem rather than the cause. Defensiveness can kill our relationships without us even realizing it.
Check your motives—The hawk isn’t completely innocent in this situation. Why was flying in this particular area? Was he truly minding his own business or did he have ulterior motives? I don’t know. I asked but he didn’t respond. As leaders, we need to be clear on our motives. Are we behaving in self-serving ways, or do our actions reflect a desire to serve our people and organizations for the greater good?
Don’t get distracted—Assuming your leadership behavior is driven by the right reasons, don’t get distracted by the critics in the mob and stay focused on your goals. The hawk wasn’t surprised by the mob of crows nor did he let them knock him off course. He stayed focused on doing his thing, knowing the crows would eventually get tired or bored and leave him alone. When you chose to be a leader, you chose to step apart from the crowd. You will be second-guessed and criticized, and with that will come lots of distractions. Stay focused on being a hawk and don’t worry about the crows.
Rise above the mob—Ultimately the hawk flew high above and out of reach of the annoying crows. Leaders have to do the same when mobbed by their critics. I like the philosophy articulated by former First Lady Michelle Obama in response to how they tried to teach their young children to deal with the harsh criticism of her husband’s presidency: “…when they go low, we go high.” Leaders need to take the high road when responding to criticism—consider the source, learn from it what you can, and respond with integrity and decency. Keep soaring to greater heights and don’t get dragged down with the crows.
Now, being a hawk doesn’t necessarily make one a leader, just as being a crow doesn’t automatically condemn one to be an annoying pest. It just so happens I observed one hawk being mobbed by three crows, and out of that interaction drew five leadership principles. I’ll leave it up to you to determine if you’re a hawk, crow, or some other creature that represents your inner leadership spirit animal. Whatever you decide, follow these leadership lessons to rise above the inevitable mobs that will criticize and undermine your leadership and soar to the success you deserve.
Psychological safety sounds like a complex academic topic, doesn’t it? It’s quite simple when you boil it down to its essence.
Amy Edmondson of Harvard University has pioneered the research on psychological safety. She says psychological safety describes an individual’s perceptions about the consequences of taking interpersonal risks in his/her work environment. It consists of taken-for-granted beliefs about how others will respond when one puts oneself on the line, such as asking a question, seeking feedback, reporting a mistake, or proposing a new idea.
When faced with these kinds of situations, we make micro-second calculations to assess the risk and likely consequences of our behavior. We make these decisions in light of the interpersonal climate we’re in, so we say to ourselves “If I do X here, will I be hurt, embarrassed, or criticized? Or will I be praised, thanked, or respected?”
Organizational Conditions for Psychological Safety
There are five areas that contribute to the establishment of a psychologically safe environment. The first is Leader Behavior. The leader is always being watched. What you say and do has a profound impact on whether your team members feel safe to be vulnerable with you. Research has shown that bad news is rarely transmitted up the hierarchy and team members are more likely to seek help from peers than their boss. But on the flip side, research has also shown that leaders who exhibit supportive managerial behaviors have positive effects on self-expression and creativity. Leaders must go out of their way to be open and use coaching-oriented behaviors. The three most powerful behaviors that foster psychological safety are being available and approachable, explicitly inviting input and feedback, and modeling openness and fallibility.
The second area that contributes to psychological safety is Group Dynamics. The norms of a group either encourage or inhibit team member vulnerability. Are new ideas welcomed or discouraged? Are divergent opinions solicited or are they criticized? The interplay of team member roles and characters are also part of group dynamics. Have you ever noticed how people in teams tend to assume familial-type roles? You often have a father figure of a group that offers sage advice and direction. You may have team member who plays a mothering role, the favored son who can do no wrong, or even the black sheep of the team who tends to stir up trouble. The interplay of these roles has a direct impact on the level of safety within a team. Additionally, in-group and out-group dynamics and power distribution among team members influence psychological safety.
The third area that influences psychological safety is Trust and Respect. There is significant overlap between trust and psychological safety as it relates to vulnerability. Trust can be defined as the willingness to be vulnerable based on perceptions of someone’s (or some thing’s) trustworthiness. If you don’t feel the leader or team is trustworthy, you won’t be willing to be vulnerable and put yourself at risk. Supportive and trusting relationships promote psychological safety, whereas lack of respect makes people feel judged or inferior, resulting in them keeping their opinions to themselves. Trust is at the heart of creating a safe environment.
