Category Archives: Teams

Practice in the Dark

It sounded like a beer cap hit a marble floor, then like a rifle shot. 100 pounds of air pressure escaped in a nanosecond. In the dark, before dawn, the sound ricocheted off the high condo towers, pierced the early morning silence. Bike number three had a flat.

The undercurrent of grumbling was short-lived. The back of the pace line maneuvered around as bike number three dismounted and hopped up the curb onto the sidewalk under a street light. Within ten seconds, the entire pace line assembled around this carcass of carbon fiber and limp rubber tubing called a bicycle. Two headlights brightened up the rear gear cluster. One held up the bike, another spun the crank moving the chain down to the highest gear. Another popped the brake, grabbed the quick release and jerked the axle free. Two bikers set up a perimeter to ward off errant traffic. Someone had already unfolded a fresh tube and spiked a CO2 cartridge. The old tube was out and careful fingers searched the inside of the tire for a shard of metal, a piece of glass.

Now, the rider of bike number three was doing very little through this entire process. He tried to look in control, but truth be told, his bike was being fixed without him. It was a smooth process, not a lot of talking, mostly joking going on. Seven minutes later, with a small tailwind, the pace line was back at 24 mph, snaking their way down the quiet city street.

When your team encounters a problem, what do they look like? When a team member runs up against an immovable obstacle, how quickly does the rest of the team pitch in? When the rest of the team assembles, how cooperative do they work, how synchronous are their efforts? How often does your team practice having flats in the dark and fixing them by flashlight?

Conflict Management

“I am sorry, but I have to disagree.” Silence engulfed the room, eyes got wide. Someone cleared their throat. This team was at a cross roads. The next few minutes would determine whether it engaged in productive work or disengaged to avoid the conflict currently on the table.

This is not a question of being able to manage the conflict, more a matter of managing agreement. The more the group tries to manage the conflict, the more likely the agreement will be coerced and compromised with the real issues suppressed, perhaps even undiscussable.

Conversely, if the group engaged in a process to manage agreement, the conflict might be heard, even encouraged, thoroughly discussed. Opposing viewpoints might be charted and debated. Expectations might be described at both maximum success and dismal failure. Indicators could be created with contingency plans for positive and negative scenarios.

Does your team manage conflict to make sure discussions are comfortable and efficient?

OR…

Does your team manage agreement, to encourage spirited discussion of both sides of an issue? When things get uncomfortable, can your team live through the stress of conflict to arrive at a well argued decision?

When I look around a room and see that each person is comfortably sitting, I can bet the issue on the table is of little importance. But, if I see stomachs tied in knots, the issue on the table is likely to be important.

Difference Between Winning and Losing

In any sport, there is the game and there are the players. For both sides of the contest, the rules are the same, the playing pitch is the same. The two primary variables are techniques (methods, processes) and people. Methods and processes are important, but you don’t have to watch a sporting event for very long to see that the discussion is focused on the people, the players, the talent.

Most sporting teams commit considerable budget and effort in recruiting. What is the major difference between a winning team and a losing team? It is rarely technique. It’s all about the people.

The most important part of building any successful company is building the team. Often, we see team members as interchangeable commodities, always replaceable. What if that weren’t true. What if team members weren’t replaceable, interchangeable commodities? What would change about our hiring practices as we build this team?

Turn the Tables

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

Question:

I am at wits end. I have a weekly management meeting, but it seems I do all the talking, especially when it comes to accountability. And when it comes to accountability, all the ears in the room go deaf. Whenever there is underperformance, it is like the team cowers under the table until the shouting is over. I am tired of shouting. Besides, it doesn’t seem to do any good.

Response:

Most Managers are not aware of and do not leverage team accountability. Managers assume the role of the bad guy and essentially let the team off the hook when it comes to holding each other accountable for performance.

Turn the tables. In your next meeting, when a team member reports non-performance or underperformance, stop the agenda. Ask each team member to take a piece of paper and write down how this underperformance is impacting their part of the project. Go around the table and ask each person to make a statement. Then ask the team to create an expectation of how the underperformance should be corrected. Go around the table again. Finally, ask the underperformer to respond to the team and make a public commitment to action.

Team accountability is a very powerful dynamic.

State of Panic

“Tell me how it sounds, to focus the mental state of the group on the real issue,” I invited.

Darla took a deep breath. “I have been thinking,” she started.

“Good, using I-statements is good.”

She started again. “It seems to me that we are not making progress on the project we started last week. I expected to see some changes in our process already, measuring some of the samples coming off the line. AND, I see the same team doing the same thing we have always done. No sampling, no inspection. I am curious.”

“Good, I like I am curious.”

“I am curious about the way you feel about the project. We are all in the room. Everyone will have a chance to participate. I would like each of you to speak for yourself. Who would like to start?”

“I like it,” I said.

“But, what if no one says anything. What do I do then?” Darla was visibly off center.

“You put the issue on the table. Your team will now go into a state of panic. You have moved the mental state of the team from collusion behind your back to a state of panic. Every manager before you has always rescued them from this panic. Believe me, your team has specific feelings about this project. They have verbalized those feelings at the water cooler. They pair up at lunch and talk about the way they feel about the project. You are drawing those same conversations, that they have already practiced, into the team meeting, so the team can deal with them. Your primary goal at this point is to outlast the panic.”

Is It a Real Issue?

“How do you change the mental state of a group?” I repeated. “What do you think is slowing down the pace of the team?”

“Based on what we have talked about, the reason the team is slow-walking the project is that they don’t believe in it, and that if it fails, they will get the blame,” Darla explained.

“How will you explain that to the team?” I asked.

