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The Secret to Building Successful Teams That Perform When the Pressure Is On
By CRAIG WEBER
The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Craig Weber. Inc.
All rights reserved.
THE MISSING PIECE OF THE PUZZLE
Management's business is building organizations that work
In elementary school I had a friend named David. One sunny day at recess, David, an epileptic, fell to the ground in the grips of a violent seizure. By the time I noticed what was happening, not only was David in physical distress, he was also surrounded by a group of students who were laughing at him, calling him names, and making fun. It was an ugly scene.
Shocked, I raced over with the clearest of intentions—to help David get through the seizure without injuring himself and to defend him from those kids giving him grief. I knew what to do and I had every intention of doing it, but as I reached my friend, a disturbing thing happened: I froze in my tracks. I didn't say a word. I didn't help my friend.
I didn't know it then, but I had fallen victim to a powerful dilemma that often causes our intentions and our behavior to part ways. On the one hand, my goal was to help my friend, but on the other, it was to avoid being ridiculed and criticized. I wanted to speak up and help, but I also wanted to remain safe and secure. It's clear now that the latter intention was the more powerful of the two, and that there were two seizures on the playground that day—David's epileptic seizure and my intentional seizure.
At the time I thought it was just me, that I suffered from some unrecognized disability with which most people are unencumbered. Or even worse, I worried that I was simply a coward, too afraid to take a stand for my friend when it counted most. I've since learned that my painful episode on the playground reflects a nearly universal human experience. And, after years of academic study and in-depth work with a wide variety of organizations, I realize my reaction that day was a symptom of a problem affecting all manner of teams and work relationships.
This problem is not just a minor trifle causing mere inconvenience or embarrassment on playgrounds. Its significance is evident in the experience of Colonel Mike Mullane, a weapons and navigational systems officer on a U.S. Air Force F-111 "Aardvark," a fighter-bomber. Early in his career he was on a mission with a pilot with thousands of hours of experience flying this aircraft. When they reached "bingo fuel," the critical point at which there is just enough fuel to return to base, Mullane saw no response from the pilot. Mullane's first instinct was to speak up, to point out that they needed to turn the aircraft around and head home. At risk, after all, was not just their mission and their plane, but also their lives.
But then, like me on the playground, he experienced an intentional conflict. On the one hand, a "little voice" in the back of his brain urged him to raise his concern; on the other hand, he didn't want to be labeled a troublemaker, a non–team player, or a "high-maintenance" flight operations officer. Even worse, what if he had been misreading the situation and it was not actually bingo fuel? He might've looked ignorant or incompetent. So despite the obvious danger, Mullane covered up his concern and said nothing. The consequences were severe. Running out of fuel on their way back to base, they ejected from the F- 111. Rather than end their mission by landing on a runway as they intended, they instead found themselves swinging under the canopy of a parachute as their multimillion-dollar aircraft crashed into the ground.
Building Teams That Work
These experiences provide a clue to a major problem affecting teams, team members, and teamwork, a problem that is routinely overlooked, underappreciated, and, therefore, undermanaged. This lack of awareness costs us dearly. In our world of mounting complexity and rapid-fire change, there's a growing demand for teams that work well when the pressure is on. But while we're good at building teams that perform when facing routine problems, building teams that perform when things get tough remains an elusive and frustrating goal.
It's not that we haven't been trying. We've been systematically studying how to build more effective and efficient organizations since the late nineteenth century when Frederick Taylor broke new ground with his time and motion studies, ushering in a new era of scientific management. But Taylor would barely recognize the world in which we're working today. Vastly more complex and interconnected, our world moves in chaotic and unpredictable ways. A torrent of change—technological, economic, political, and environmental—roars at us with increasing volume and velocity.
But, while it's more vital than ever to build teams that can thrive in these difficult circumstances, it's clear we're missing something important. Despite the billions of dollars spent every year on strategy formulation, training, restructuring, personality assessments, off-sites, workshops, and all manner of team and organizational development, only 15 percent of mergers and acquisition deals succeed, and executives report a rapidly growing gap between the need for change in their organizations and their ability to effectively orchestrate that change. Research shows that 9 out of 10 strategic initiatives fail to deliver their intended results, and among executives who believe they have the right strategies in place, only a small fraction feel they are implementing them effectively. As Lawrence Hrebiniak puts it, "making strategy work is more difficult than strategy making."
Not only are our teams routinely ineffective, they're often inhumane. Research shows that working and getting ahead in a wide range of teams and organizations results in "various disturbances—genuine emotional conflicts—that range from mild distress to feelings of self-betrayal, to stress and burnout, to acute psychiatric symptoms and irrationality." Teamwork, it turns out, can be hazardous to our health.
