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Want Great Teams? Get Great Leaders

Jacinta is the CIO of a mid-sized advertising company.  She has insisted that her staff operate as a great team to meet the many project requests of the company. She has reinforced this with team building off sites, collaboration rewards, dynamic pairing of members, project leadership assignments for all and shared goal setting. She meets individually with each person once a quarter to check in and further their development needs. In short, Jacinta goes the extra mile to create the atmosphere and support for effective team behaviors.

You would assume that this team is doing great. That’s certainly what Jacinta thinks. But if you asked Jacob or Mari or Ramon you would hear a different story. They are three of her direct reports on a team of eight. They adore Jacinta, have great respect for her technical and management skills and generally like working for her. But they are not so happy with the team. Their complaints: various pairs of folks simply don’t like each other, Jacinta is blind to some of the kissing up members do with her, two members are perceived as incompetent, the best players are left to do the lion’s share of the work. They all claim they have raised some of their concerns but not too loudly.

Recently two incidents occurred that got Jacinta’s attention. Mari fired off an email to Ramon and cc’d Jacinta. “It has become intolerable to work with you. For the sake of the team I suggest you get your act together.” Ramon was stunned to find out that was Mari’s sentiment (which he did not share) and then he was pissed that she had cc’d Jacinta. The following week Jacob met privately with Mari and then Ramon to bitch and moan about the two incompetents and to gain their support to oust them. Once he got their consent he went to Human Resources to file his complaints. HR contacted Jacinta immediately.

Sound familiar? In the real world this is the norm. A good and well intentioned leader mixed with a good enough staff with a dash of serious team building efforts will still yield stupid human tricks. We just can’t help ourselves. Put nine of us together and screwy things will occur. We want to be the favorite child, we try to create a pecking order (forget this egalitarian team shit!), we want to bond with the good guys and toss the bad guys aside, we want to be heroes that save the day, we want to shine. None of these very human desires work so well when you are trying to achieve goals through teams.

So what to do? I have spent years planning and facilitating those team off sites and I am here to tell you that they have a purpose but that is not the forum to address the kind of dynamics I am describing here. The best use of those meetings is to have some fun and get to know each other more deeply. To think (as I once did) that leaders and members can publicly hash out why Mari sent that email or why Jacob gathered a posse to dump two people is naive. If you try to do that there will be even more damage to the team. I stopped intervening like that ages ago. (And FYI, I am a trained and experienced group therapist and even I see the error of my ways.)

Here’s what it comes down to: the best teams have the best leaders. People are going to be ridiculously human and it is up to the leader to rein in the dysfunction and point everyone in the right direction.

Jacinta is on the right path from a structural point of view. But she hasn’t rolled up her sleeves to confront the tough stuff. Although not an exhaustive list, great team leaders will…

  • Take people to task for misbehavior. At the first sign of inappropriate interactions s/he will make it very clear that these behaviors are unacceptable. This is done privately at first…usually in the proverbial woodshed. That only has to happen a couple times before a person decides this is too painful. To avoid more “talks” most of us realize it is easier to behave.
  • Reinforce good team habits publicly and by name. If people are trying to get the leader’s attention, great leaders make it perfectly clear that good stuff will get praise while bad stuff will get a “private meeting” (see above). The good team member will be verbally (and sometimes financially) rewarded in multiple public forums. Members learn that to be the favorite child good behavior is required.
  • Mediate conversations between team members. Rather than responding to flaming emails, the leader facilitates a discussion between the two people. You might think this is to teach better ways of airing and resolving conflicts…which it is. But the greater gain is that members learn they can’t just sit around sniping at each other because they will be forced to sit across from each other and talk it out. Oh no! Anything but that! We humans prefer to just bitch endlessly and feel very self righteous. (see internet trolls) But if we are called upon to have a reasonable discussion about real concerns we would rather not.
  • Be attuned to the more nuanced dynamics. Is Laila’s silence anger or thinking? What did that look between Felix and Keri mean? Mel and Stacy are passing notes! Mikal is completely disengaged. A good leader will observe all these subtleties and intervene. Laila, what do you think about this issue? Keri, do you think we are missing anything? Mel and Stacy, please don’t conduct a side conversation now. And after the meeting, Mikal, let’s talk for a few minutes. Is something going on? The leader doesn’t need to interpret anything. S/he just needs to address it in productive and proactive ways. The more these normal behaviors get ignored, the more disruptive they become.
  • Strike a balance between challenging goals, cheerleading and reality. It is a leader’s job to set aggressive goals, monitor progress and hold people accountable. But just driving for ever tougher targets depletes the team on every level. Being too rah-rah-we-can-do-this loses its luster very quickly. Good team leaders find a way to be very grounded in reality while still providing encouragement. Big and arduous projects require more free lunches and shooing everyone out of the office at 7pm because there will be some all-nighters along the way.
  • Break up cliques and show no favoritism. Some of the most destructive team behaviors look like an episode of Survivor. Previous allies now back stab and jealous peers become BFFs and individuals throw sharp elbows to become The Favorite. Again, stupid human tricks. Good leaders see this for what it is…normal human behavior. But they also intervene to minimize the negative impact on the team. They have ongoing conversations with ringleaders, influencers, bullies, bystanders and those in the shadows. S/he works consistently to bring folks into the fold (sic. overall team objectives) by refocusing attention away from the nasty and overly personal attacks. Assignments are made to split up unhealthy alliances, shy members are brought to the foreground or powerful people are marginalized. The goal is to rearrange the chairs to keep the dynamics more fluid and productive.

And the big ace in the hole that great team leaders use is removing the bad player. If every effort has been made to straighten out someone and s/he still persists in acting up, a good leader will get rid of the person. This is a wonderful moment for the team and the leader. The sigh of relief is very loud. The leader gains new respect. The team refocuses energy on the work rather than distracting interactions.

Best of all, team members are on notice. The message is loud and clear. “Do the right thing and life will be good. Mess up and I will take you out.”

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