“You want me to confront the team, tell them they don’t believe in the project?” Darla pushed back.

“The most effective managers are not those who tell people what to do. The most effective managers are those who ask the most effective questions. Ask a question.”

Darla composed herself. “Wouldn’t it be better to talk to each team member privately. This discussion is a little scary. If I talk to the group together, they might gang up on me. They might all walk out, quit.”

“Every issue that affects the group, must be dealt with by the group. Your job as the leader is simply to put the issue on the table.”

“I have to tell you,” Darla looked uncomfortable. “My stomach is upside down just thinking about this.”

“If your stomach is upside down, then you know you are dealing with a real issue.”

Two Sides to the Contract

“Darla, you are a new manager, here, been on the job for three weeks,” I started, “but in that three weeks time, you entered into a contract, an unspoken contract with your team. Here are the terms of the contract, as you described to me.

“You have some new projects to roll out, with your team’s support and cooperation. You enlisted the efforts of the team toward these new projects. If the team digs in and supports the new projects toward the goals you defined, then you, as a manager will be successful. This is the way you see the world, this is your assumption. This is the context as you see it.”

“Okay, sounds good so far,” Darla nodded.

“But, remember a contract is an agreement between two parties. I am not sure the other party in your contract agrees with you. Based on your description, here is the way they see the world.
– Darla is our new manager and she has some new ideas, that sound like the old ideas from the last manager we had. We are not sure these new ideas are really any good, may be doomed to failure and we are going to get blamed for not working fast enough or paying enough attention to quality.

“If the project is not successful we are going to get stuck holding the bag, all blame will land on us. Yet, if we can slow-walk the job, stiff arm direction and show proof why the project won’t work, why, if we can do that long enough, Darla might quit and we will be off the hook. It was a bad idea in the first place.”

Darla began to absorb the new story of events. “So, the problem is not the pace of the work or attention to quality. The problem is the mental state of the group.”

“How do you change the mental state of the group?”

Did the Personality Change?

“How do you change the mental state of the team?” I asked. “How do you get the team to engage in different behaviors?”

“You mean, like that personality test I took when I started here? I didn’t think you could change someone’s personality,” Darla pushed back.

“Darla, if you go into the sanctuary of a church or temple, are you likely to be loud and boisterous, or quiet and reflective?”

“Quiet and reflective,” Darla responded, not sure where I was going with this.

“And, if you are at a sporting event and your team scores a goal, are you likely to be quiet and reflective, or loud and boisterous?”

“Loud and boisterous,” Darla smiled, still unsure of the point.

“Did your personality change?” I asked.

“No.”

“Then what did change?” I prompted.

“Well, the circumstance changed.”

“Exactly, the circumstance, the venue, the context changed. Your personality did not change, the context changed. And when the context changed, behavior followed. How do you change the mental state of your team?”

“Change the context?” Darla floated.

Slow Walking and Sandbagging

“What do you think is slowing down the team?” I asked.

Darla did not immediately respond. “I don’t think they like me. I have been their manager now, for three weeks. I know it is a short time to make an assessment, but I would think, by now, they might drop the pretense and be a little more cordial.”

“How long does it take to make a first impression?”

“You mean, from three weeks ago, the first day?” she replied.

“Yes, I assume the assessment of you, by the team, was made within the first three minutes of your landing in your office. By the way, you are the third manager in the past 18 months, so don’t think it is all about you.”

“I know, I know. That was made very clear in my interview, but I thought I was up for the challenge. It’s just that, even in a meeting, I say something, and I sense an imperceptible roll of the eyes in response. We have some new projects I am supposed to roll out, yet, I have never seen a group of people move so slowly.”

“Do you think they are sandbagging you?” I wanted to know.

Darla nodded. “I get the feeling, they think if they stiff-arm me long enough, I will quit, just like the last two managers.”

“If you had to describe the mental state of the team, what words would you use?”

“Defensive, collusive, irrational. I mean I am not a bad person. The projects I am supposed to roll out are good projects, interesting work.”

“So, if the projects are not the problem, and you are not the problem, what is the problem?”

“The words you used, the mental state of the team.”

The Culprit is the Contract

As a manager, when we protect our team from the truth, we create dependency. Our behavior becomes an unspoken contract that, when there is bad news, the team doesn’t have to worry, because the manager will bear the impact. When there is a hard problem to solve, the team can stand and watch while the manager solves it. When there is a tough decision to make, the team can deny all responsibility and point to the manager, after all, that is why the manager gets paid the big bucks. When there is a conflict in the team, the team can whine and complain behind everyone’s back and depend on the manager to step up and confront the issue.

This circumstance feels good in the beginning. The team is off the hook. The manager gets to play God. The offer of omnipotence from the team to the manager is difficult to turn down, irresistible. It is a co-dependent relationship that cannot be sustained.

It is a contract based on a falsehood. While the manager promises to shield the team from pain, there will (always) come a time when that is no longer true. The truth (pain) spills on to the team. The team feels betrayed. The unspoken contract is broken and the team will turn on the leader.

Documented in military literature, the squad leader makes a promise to the platoon. “Do what I say. Follow my lead. And, I will bring everyone home safely.” It is a promise the platoon desperately wants to believe and the seduction of the leader begins.

Reality always wins. A fire fight ensues and one hapless recruit does not return alive. The contract is broken, the team feels betrayed. In the quiet of the camp at night, one lone team member lifts the flap of the leader’s tent and rolls in a grenade. The military term is fragging.

It was not that someone died. It was a relationship based on a lie. Inevitable betrayal of a unspoken contract. The culprit is the contract.