The fourth area that contributes to psychological safety is the use of Practice Fields. Peter Senge coined this term in the 1990’s to describe one of the hallmarks of a learning organization. He made the point that unlike other fields, most businesses don’t employ practice and reflection to improve the skills of their employees. For example, what do sport teams do between games? They practice! Practice is a safe environment to learn, make mistakes, and work on skill improvement. Pilots train in simulators before flying a new aircraft. Surgeons observe, assist, and practice new procedures before leading an operation. Employing practice fields creates an environment where it is safe to learn and make mistakes without fear of being penalized.
Finally, the fifth area that contributes to psychological safety is having a Supportive Organizational Context. What does that mean? It means team members have access to resources and information to perform their best. When people have this level of freedom it reduces anxiety and defensiveness. Contrast this to being in a “need to know” environment where suspicion, tension, power, control, and territoriality are the norm. Organizations with healthy and ethical cultures of fairness and trust create the supportive mechanisms that allow people to feel safe, take risks, and innovate.
Results of Psychological Safety
Psychological safety is a win-win for both employees and the organization.
Safe environments allow people to seek feedback more often. Seeking feedback places a person in a position of vulnerability to hear negative criticism, however, when it is safe to do so, the sharing of feedback leads to improvements in quality and performance. Safe environments also encourage people to seek help from those who are in positions of greater power. It’s risky to ask for help from someone who judges your performance, but leaders who foster psychological safety make it easy for their team members to ask for help.
A culture of psychological safety encourages people to speak up about wrongdoing. It alleviates concerns about repercussions of calling out unethical or illegal behavior, which is critical in today’s low-trust environments of many organizations. Innovation is also a benefit of having a safe environment. Innovation is essentially about taking a risk and trying something new. It’s about offering new ideas and challenging conventional ways of thinking which can’t happen if people are afraid of being judged or punished for stepping out of line. Lastly, psychologically safe environments allow team members to work more effectively across boundaries. It increases communication and coordination with other groups in the organization. It lowers the interpersonal risk of asking for help, resources, seeking feedback, or delivering bad news.
It’s vitally important for leaders to establish environments of trust and safety so their people can step out, step up, and achieve new heights of accomplishments. It begins by being a safe leader who is trustworthy, respectful, and committed to prioritizing the well-being of his/her team members over his/her self-interest. It begins by leading with trust.
In 1997 I asked my boss to consider allowing me to telecommute on a part-time basis. My proposal went down in flames. Although the company already had field-based people who telecommuted full-time, and my boss herself worked from home on a regular basis, the prevailing mindset was work was someplace you went, not something you did.
Fast forward a few years to the early-2000’s and I’m supervising team members who worked remotely full-time. The exodus continued for a few years and by the mid-2000’s nearly half my team worked virtually. A little more than 20 years after I submitted my telecommuting proposal, the world has become a smaller place. My organization has associates in Canada, the U.K., Singapore, France, and scores of colleagues work out of home offices around the globe.
My experience mirrors the reality of many leaders today. Managing teams with virtual workers is commonplace and will likely increase as technology becomes ever more ubiquitous in our lives. Here are three specific strategies I’ve adopted over the years in leading a virtual team:
Establish the profile of a successful virtual worker – Not everyone is cut out to be a successful virtual worker. It takes discipline, maturity, good time management skills, technical proficiency (you’re often your own tech support), and a successful track record of performance in the particular role. I’ve always considered working remotely a privilege, not a right, and the privilege has to be earned. You have to have a high level of trust in your virtual workers and they should be reliable and dependable performers who honor their commitments and do good quality work.
Have explicit expectations – There needs to be a clear understanding about the expectations of working virtually. For example, my team has norms around the use of Instant Messenger, forwarding office phone extensions to home/cell lines, using webcams for meetings, frequency of updating voicemail greetings, email response time, and out-of-office protocols just to name a few. Virtual team members generally enjoy greater freedom and autonomy than their office-bound counterparts, and for anyone who has worked remotely can attest, are often more productive and work longer hours in exchange. A downside is virtual workers can suffer from “out of sight, out of mind” so it’s important they work extra hard to be visible and active within the team.
Understand and manage the unique dynamics of a virtual team – Virtual teams add a few wrinkles to your job as a leader and a specific one is communication. It’s important to ramp up the frequency of communication and leverage all the tools at your disposal: email, phone, webcam, instant messenger, and others. It’s helpful to set, and keep, regular meeting times with virtual team members.
One of the biggest challenges in managing a virtual team is fostering a sense of connection. They aren’t privy to the hallway conversations where valuable information about the organization is often shared, and they miss out on those random encounters with other team members where personal relationships are built.
Team building activities also look a little different with a virtual team. Potluck lunches work great for the office staff, but can feel exclusionary to remote workers. Don’t stop doing events for the office staff for fear of leaving out virtual team members, but look for other ways to foster team unity with remote workers. For example, when we’ve had office holiday dinners and a Christmas gift exchange, remote team members will participate in the gift exchange and we’ll send them a gift card to a restaurant of their choice.