Our efforts to build reliably effective teams yield such poor results because our focus is overly technical. While we espouse our allegiance to the human side of the enterprise, our actions reveal different priorities. We're far more likely to focus our attention and resources on strategy, structure, systems, policy, process, and procedure, delegating the "softer" people stuff to HR, training, or outside consultants. But this overly technical focus is a costly mistake. If we want to build reliably effective teams and working relationships, we need to manage the human side of the enterprise with the same level of rigor and discipline with which we manage the technical.
If we want to build healthier, more capable teams we must pay far more attention to a key piece of the puzzle on which every other aspect of teamwork depends. I refer to it as conversational capacity. Put simply, conversational capacity is the ability to have open, balanced, nondefensive dialogue about tough subjects and in challenging circumstances. A team with high conversational capacity can keep its performance on track, productively addressing even its most difficult and contentious issues. But when a team has low conversational capacity, even a petty disagreement can throw team members off balance and derail their performance.
I use the term balance to describe a team with high conversational capacity because it provides a useful way to think about the concept. There is a "sweet spot" in any meeting or conversation where the dialogue is open, balanced, and nondefensive. Good work gets done here. While it's easy to remain balanced when talking about routine and comfortable issues, when a difficult subject hits the table, our tendency is to move out of the sweet spot toward the extreme ends of the behavioral spectrum. Some people shut down. Others heat up.
We can define conversational capacity, therefore, as the ability to work in the sweet spot in difficult circumstances that would send most people and teams flying out of it. A team with high conversational capacity can stay focused on learning, and do good work, even in difficult situations, because team members don't allow their emotional reactions to pull them off center.
We know we're communicating in an open, balanced, nondefensive way when there is balance between candor and curiosity. We don't mind sharing our ideas and perspectives, and we're equally interested in exploring the ideas and perspectives of others. When we're talking about easy subjects, such as how we spent our weekend or a movie we recently watched, it's easy to maintain this balance. But when there's a conflict, a hard decision, a personality clash, or a difference of opinion, it's easy to lose balance by letting go of one attribute or the other.
If we let our candor drop, for instance, our behavior becomes more cautious—we shut down, cover up our views, water down our concerns, change the subject, or feign agreement. On the other side of the spectrum, when we let go of curiosity, our behavior grows more arrogant and aggressive—we heat up, argue our point, stop listening, and push our perspective at the expense of others. So when I say a team has high conversational capacity, I'm saying it has the discipline to balance candor and curiosity in challenging circumstances that throw less disciplined teams off center.
Where's the Line?
To make this more personal, think about your team. Imagine, for a minute, you and your colleagues have created a prioritized list of the toughest issues you're currently facing—the most unwelcome issue at the top and the least unwelcome at the bottom. Whether you realize it or not, somewhere in that list is a line. It represents the conversational capacity of your team.
Below the line, where the capacity is sufficient, you can remain balanced and do good work. That doesn't mean there isn't conflict or tension. It means that despite it, you're able to explore the issues, make informed decisions, and implement them. Because you're able to maintain balance between candor and curiosity, your conversations and meetings are productive. Your team's ROC, or return on conversation, is high.
When your team tries to address an issue above the line, where its conversational capacity is inadequate, teamwork starts to break down. How could it not? If you try to engage a problem for which you lack the capacity for balanced dialogue, you're in trouble as soon as you start talking. Unable to communicate in the sweet spot, your ROC nosedives in the very circumstances in which you need it to go up.
The tougher the challenge we're up against, the higher the conversational capacity needed to deal with it. So, just as we rate a truck's capacity for carrying a load, we should also pay attention to a team's capacity for dealing with its challenges. If its conversational capacity is too weak given the issues it needs to address, it is, by definition, dysfunctional. The wider the gap between the problems it's facing and its capacity for dealing with them, the greater their incompetence.
Teams and their leaders, therefore, should consider a few vital questions: Where's the "line" in our list of challenges? Is it high enough? And how can we even tell? What are the warning signs when our capacity for balanced dialogue is low?
Two Basic Symptoms
When conversational capacity is lacking, there are two telltale symptoms: undiscussable issues and unproductively discussable issues. Almost every team has undiscussable issues everyone knows to avoid. They're openly discussed in the hallway or with a like-minded colleague over lunch, but never in a meeting. They're off limits. They're taboo.
But sometimes the problem isn't that an issue is undiscussable, it's that it's unproductively discussable. While the issue is raised, the ensuing discussion produces little more than closed-minded arguments, positional posturing, and interpersonal conflict. Because such conversations produce more heat than light, the problem isn't solved, an effective decision isn't reached, and little progress is made. This means the issue is raised again in a subsequent meeting, or it merely changes status, becoming the newest item on the team's list of undiscussables—another taboo subject everyone knows to avoid.
