The biggest threat to a team or organization is complacency. The minute a team is okay with the status quo, all growth, innovation, and improvement stops. One symptom of complacency is groupthink. This situation occurs when everyone sits in a meeting in silence, and the robotic bobble-heads begin to bob with every agenda item. We’ve all been there. Since when did we define “working and playing well with others” as blind agreement and stifled voices?
When bobble-heading happens a team, a leader must ask him/herself, “How did we get here?” This journey into complacency has been a slow erosion of goals, aspirations, vision, and purpose. It didn’t just show up at the meeting table.
So what started this erosion? To be blunt, lack of a leader. To keep teams and organizations engaged, they must always be challenged, and leaders must continually challenge themselves. Team members are at their happiest, most productive, and most engaged when leadership is demanding them to learn, stretch, grow every day while reinforcing how their work is essential to the organization, the customer, and its employees. This effort is the most important work a leader can do.
How do we create a learning, growing, stretching, and contributing culture?
It starts with trust. The team must trust leadership first. Trust only comes from the leader being not just truthful but also being transparent. Trust begins not from strength but vulnerability. Being vulnerable and allowing team members to be vulnerable is a crucial step to trust. The leader must then continually demonstrate trust for each team member. If you can’t do this, you have the wrong people in the chair(s).
Regrettably, our society and corporate norms seem to require leaders to be smarter and more perfect than their team. If two minds are better than one, then a group of synchronized minds is infinitely better than one. How many times have we seen the biggest organizational failures come from bad judgment and direction from the leader? When a leader allows their vulnerability to shine, the team is empowered to be part of the solution, not just part of the work. They are allowed to take ownership and pride in the solution. The vision of “what” and “why” is the leader’s responsibility, but “how,” “who,” and “when” is better defined by the team. They should be at the table because of the tactical expertise they possess and be acknowledged for this expertise.
Once trust is established, and the team empowered, then the team needs to be challenged/encouraged to bring their expert voice to all conversations. But having these voices also brings a unique leadership challenge; promoting, even fostering prickly discussions, and then managing the passion that stems from prickliness. This work is not an easy task and requires the leader to be a referee, a diplomat, and a negotiator. To draw out the quiet experts and temper the dominant experts and, at times, to be very directive and decisive. The effort is indeed is hard work, and a skill learned from practice.
Think back to times in your career where you experienced a team of experts with a passion for what they were doing and using their expert’s voice in all discussions. My experience is this team was a rare example of a high performing team. They had trust in each other that allowed them to be the “no” voice, the “yeah but” voice, their voice of integrity. It was with the earned trust they could challenge each other’s assumptions and proclamations knowing that whatever they said or whoever they disagreed with understood that their purpose was honorable and righteous. The team knew they were all here because of a driving need to do the right things for the right reasons. These teams attained great results with passion and respect for each other.
The presence or absence of prickly conversations in a team will indicate the degree of complacency and the degree of passion for the work. Change, improvement, innovation, and high performance can only happen when groups allow for and are encouraged to have prickly conversations.