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Posts from the ‘Teams’ Category

Bring Your Humanity To Work

Something happens to us as we age (besides all the aches and pains!). We forget, rewrite, “dis-remember”, ignore or otherwise change the narrative to our own life stories. A hard beginning turns into “not that bad”. A perfect family turns into “I had plenty of hard times too”. There are fewer nuances and more absolutes and denial. By the time we are well into our careers, we have forgotten about many of the life experiences that gave us our membership cards into the human race. Those cards that are good at any organization regardless of background, race or gender. Those cards that define what we all have in common.

We have all felt “less than”. Maybe you were the smallest in your class or not very athletic or crappy at math or from a poor family. You were teased or ostracized at school. Or you were compared to an older sibling who was so much better than you were. You struggled to make friends because you felt too different because of circumstances far beyond your control. Feeling less than became seared into your psyche.

We have all felt like we just didn’t fit in. There was always an in crowd and you didn’t meet the criteria. Or you actually did meet the requirements but it didn’t match how you felt inside. Or there was something “different” about your family; a chronically depressed mother or alcoholic father or the non-dominant religion of your neighborhood or a sibling that died. You didn’t have vocabulary for this then but you just knew that when you went to your friend’s house to play, it wasn’t anything like your home. Instinctively you understood that it wasn’t a good idea to invite friends to your house.

We have all battled insecurities and fears. Whether born from reality, imagination or normal development, growing up means facing constant testing of self worth and self confidence. Am I smart enough to pass the test? Will I have a date for the prom? Will I get into college? Why are all my friends better and smarter than I am? Everyday is groundhog’s day as we attempt to calm those inner voices.

We all have dreams. When I grow up…. I will overcome all these worries and challenges and be so awesome! I’ll make enough money to own a house and buy one for my mom, too. I’ll discover something amazing that will help all of humanity. I’ll get out of this shit-hole-of-a-town and never look back. I’ll have a “normal” family. There is a time and place on the horizon that will be so much better. Or we will replicate exactly all the wonderfulness that was our childhood by moving next door to mom and dad.

We all excel at some things and not others. We were too young without enough life experience or context to know that no one was good at everything all the time. Still, we looked at those around us and believed that was absolutely true about those superstars we compared ourselves to. If we soared at math but couldn’t conjugate german verbs we graded ourselves as inferior. If we were great writers but lousy basketball players, we sucked. In time, we all come to appreciate that everyone, including ourselves, do some things really, really well. Maybe even better than others.

We are more fortunate than someone else. We have no control over where or to whom we are born (unless you understand reincarnation). It’s just the luck of the draw that I grew up in Detroit with the family I landed in and you are from your clan in London. We had different circumstances and experiences because of these random beginnings. No matter how badly things went down for either of us, we will encounter loads of people who had it so much worse than we did. We don’t understand this while we are growing up except for all those refrains to finish what was on our plates because there were starving people in Africa. It takes leaving the familiarity of home to understand that people had it better and much worse than we did.

These are just a few universal truths about the human condition that have the potential to allow empathy and compassion to emerge in each of us. But too frequently we forget about these formative experiences once we are doing well in our professions. Once we have attained a level of success it tames our inner worries and what replaces it is a callousness that separates us from our humanity. What happens next, I believe, is sad and preventable.

We twist those memories of feeling less than and not fitting in into revenge fantasies. Where we once felt so dejected, we now play the part of bully and coolest, smartest kid. As leaders and team mates, we make others feel like shit because we never want to be the runt again. We use our position or power or just nastiness to subject people to the same mistreatment we experienced so long ago. From one angle, it can be seen as a triumph over past wounds and feelings of powerlessness. From another, it is becoming the hated tormentor of the past to avoid any further pain.

Fears and self doubt have a funny way of showing up in adulthood. For some of us, the dialogue in our heads is exhausting! Pick your words carefully, don’t be too aggressive, don’t be too passive, speak up early and often, ask for forgiveness instead of permission. We can self monitor 24/7 in an attempt to talk away our anxieties, to look and sound smart, to be better than others, to never let them see us sweat. When this doesn’t work we get defensive, go on attack or withdraw. These are only slightly more sophisticated coping mechanisms than the ones we used as kids.