Nothing Else Compensates for Low Conversational Capacity
These symptoms—undiscussable and unproductively discussable issues—provide a clear signal that the conversational capacity of a team is inadequate. They're important signals to recognize because, as we're about to see, no amount of technical sophistication or good intentions will compensate for a team's inability to balance candor and curiosity under pressure. Even if a team is staffed with skilled people who trust, like, and respect one another, and even if they have all the technical pieces in perfect place—strategy, structure, processes, and policies—the team still won't perform if its conversational capacity is too low.
This is a bold claim, so let me provide a few examples to illustrate the point. As you read them, see if you recognize anything that relates to your past experience, or even to something you're in the middle of right now.
Proper Structure Is Never Enough
The research of Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, an expert on corporate governance and a distinguished professor at the Yale School of Management, shows that most spectacular board failings, including Enron, Tyco, and WorldCom, were not caused by the lack of structure, process, or policy. In fact, these boards had conformed to "most of the accepted standards for board operations," says Sonnenfeld. "Members showed up for meetings; they had lots of personal money invested in the company; audit committees, compensation committees, and code of ethics were in place; the boards weren't too small, too big, too old or too young," he points out. "In other words, they passed the tests that would normally be applied to ascertain whether a board of directors was likely to do a good job." Despite having all these technical aspects in place, however, many boards still fail miserably.
Now, to be fair, it's not an easy role to perform. Among other things, a board defines a high-level mission and purpose; hires a CEO and holds her accountable for performance; maintains fiscal accountability; questions and approves budgets; and governs the organization through high-level policies, guidelines, and objectives.
In order to perform this role well, productive conflict and a willingness to disagree, publicly and rigorously, need to be an integral part of a board's operating culture. "Bonds among board members," says Sonnenfeld, need to be "strong enough to withstand clashing viewpoints and challenging questions." The levels of trust, respect, and candor should be high. The list of undiscussables should be low.
But, in an alarming number of boards he's studied, Sonnenfeld finds just the opposite; a range of defensive dynamics driven by board members' inability to deal with the tough issues they're facing. Some boards go tribal, breaking into "divisive, seemingly intractable cliques." In a clear sign that candor is lacking, some board members use back channels and hallway conversations to bypass the CEO, while others obsessively avoid conflict by steering clear of contentious subjects, feigning agreement, and deferring decisions to other board members. "I'm always amazed at how common group-think is in corporate boardrooms," says Sonnenfeld. "Directors are almost without exception intelligent, accomplished, and comfortable with power—but if you put them into a group that discourages dissent, they nearly always start to conform."
The solution is not technical. "Over time, good-governance advocates have developed no shortage of remedies for failures of governance," he says, but "most of these remedies are structural: They're concerned with rules, procedures, composition of committees, and the like, and together they're supposed to produce vigilant, involved boards. However, good and bad companies alike have already adopted most of those practices." So, if getting the technical aspects of a board in place isn't the answer, what is? "We need to consider not only how we structure the work of a board," argues Sonnenfeld, "but also how we manage the social system a board actually is." When it comes to effective board governance, improving how members communicate and interact is the decisive variable. "The key isn't structural," says Sonnenfeld, "it's social."
Good Relationships Are Never Enough
Relationships based on trust, loyalty, and respect—the holy grail of most team building endeavors—are no guarantee of high conversational capacity, and, perhaps more surprisingly, they can actually harm it. In fact, if their capacity is high, a team can work effectively in the sweet spot even if its members don't like one another personally. A team with weak capacity, on the other hand, will often fly out of the sweet spot under stress even when its members like, trust, and respect one another.
An executive team at a high-tech firm in Silicon Valley learned this lesson the hard way. Growing rapidly and gearing up for a highprofile initial public offering, the executive team needed open, balanced, nondefensive conversations to manage the onslaught of change besetting the business. The team members knew that their casual, "solve problems in the hallway" culture wouldn't scale, and they openly acknowledged the need to build a more mature, sophisticated enterprise.
Their lack of conversational capacity, however, made the transition difficult. The main problem: the place was just too nice. Warm, close relationships had been established in the early years of the firm, and the organization's laid- back, friendly culture made disagreement and conflict unwelcome.
In a series of interviews I conducted for their new CEO, every executive raved about how well the team members got along. They all genuinely liked each other. Trust was high. In addition to being nice people, they each brought an impressive depth of knowledge and experience to the team, so the personal and professional respect they had for one another was abundant. The vice president of human resources described the team's "collegial atmosphere." The plain- speaking vice president of marketing summed it up less formally: "The thing I like most about this team," he said, "is that there isn't a single asshole on it."
Excerpted from CONVERSATIONAL CAPACITY by CRAIG WEBER. Copyright © 2013 by Craig Weber. Inc.. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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