High performing teams (far more than high performing individuals) are the foundations of any organisational success.
Last week the New York Times ran a a fascinating article about Google’s disciplined and evidence lead approach to understanding high performing teams. Through it’s research Google identifies “Psychological Safety” as the key dynamic in the best teams. They also identified that the key building blocks of psychological safety are that everyone feels their contributions are valued (evidenced by an equality in share of voice) and everyone feels cared for as an individual.
These findings echo Simon Sinek’s excellent book “Leaders eat last” and our own years experience at Holos, that people who feel safe and valued will collaborate and contribute far, far more than those who don’t.
What the article doesn’t say is how you get a team from a place of psychological insecurity to a place of safety. This is something we at Holos have done many times, helping quite dysfunctional teams in hostile cultures to build trust and performance.
There are two key influences on the levels of safety in a team:
1 – The overall organisational culture
2 – The leadership of the team.
Depending on the size of the overall organisation, changing it’s culture may or may not been within the immediate scope of the team. However any team that aspires to greatness has to acknowledge the environment they exist within, both in terms of behaviour and systems. Creating a safe zone for the team may involve finding ways to protect the team from external politics or to mitigate the effects of unhelpful bureaucracy and systems.
Of course achieving this is likely to fall to the team leader, so once again the most critical dimension of team performance is leadership.
Just before we explore team leadership in more detail there are two aspects of leadership that need to be clarified.
1 – Management and leadership are not the same thing. Both are behaviours and one person can do both. Management is the discipline of getting a team to follow and refine processes to deliver defined outcomes in a continuous way. Leadership is the art of getting a team to define new processes and outcomes and deliver them in a continuously adaptive way.
Many organisations that have enjoyed significant periods of high margin stability have a well developed capacity for management and a poorly developed capacity for leadership. These organisations cannot just switch leadership on in times of change or disruption. Leadership is a subtle art that needs to be learned, coached and practiced intensively in order to become good at it.
2 – In business few people are promoted to leadership positions because of their leadership skills. On the whole leadership is so poorly understood that we make the assumption that people who are good at doing something, will also make good leaders. When people are successful in their tasks, businesses feel they have to reward them, and in hierarchical systems, the most significant reward is promotion.
This approach could work, if those being promoted were given an intensive introduction to leadership (like two or three weeks away from the office being trained, coached and practicing leadership, where they also have to make the “choice” to lead). In most cases our newly minted “leaders” come into the office the next day with just a great deal more pressure and expectation on them.
So, given the often challenging cultural environments and poorly equipped “leaders” it is unsurprising that many teams end up underperforming and often quite unpleasant places to be. It is no surprise that this will affect levels of engagement and performance and that if it goes on for any length of time it will lead to those with choice (the best ones) leaving.
These under prepared leaders will develop coping strategies to deal with the situation they find themselves in. Over time we at Holos have seem many different coping strategies and they fall into a number of different categories. I have identified six below and I am sure there are more (please add your thoughts in the comments). Of course an individual might blend two or more of these categories. as well.
The Controller – The high achiever who has been successful through education and their early career is given a leadership role and they deploy the same disciplined approach to leadership that made them successful as an individual contributor. A good controller will be able to continue to be successful with a small team, but at great personal cost, it takes a lot of energy to control everything. Where they start to unravel is as their responsibilities get wider. At some point trying to control everything is overwhelming. Control also limits the overall potential of the team by limiting ideas and engagement of team members.
You can identify controllers by their need for things to be done in a particular way and their stress or discomfort with even quite minor deviance. Also their need to control decision making and outcomes.
The Indulger – typically feels slightly guilty about their promotion and feels more at home as a team member than as the responsible individual. They are a great team player and will typically prioritise team harmony over team performance, failing to call out underperformance or even poor behaviour.
You can identify indulgers by their habit of diving into the conversation in meetings and failing to take responsibility for reaching a decision or outcome, so that the conversation often circles around the problem without reaching any conclusion (possibly over multiple meetings).
The Cloner – seeks to overcome their insecurities by surrounding themselves with people they perceive to be similar to themselves. They will recruit, retain and promote people with similar backgrounds and similar psychological profiles, usually without realising they are doing it. This will create a very narrow team culture with little diversity of thought or approach, which in turn will limit creativity and problem solving ability.
You can identify cloners by the clique of similarity they form around themselves. Typically they will have a team with quite clearly defined “in” and “out” groups.
The Subsidiser – Comes from a similar route to “The Controller”. In this case instead of attempting to control the behaviour of the team as a way of delivering results they attempt to do it all themselves and fail to delegate meaningful tasks to their team. The subsidiser may do this out of a need for personal glory, but more likely it is from a lack of skill at delegation or briefing, coupled with inflexible standards of delivery.
You can identify subsidisers by their excessive workload, hours and stress levels. You might also notice that their team is relatively underworked or is engaged in rather menial or insignificant tasks.
The Agent – finds the responsibility of leadership very hard and looks upwards for direction and reassurance. The agent is very good at doing what they are told by their line manager and this can make them a popular promotion choice by more senior “Controllers”.
You can identify Agents by their unwillingness to take decisions or even come up with ideas without line input and approval.
The Outlier – is quite different from all of the above. The Outlier might be a highly skilled and capable leader, but suffers “tissue rejection” from the culture they are within. This may be because they bring challenging ideas or approaches that the rest of the organisation lacks the capacity to accept. In this situation The Outlier can become isolated and respond badly to that isolation. This might take many different forms for example: attention seeking, withdrawal, aggression or “empire building”.
You can identify The Outlier by their poor relationships with their peers and their frustrations with them.
In all of the above cases the first thing to realise is that these are systemic and cultural problem not an individual ones, in that the individual was promoted without adequate support. In each case what the individual needs is the support, training and coaching that they didn’t get in their transition to leadership.
They first need to accept the challenge of leadership and make the choice to lead and the lifelong commitment to learning, practice and self discovery that it involves. Once the commitment is made the learning process can begin with alternate opportunities to learn leadership theory and to practice it.
At Holos we have been studying change leadership and leadership training in the crucible of reality for years. We know what great leadership looks like and we know the journey to achieve it. We have developed a suite of diagnostic tools to understand where companies and teams are on this journey and how to take them from there to sustained success.
Holos has a wealth of specialist leadership and culture coaches and consultants with decades of experience working with a huge variety of leaders. Holos can help you or your organisation to upgrade it’s leadership to flourish even in a challenging business environment.
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