Category Archives: Teams

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.

Don’t Fix It, Prevent It

Most managers got where they are being good under pressure, reacting quickly without flinching in the face of adversity. Most managers get their juice operating in the red zone.

The best managers are most effective by sensing pressure before it builds, preventing blow-back that requires extraordinary effort (and overtime). They don’t flinch because they meet adversity early on when there are lots of options. The best managers stay out of the red zone through planning, anticipating, cross-training, delegating and building bench strength in the team.

It is not extraordinary effort that makes a great manager. It is ordinary effort looking forward. It is not heroically fixing a catastrophe, but creating a sensitive feedback loop that prevents the catastrophe in the first place.

If We Lie Down with Dogs

If we lie down with dogs, the saying goes, we get up with fleas.

We become like those people we hang out with. We are programmed with mirror neurons to imitate those around us. Human learning is based on imitation. We connect with those around us because we imitate them, their mannerisms, their language, their behavior. One person yawns, contagious. Our mirror neurons cannot resist.

In paleolithic times, this was survival. Walking down the path, confronted with our friend, we can see the terror in his face. Our mirror neurons kick in and contort our face identical. That contortion stimulates hormones in our body so we feel the same fear, the same panic to turn around and run. We do not have to see the dinosaur to feel the fear, we only have to see our friend’s face. The good news is that we do not have to outrun the dinosaur, we only have to outrun our friend.

We are programmed to be like those around us. Beware who you hang out with. You will become like them.

Be intentional about who you hang out with. You will become like them.

Slide Food Under the Door

“Why, do you think the company made you a manager, last week?” I asked.

“I am not really sure,” Maggie replied. “Many, on my team, have been here longer than me. They are smarter than me. They are older than me. And most of them are men.”

“All true,” I smiled. “So, why you?”

“My manager told me, things run better when I am around.”

“And, why do you think that happens?”

Maggie paused. “These guys are really smart. Engineers, you know. But, they don’t seem to work together very well. It’s not like they fight, they just focus on their own work, without thinking of what is going on around them.”

“And, you?”

“I knock,” Maggie laughed. “I knock and slide food under the door. Not really. I pull them out of their shell, get them to talk to each other. In that instant, they can be quite helpful to each other. Doesn’t seem like a big thing, but, bigger problems get solved when that happens.”

“So, why do you think the company made you a manager, last week?”

What’s the Benchmark?

“So, what do you think?” asked Lenny. “How do you think my team is doing?”

“I don’t know. How do you measure how you are doing?” I replied.

“That’s the thing. We aren’t sure what to measure against. We got some studies of companies that are sort of like us, but the benchmarks they use seem so different. They just don’t make sense.”

“Two things,” I said. “Pick what you think is important. Start measuring now.”

“But, what do we measure against? How do we know if we are doing okay or not?”

“Measure against yourself. So many companies chase each other’s tail around and end up back where they started. Figure out what is important to your customer and measure that. That’s all your customer cares about. What else matters? Measure the second day against the first day. Measure the third day against the second day. Pretty soon, you will see a trend. Before you know it, you will have one year’s worth of data. Start measuring now.”