It is uncanny how much we still hunger to conform/fit in and it is no surprise that most companies are set up for just that. The norms favor stereotypical white male behaviors so heaven help the rest of us who don’t fall anywhere near that map. We hide those stories, beliefs or traits that make us different or unique; growing up poor, the death of a parent, dyslexia we overcame, living a life of extreme comfort, missing a year of school because of a serious illness. If people of color and women could transform into white men it would be so much easier to erase all those barriers!

Our childhoods are spent yearning to fit in and be like everyone else. We bust into adulthood intent on becoming our own unique person and standing out from the crowd. Organizations allow for only a certain amount of nonconformity so we are back to the same dilemma: how do I fit in around here.

What we don’t have as children that we do have as adults is a very sophisticated brain that is capable of complex thoughts, self reflection, analysis and rationality. Do we want to connect to others in the company from a place of shared humanity or do we want to replay old tapes? In the early version of the story we were small or victims or left out. In the sequel, we become the victors (or Vice Presidents). Like all superheroes, we can use our powers for good or evil. We can see each colleague as valuable, with an interesting tale of ups and downs, with big dreams and some crazy skills. Or we can see people as representatives of all our past hurts and take a turn in the bully-pulpit to exact our revenge.

We all have a choice about how we want our stories to evolve. Do you say to yourself each morning as you roll out of bed, “I want to operate from a place of compassion in hopes of getting great work done today”? Or do you sound more like Brain when Pinky asks, “What do you want to do today, Brain?” “Take over the world!”

The Understated Leader: Part Three

There are hidden gems in all our organizations. They are the people who consistently do great work, play well with others, ask good questions and listen attentively. What they don’t do is make a lot of noise. That is not part of their DNA. It’s a shame that those horn blowers suck up our attention. We end up missing out on amazing stuff happening all around us.

I’ve written here and here about The Understated Leader in the past. This is a low ego, highly collaborative and not flashy person who is productive and admired. For this post I want to focus on two key strengths these folks have that all organizations need so much more of: leading effective teams and facilitating innovation.

Take a look around your organization and identify those teams that work especially well. They are energized, flexible and crank out good results. You see the members collaborating easily, laughing and getting down to business. They are proud of small and big wins and examine setbacks. What would you say about the formal leader of this type of team? What behaviors do you observe?

Understated leaders tend to manage teams by:

  • Guiding rather than directing or inserting themselves
  • Assuming the collective skills and knowledge of the members will get the job done
  • Being a resource rather than a driver
  • Asking loads of questions to draw out the ideas of the members
  • Facilitating team feedback and reflection
  • Deferring praise away from self and onto the team

These leaders have a fundamental belief that the best work gets done through teams of people. They coach members about how to work well together and are reluctant to intervene when things get jammed up. They value both the interpersonal skills required to collaborate as well as the improved problem solving and outcomes when more heads are in the game.

Shift focus now to how creativity and innovation take place at your organization. Are there people with special roles for that job? Is everyone responsible for it? Are some leaders more prone to new ideas and new ways of doing things while others take the “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” approach? Does innovation happen unexpectedly or is it baked into the way the business is conducted? Are some staff frustrated with the lack of invention while others feel constant pressure to be creative?

When it comes to Understated Leaders, you will often see them approach innovation in these ways:

  • Challenge teams to go further, push the envelope, anticipate what happens down the road
  • Look for the best answers and input rather than the easiest or quickest or cheapest one
  • Anticipate people’s responses to the new thing and plan for the transition
  • Entrust teams to solve big issues rather than select one or two subject matter experts
  • Tap people from across and up and down the organization to invent something new or solve problems
  • Pose challenging questions for the team to address rather than take over the process

Much like their point of view about teams, these leaders know from repeated experience that answers to tough issues do not start and stop with themselves. They may feel ultimately accountable but they do not feel that they alone can solve the problem or identify what the next new thing should be. They are adept at framing the challenge, encouraging expanded thinking and new inputs and helping the team reflect on what is/is not working.

Clearly, leading teams and leading innovation require similar skill sets. And Understated Leaders are particularly proficient in these areas. It is this humble, engaging, facilitative and challenging style that works so well.

