Category Archives: Teams

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.”

Nip the Bud

There are many ways to manicure a tree. Unwanted branches can be hacked off or buds can be nipped.

On a team, when performance does not meet expectations, it creates a gap. It’s the performance/expectation gap. In the near term, the gap is short and our options-to-fix are many.

As a manager, the longer you procrastinate the fix, the wider the gap becomes. In the long term, with a wider gap, the dissatisfaction is greater and our options-to-fix are fewer.

Nip the bud or hack the branch.

On Your Left

It was a late weekend morning. I was headed south on A-1-A, returning from a solo bike run to Boynton inlet. The headwind was light, but enough to knock the speed to an even 19mph. Three hours into the ride, I was in no position to hammer the wind, yet impatient to keep the speed up.

“On your left,” was a friendly heads-up as an unknown rider with fresh legs slipped in front. I downshifted and picked up the reps to catch his wheel. I settled into the quiet space of his draft at 21mph. Seconds later, I sensed a third rider on my tail. Now we were three.

For thirty minutes, we snaked down the road, changing leads, holding 21, taking turns on the nose. I was struck with the purity of teamwork between three people who had never met before, with only three words between them, “On your left.”

A team will never gain traction without a common purpose.

This was a team with nothing, except a common purpose, executing skillful manuvers, supporting each other, communicating precisely with each other. There was no orientation, no “get to know you session,” just a purity of purpose.

When your team works together, how clear is the purpose? What is the commitment level of each team member to that purpose? You don’t need much else.