When is a team not a team?

Members of leadership teams consistently tell us that their biggest area of ineffectiveness lies in their inability to have open, constructive debate. Rather than challenging one another and  working together on organisational goals, they retreat into promoting and defending their own area of responsibility.  Even in teams that work well, only 60% of respondents feel that they can constructively challenge one another without fear of a destructive reaction. In underperforming teams this falls to just 33%.

When you dig under the surface of this depressing picture, what invariably lies behind these symptoms is a lack of trust between team members. They simply don’t have enough confidence in their colleagues to open up difficult discussions – or to ask for support.

Everyone in the team knows which subjects are likely to provoke defensiveness or destructive arguments – so these simply get avoided. Unfortunately, these are frequently the very issues that the team really need to get to grips with in order to break out and move beyond current performance levels.

There’s a human cost as well as the effect on results. Members of the team feel isolated and unable to successfully tackle some of the key issues facing them – which in turn makes everyone still more sensitive and defensive.

Trust is transformational

The vast majority of us have been members of great teams. Whether at work, in sport or in other fields of endeavour, we have experienced the extraordinary results and the wonderfully rewarding experience that follow when a group of people truly come together to achieve something.

Members of great teams demand more of those around them. They not only challenge others where they are missing things but they also help out without being asked.

Every team member feels like they have the constant support and backing of the others. They demand more of themselves because of the obligation they feel to their colleagues. The trust and quality of relationships in such teams seem so natural as to be utterly unremarkable.

These kinds of relationships in teams leading organisations are transformational. They are not just desirable, they are also absolutely necessary. The role of leadership is becoming ever more complex – and we know that the environment in which it takes place is incredibly difficult today and likely to remain so for some time to come. Individual leadership just isn’t enough any more.

Building relationships: Alchemy or Science?

We all know that we get on with some people better than others – otherwise it wouldn’t matter who we marry! In a business context, there are always those who we find it easier to get on with.

Unfortunately, part of the human condition is that we tend to get on best with those who think most like us. The challenging corollary of this fact is that we almost always have most to learn from those who we like, and value, the least. Put simply, it’s often the relationships with those who are different to us and challenge us both personally and professionally which help us grow as leaders – and to deliver more.

Building relationships with people is gloriously unpredictable. The good news is that a hundred years of psychological and sociological study has provided us with a rich toolkit that makes developing powerful relationships in the field of business (as well as many other arenas) both easier and much faster.

The engineer and the artist

An example of differences arose with a recent client. Almost every leadership team meeting got hung up at some stage in a debate between the FD, (the engineer) an incredibly driven, logical and practical character, and the Director of Marketing (the artist) who thought in very abstract ways and always wanted to explore issues more deeply before reaching a conclusion.

Meetings had become so frustrating that the CEO had resorted to doing as much as possible as 1:1 or smaller groups to avoid the inevitable arguments and gridlock. The unintended consequence of this was that the team was increasingly polarising into two opposing factions.

To develop the relationships and trust in the team, we used a very simple process that I call ‘speed feedback’. Every team member spent 5 minutes exchanging feedback with every other member on:-

  • “Three things that I really value about your contribution.”
  • “Three things you do/don’t do that make my job more difficult.”
  • “Three things that I’d like you to change/do more of to help accelerate our success.”

Everyone was wondering what would happen when the turn came for the engineer and the artist to exchange feedback. The very constricted time required them to simply and directly address the questions. The turn came for the two of them to exchange feedback.

And then something shifted. The two of them began to see how they were unintentionally provoking one another. They were surprised at how simple the requested changes were. Having to think and talk about what they valued about one another reminded them both how complementary their skills were. The light bulb moments came thick and fast. I struggled to interrupt them at the end of their time and the conversation continued as they chose to sit together, away from the main group, over lunch.

Since that conversation the relationship has grown to the extent that they both now say that the other is their first point of call for advice or a different perspective. They have collaborated to develop and deliver an initiative to solve problems with a key market launch which they jointly turned from a problem to a huge success. Problems in meetings are now very few and they are now seen as a key axis of influence and driver of strategy for the company.

The exercise only took two hours. In ROI terms, that one conversation, paid for itself in the very next team meeting. In every other conversation, however, there were also similar breakthrough insights and agreements on how key issues could be addressed by better working together. The whole team shifted that day for the better and those positive changes have continued to accelerate.

Your team

If you recognise an issue like the one above – or need to develop the level of trust to drive performance in your team, please visit our website to read more about The Six Conversations Leadership Team Programme or download our article, The Seven Illusions of Leadership,  which shows what it looks like in practice – based around a case study. Better still, give us a call on 0845 519 1292 to explore your issues further or to arrange a free Strategy Session click here.