But what do you see when you look around your organization at the state of both team work and innovation? Probably a smattering of Understated Leaders but mostly more traditional leaders. I define traditional leaders as: out front, take charge, results driven, declarative statements, direction setting, strong presence. You know, the stuff we all read about in the management literature. There is a time and a place for traditional leadership, that’s for sure. But when it comes to teams and innovation, a very different style is more effective.

And here is where the rub is. We pay way more attention to traditional leaders than we do to the quieter ones. Both may raise their hands but we gravitate towards the noise. Both may get results but a closer look will usually reveal a more productive process and more stimulated and enabled staff with the Understated Leader. Both leaders may praise their teams’ accomplishments but only one will do that without ever using the word “I”.

For those of you who are in the position to dole out great assignments, I urge you to open your eyes and ears to the folks all around you who are not tooting their own horns. Listen to what staff say about working with various leaders. Pay attention to the level of engagement and enthusiasm or pressure and anxiety staff feel. Look under the hood of the reported results; make sure you blow away all the smoke and mirrors to see what is really there.

Rather than always gravitating towards the obvious shiny objects take a chance on the more hidden luminous assets.


Making The Hard Choice: A Profile in Courage

Sometimes it’s not about a perfect leader. Someone who excels at inspiration, has a grand vision, challenges everyone to do great things and all those other wonderful traits we all want in our leaders. Sometimes it just comes down to doing what is right and difficult even when you don’t know if or how it will work out. Sometimes it’s just about seeing the problem and having the courage to jump into the deep end and hoping for the best.

Dahlia is one of those leaders. She is the CEO of a mid-sized nonprofit with a mission to effect legislation and policies pertaining to early childhood education. She is passionate about the work and has successfully influenced state and federal laws and funding. When it comes to running the organization, she is a thoughtful and solid leader but no one would say she sets their world on fire. She is well aware of her shortcomings and has worked hard to develop new skills.

Over time, Dahlia has changed the roles and members on her leadership team to amp up the management of the organization and supervision of the talent. She hired me to help develop the newly configured team so they could function more collaboratively and effectively. Without going into all the gory details, let’s just say Dahlia had pulled together a group of smart and well intentioned people who struggled to play well together. I facilitated a series of team discussions to break down defenses and barriers to join in more collective thinking and actions. It was slow and challenging. The team became impatient with my insistence that we keep peeling away the layers to get to more respectful and trusting encounters. They wanted to solve problems and move on.

In my private discussions with Dahlia, she began to surface her increased awareness of dysfunctional team dynamics and her role in them. I coached her to take risks to be more self revealing and open in hopes the others would follow. And they did, up to a point. It was clear there were two team members who preferred to function in their silos and wanted these sessions to end.

An unexpected catalyst left Dahlia with a tough decision. A vital member of the team suddenly left the organization. This person had a very important function and was the most collaborative of anyone on the team. He shared with Dahlia that one factor in his decision was the lack of cooperation from these two team members. He simply had enough. This confirmed Dahlia’s assessment; until these two people had a change of heart no amount of team discussions were going to improve the situation.

We discussed how to proceed. Private one on ones, a team come-to-Jesus meeting, fire one or both of them, some combination of all of them. There were many larger, organizational considerations: filling key functional gaps, destabilizing the staff, derailing projects, creating more departures, making the team’s dysfunction more apparent to all. We talked and talked, testing out each option.

I must admit that in my head I knew the right thing to do. But I thought it was too risky so I kept offering safer options. In the midst of one of these conversations Dahlia simply said, “I think what needs to happen is to bring this to the team for resolution. If we still can’t come together for the good of the agency after all the work we have done, then I will need to make some very serious changes.” Dahlia chose the risky, and right, option. This was a team problem and the team needed to get its act together.

Dahlia was never clearer or more forthright when she began the next meeting. “We have been working for months to let go of our individual agendas and act as a united leadership team to serve the organization. We have failed as a team. Alan’s departure is our evidence. Unless we can collaborate effectively we will fail the whole organization. I fear we already have. We are going to roll up our sleeves, say the hard stuff that has not yet surfaced, figure out how we are going to proceed without Alan and sort out what we are going to tell the staff. Anyone who is not up to the task, can leave now. Anyone who does not step up to do the right thing will be asked to leave.”