For many jobs, work is no longer a place we go to but something we do, from any place at any time. Virtual teams aren’t necessarily better or worse than on-site teams, but they do have different dynamics that need to be accounted for and managed, expectations need to be clear, and you need to make sure the virtual worker is set up for success.
“In leadership, there are no words more important than trust. In any organization, trust must be developed among every member of the team if success is going to be achieved.” Leading With The Heart ~ Mike Krzyzewski
If the winningest coach in the history of college basketball says trust is a prerequisite for successful teams, then I stop to listen. But beyond the wisdom of Coach K, there is plenty of research that supports the critical role that trust plays in teams. High levels of trust can propel a good team to the level of greatness, fulfilling the old adage that the sum is greater than the parts.
Yet trust doesn’t happen by accident. The team needs to openly acknowledge that trust is a business requirement, vital to its success, openly discuss issues of trust, and put forth intentional effort to build and nurture trust in the team’s operations.
When I reflect on the study and research of teams that I’ve conducted, as well as my own experience leading and working in teams inside and outside the workplace, there are four key pillars of high-trust teams that stand out.
Safety—Sometimes the best way to describe something is to look at its opposite. The opposite of safety is fear. In a culture of fear, team members don’t take risks, innovate, or use their creativity out of fear of recrimination. Self-interest trumps the good of the team and secrecy, gossip, and poor morale are the norm. To develop a culture of safety, the team needs to encourage responsible risk-taking and eliminate the fear of repercussions. Mistakes are treated as learning moments and personal accountability is celebrated. A team leader taking ownership and admitting her mistakes is perhaps the most powerful act in creating team safety. Safety is also developed when leaders encourage healthy and respectful debate and transparently share information. To a person, members who feel safe in a team believe the team leader has their best interests in mind and personally cares for them. Simon Sinek’s popular TED talk video, “Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe,” expounds on this truth of high-trust teams.
Dependability—High-trust teams are characterized by team members who keep their commitments. Dependability, or following through on commitments, is one of the most widely recognized traits of trustworthiness. It doesn’t matter the context or type of team, dependability is a must. If you’re part of a football team, your team members count on you to run the right play and be in the right position at the right time. If you’re building a house for Habitat for Humanity, then your team is expecting you to finish your part of the job so they can work on theirs. If you’re part of a project team at work, your colleagues are depending on you to complete your assignments on time so the team meets its deadline. High-trust teams have a “no excuses” approach to working with each other. They follow the mantra of Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.” Team members have a sense of personal ownership and communicate openly and quickly if obstacles get in the way of meeting their commitments.
Competence—Don’t make the mistake of thinking high-trust teams are composed of a bunch of folks who like to hug, hold hands, and sing Kumbaya around the campfire. High-trust teams are filled with people who are highly competent in their roles. They take pride in extensive preparation and strive to always deliver their best work. Team members expect each other to bring their “A” game each and every day. If people slack off, then direct conversations occur to get that team member back on track. I like to remind my team that everyday at work is a job interview and each of us should bring our best effort to the table. Team members who value competence know that learning is a life-long pursuit. They constantly develop their expertise and are willing to share their knowledge with team members because it makes the team stronger as a whole.
“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.” ~ Michael Jordan
Character—The best teams, those with high levels of trust and productivity, are filled with team members of high integrity. They exhibit a personal code of conduct that compels them to choose the right path, even if it’s the harder one. These kind of team members exhibit a “we, not me” mentality. They consider the needs of the team a higher priority than their personal desires. In sports, this is the team member who comes off the bench and gives her all, even though she feels like she should be in the starting lineup. In the workplace, it’s the team member who has the courage to confront another team member who isn’t acting in alignment with the team’s values or norms. High-character team members have the mental and emotional fortitude to stand for what’s right, knowing that in the end, it’s better to come in second place having gone about their work the right way, rather than lying or cheating their way into first place.
“I look for three things when hiring people. The first is personal integrity, the second is intelligence, and the third is high energy level. But if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.” ~ Warren Buffet, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway
Trust has been described as the “magic ingredient” of organizations. It is simultaneously the glue that holds everything together, while also being the lube that allows all the parts to work together smoothly. In order to make that magic a reality in our workplaces and take our teams to the next level, we need to focus on creating safe environments where people can fully commit to bringing their best selves to work, build systems and processes that encourage personal dependability, commit to continuously developing the competence of team members, and demand ethical behavior as the ticket of admission for being part of our teams.