Long story short: one person got the message and was able to shape up and the other person was removed. The leadership team turned a corner and accelerated the path to well coordinated collaboration. The conversations were difficult at first but eventually everyone experienced the benefits of saying the hard things, abiding by a set of new and more functional norms and not feeling so isolated from each other. The staff was anxious at first with all the leadership changes but came to experience the new energy and support of the leaders. It took five months from the moment of Alan’s departure for all the changes to settle in and for the organization to stabilize.

For Dahlia, life got much easier. She had a functional leadership team that she trusted to co-manage the organization and staff. She kept taking risks to try new leadership behaviors because she was less uncomfortable and had a big win under her belt. She worried less about losing other key talent. She even got to a place where she was grateful that the crisis had kicked her in the pants.

As for me, I learned a good lesson too. Don’t underestimate the courage of a reserved, decent leader. With so many other bolder leaders I never hesitate to push them to put themselves and their teams on the line for the greater good. I had acknowledged loads of growth in Dahlia but wasn’t sure she was ready to call the team out and address all the defenses and bad behavior. I will remember this with the next Dahlia I meet.

Taking A Break

Thank you for your loyal support of this blog. It keeps me on my toes to speak frankly about what happens on the ground in our organizations. I have lots more to write about but it will have to wait until December. I am immersed in very cutting edge and exciting work about leading innovation that is filling my every moment. I look forward to sharing some insights when I return to my blog later this year.

Before I sign off for a bit, I’d like to share some observations based on reader response to GetRealLeadership.

  • People are hungry for guidance about their teams. I’ve been focusing on teams recently because it receives so many views. It has made me wonder why, in spite of so much emphasis on team building and training over the past 20 years, not enough of it is taking. Is it the pressure of chasing each quarter that encourages poor behavior? Or the mix of generations and difficulties that can create to find productive communication habits? Is it egotistical or self righteous posturing? Is the hierarchy still alive and well? If millennials were raised on constant collaboration and teamwork, where is their influence at work? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
  • Selfless, low ego leaders are hard to find. But everyone is looking for one or trying to figure out how to become one. It is the most searched topic that brings people to this blog. Again, this makes me curious. We’ve had two decades of servant and authentic leadership books. Is there not enough follow through on this popular perspective? While this dialogue has been taking place, has there been a parallel movement to grab and hold onto power? Is the current political landscape just a culmination of a decade of powerful CEOs getting away with horrible deeds leaving the rest of us searching desperately for a very different kind of leader? This topic is alive and well but it is not getting much attention in the blogosphere. Have we become so cynical that we accept that nice people finish last?
  • There is little interest in women and people of color. Every time I write something on those issues there is very little traffic. I have mentioned in the past that this is disheartening to me. There is no level playing field in our companies but it seems this is not a priority or of interest to many people. A generous conclusion would be that many of you don’t believe this is a problem where you work. If that is the case, please write to me and tell me your success stories. I’m dying to hear some good news. But the realist in me sees what is happening in the real world and with the clients I serve. There are certainly some bright spots but the lack of women and people of color in top leadership roles persists. I can’t help but connect some dots between the current political discourse and what is happening in too many companies. Men are forgiven for everything and anything and women are blamed for everything and anything. Wells Fargo CEO finally was forced to step down but he is the exception. All the other bad players continue in their roles and keep accumulating vast wealth. A woman CEO is vilified and taken out in a heart beat for poor financial performance especially if she didn’t turn around a shit situation she inherited from some former male CEO. Sexism, racism and double standards live on in our culture. I expect more from our corporations.

Stay tuned for some very interesting posts about leading innovation in December. This is something every leader and company is grappling with. For some great reading on the topic I recommend Linda Hill’s book, Collective Genius. She and her co-authors offer a very different leadership model. And by the way, it is everything I have been writing about and you are searching for about great teamwork. It is a compelling read.

Please share your thoughts with me in the comments section or via private email at

The Dangers of Affirming our Well Formed Opinions

Let’s face it, we are ALL the smartest and most correct people in the room.We have become experts on a particular topic, advised senior leaders, argued circles around our peers and taken up residence as the Grand Poobah. We are so persuaded that our position is brilliant that no amount of additional input will move us. Because we are the best and smartest. Of course others tend to see us as utter assholes…especially after we proclaim “I told you so”.

Moving past all the insecurities and ego problems this self righteous and closed stance implies, I’m especially interested in why we all have a tendency to fall into this defense (present company included). Interested and concerned because if you have six people on your team and everyone believes they have the right answer there is trouble ahead. The conversation will become combative, loud and unproductive and poor decisions will be made.

First, some research. Psychology and social psychology are filled with theories and experiments that all point to the same conclusion: Once a person has a strongly held belief no amount of data to the contrary, new information or persuasive arguments will change his/her mind. That powerful idea is woven into the fabric of many other beliefs or one’s self definition and it is just too threatening to untangle or change it. (Look up cognitive dissonance, belief perseverance or backfire effect.) The only proven method for changing someone’s mind requires some positive self affirmations before a private conversation. Trying to change people’s minds in a public forum won’t work. Way too threatening.

So think of your team of six. Imagine that four of you fervently believe you have The Right Answer. The other two feel less convinced of their own positions on this issue. While the gang of four duke it out, the other two find this a waste of time. As the leader you try to facilitate a more open dialogue to find a middle ground. As the decibels increase you jump in to shut it all down by declaring The Decision. Discussion over. If hope springs eternal in your heart, you will leave the meeting believing that everyone will do as you instructed. But I know you are not that naive.

Let’s focus on self awareness. Given that most of us will play the part of the asshole from time to time, it is important to acknowledge a few truths.

  • We invest heavily in our public persona. By the time we are successful professionals we have a well crafted narrative. We let others know what prestigious schools we attended, what stellar companies we used to work for, what esteemed roles we held and our string of success stories. To back up that story we display some bravado because modesty won’t get you ahead. Being able to argue a strong position and persuade others is all a part of the profile. And it must be reinforced constantly.
  • Ideas that are different than our own are experienced as a challenge. I express Point A. You express Point B. I immediately react to convince you and others that Point B can’t possibly be right because it contradicts my better Point A. I don’t even take a breath long enough to really hear what you have said, let alone entertain it. To hold my own strong opinion at the same time that you express the exact opposite is tremendously uncomfortable. I’m all instinct and very little thought.
  • It takes a lot of work to change our minds. To open up to other points of view requires some mental and emotional gymnastics. I have to suspend my own thinking, listen fully to what you are saying, sift through what resonates and what doesn’t, integrate that new thought into my long term perspective and then figure out how to use this new hybrid idea. Phew! It’s much easier to just be mentally lazy.
  • We might look weak or wishy washy if we open up to new ideas. Somewhere along the way the notion that changing one’s mind was not a sign of strong leadership. Decisive, carefully thought through, determined, persuasive…these are admirable traits. Open mindedness, flexibility and agility are considered strengths these days but there is not much resonance yet that those traits amount to potent leadership. It is still aspirational for leaders yet a requirement for staff. If leaders demonstrate these traits too frequently they are deemed confusing. The staff clambers for declarative statements and unwavering decisions from their leaders.

There are no simple solutions to this very human drama that unfolds in our teams everyday. Relaxing your strongly held positions is hard work. Helping your team to hear each other ain’t easy. Serving up multiple points of view without seeing that as a battle cry goes against habit. But doing all three of these things will create remarkably different conversations, decisions and outcomes.

Imagine yourself preparing for a critical discussion with your team. Write one sentence that states your position and then leave that note in your desk. As you do this tell yourself to let go of that opinion so you can remain open to what happens in the room. You start the meeting by asking each person to do the same thing: write down their opinion and put it aside. Use some other techniques to draw out each member’s thoughts. For example, rather than saying “I’d like to hear from everyone”, ask each person to move to a private section of the room and write three bullet points about their thoughts on the subject on a flip chart. Then ask the team to wander around the room to read the charts. Have them use markers to put stars by the lines that resonate. There will be a visual display of points of agreement to begin the discussion. This process can bypass the strident “listen to me!!” that is often the start of debates that must result in a decision. Beginning with convergence deflates some of the brashness. The conversation can proceed with greater probability of incorporating multiple additional points of view that contribute to the core consensus.

Bottom line: digging your heels in to maintain your strong opinions is self serving and leads to crappy team dynamics and decisions. Developing a practice of productively sharing ideas rather than egos is challenging but doable. As a wise person once told me: Get over yourself. Better things can happen when you do.

How To Understand and Appreciate Our Team Mates

As I sit with team after team providing guidance for better functioning, I am always struck by the same three related observations. One, everyone seems to be speaking a foreign language. Two, no one is hearing each other. And three, everyone would rather be getting a root canal than be in a room with this motley crew. It’s a wonder that anything gets accomplished!

Sadly, this is the norm for many teams. From a psychological perspective I break it down this way: we have egos that need to be stroked, we each want to stand out from the crowd, we get confused and defensive in group settings, we don’t know what else to do. We are not bad people who mean to disregard our peers. We just missed that day in school. Oh, right! We never ever learned this stuff in school.

We each need to take personal responsibility for getting out of our own way by quieting our voracious appetites for recognition and turning up the volume on positive intentions towards others. That is the starting point for developing an appreciation for our team mates. Easy for me to say, harder to do. But becoming aware that the “me, me, me” meter is running over time is important. Hit the pause button. There is a lot of amazing stuff you’ll start to notice when you do that. Hidden gems to feature and obstacles that are simpler than we imagine.

The path to understanding starts with teams that speak only one language: the native tongue of your country. Not MBA jargon, not company alphabet soup acronyms, not trend du jour memes, not functional discipline gobbledygook. Just plain english (in my case). Years ago while I was working at a newspaper the editor drilled this into me. As a fine written and verbal communicator it made him crazy when team meetings were over run with gibberish. The opportunities for misunderstandings and meaningless exchanges were exponential. He taught me that down to earth, plain-spoken english would improve our discussions. And he was right.

I’m not saying that a team of functional experts should never use their own shorthand. I’m suggesting that mixed teams need to err on the side of normal language and even experts need to revert to english when it comes to debates and decisions. This is the only way a team can establish a common language. Without that, the chances for understanding each other drop significantly.

By now everyone has sat through training courses on effective listening skills. We’ve all learned how to nod our heads and ask questions for deeper understanding and how to draw out the silent ones. That’s all good stuff. Just not enough. If we appear to be listening, is that the same as actually hearing what is being said? Here’s how you can tell if you’ve been heard. Someone says, “Hmmm. I never thought about it that way. Tell me more about how you got to that place.” Here’s how you can tell if you really heard someone else. When you ask a question the person does not reply, “I just answered that same question five minutes ago.” In order to hear someone two things need to happen: you need to have a quiet mind so you can take in new information and you need to assimilate that data. If you are mentally busy thinking of your response to the person or how you want to score your own points or reminding yourself to pick up milk on your way home, then you haven’t heard a word. You might appear to be listening but you’re not.

Walk into a team meeting with this goal: I’m going to speak much less and try to hear much more. Jot some notes as others are speaking. Pick up on key words and themes. Hear content as pieces of data to be mixed and matched and moved around. See if you can pick up on emotional tone. Is the person excited or frustrated or bored? Fit the affect together with the content to see if that reshapes the picture. In other words, sit back and take it all in rather than feeling a need to jump in repeatedly. Speak up when you can add something valuable to the discussion. Especially helpful is your synthesis of the key points in the conversation. Your team mates will be surprised and pleased that someone heard all that and was able to make some sense out of it. Being heard is what we really want. Listening can be too superficial.

I believe these first two issues feed into the third problem: people aren’t enjoying being together. It feels like a chore, one more thing to check off the daily to-do list. Most teams are made up of a cast of characters who are different than we are. That’s a good thing for the business but not necessarily easy to figure out how to get along and be productive. This one is so analytical and that one can’t make a decision and this one loves the sound of his voice and that one never follows through. Why can’t everyone be just like me: charming, cooperative, smart, quick, focused, practically perfect in every way (thank you Mary Poppins)? Our task is to find ways to appreciate those differences and understand the necessity of having them.

I don’t expect us to adore every person we work with but I absolutely believe we can come to respect our peers. If we all spoke one common language and we all made the effort to hear each other (and quiet our inner judges and ringmasters) we would be well on our way to understanding the value of each team member. When I stop worrying about trying to be the smartest one in the room and I sit back and listen, I can actually hear who else is smart. I don’t have to be the only one. I can even hear some valuable insights from those that I don’t have the highest regard for. That can help me realize that I was being too harsh and hasty. When I honestly admit to myself that the reason I go crazy about the overly analytic team member is because I don’t do well with details, I can start to respect her and realize the team really needs that. When I can laugh at myself because a whole room full of Nicki’s would be an absolute nightmare, then I can appreciate the cast of characters that make up our team.

Speaking plain english and hearing each other go a long way towards understanding and enjoying our team mates. These are small but overlooked steps to building better teams.

Do You Know What Your Team’s Purpose Is?

If I asked you what your team’s purpose is would you have a ready and brief answer? Would it be the same response as the other members of your team? I’m guessing the answer is no all around. Oh sure, you know what your goals are and what metrics you must achieve and what strategic mission you need to fulfill and all that stuff that is hammered out each year or quarter during goal setting and calibration meetings. That is what you are supposed to do…as in tasks to accomplish. That is not a purpose, the reason you and your colleagues are gathered together.

First, let me offer a clear definition of what I mean here. “Purpose can be anything that benefits people and society in some way…Whatever form it takes, purpose is the glue that integrates the work of one into the work of many. It lifts people’s efforts above the level of everyday, self-centered activity.” (Linda Hill etal, Collective Genius) Think of it as the higher calling of the team. I’m certain that most teams have not given this a moment of thought. And I’m even more certain that senior leaders have given it even less consideration.

Second, let me tell you why this is so important to developing a highly functional team. We human beings feel more passionate and connected to a meaningful purpose than we do to keeping score. Of course we like our teams to win and hit the financial targets but at the end of the day…meh. It’s not enough to keep the battery charged. And it most definitely isn’t enough to pull a team together. Without a compelling purpose our teams are merely a collection of individuals trying to cross the finish line. No glue, as Linda Hill calls it.

How does a team think about and decide what it’s purpose is?

  • Defining a team’s purpose may/may not be driven by the formal leader. If you are an inspiring visionary you can help a team connect to something grand and compelling that appeals to all. If the members share excitement about that purpose, great. But even more powerful than following a leader is when the members bounce their thoughts off of each other and come to a common vision. We tend to commit more energy to things we have a hand in creating.
  • This is a collective activity. Each member needs to put forward his/her own thoughts about purpose and then the group needs to hash out all the ideas. No rush to judgment. No disregard for any individual. Think of this (iterative) discussion as a mosaic with everyone contributing colorful tiles. Move the pieces around until a clear and exciting picture emerges.
  • Think boldly. Move past the metrics, jargon and platitudes. Purpose is more akin to BHAG, big hairy audacious goal. Except that it is more essential, more fundamental. “If we are gone tomorrow, we will have left behind…” “We are uniquely capable of…” “We get up every morning just chomping at the bit to be together to…”
  • Consider what helps on the bad days. No matter how lofty the team’s purpose is, there will be lots of crappy days and wrong turns. What is the team mantra that can help members feel centered enough to refocus their attention? “This week sucked! Thankfully we have big aims so the details of this moment aren’t life threatening.” You may even consider establishing some rituals around pulling yourselves out of the hole and reminding each other of the bigger picture.
  • Keep team purpose discreet and simple. It should be stated in one sentence. Don’t confuse purpose with team norms or decision making or terms for collaboration or rules of the road or any of those other important tasks that teams need to agree on. Be sure that purpose comes first and then let all those other decisions fall in line to support the team’s purpose.

Is purpose the same thing as mission? No. The mission is usually at the enterprise level and it describes what the company does. The team’s purpose will have a sight line to the larger mission but will be closer to home. Is purpose the same as vision? Kind of. It is more aspirational, bold, future oriented. But it may not provide the glue a team needs. Personally, I hate quibbling over these too often used and too often misunderstood and too often meaningless terms. We have all spent too much time at off sites agonizing over just the right words. That’s why I like “purpose” instead. It’s plain english and more user friendly.

If your team feels like it is stumbling around in the dark or a collection of individuals going off in ten different directions, it may be time to take a few steps back and define the team’s purpose. It’s not as simple as it sounds but creating a space for this discussion will pay off in big and small ways. And best of all, anyone can get the ball rolling. Be the one!

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