Deeper on Teams

We dive deeper on teamwork and team building with two returning experts: John Bender and Peter Bye. John was senior director of merger integration for HP’s $19.5 billion acquisition of Compaq. Peter was Corporate Diversity Director at AT&T. They discuss teams, both regular and virtual, and how to manage and encourage constructive conflict while reducing destructive conflict.

Peter Bye – Constructive Conflict
Peter Bye says teamwork depends on cooperation and constructive conflict.  The team needs to be clear on the ‘how’ of interactions.  When building teams we need to build deep trust and respect.  The big predictor of team success is not the skills of the team members.  It’s how they work together.
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I quoted someone from my past who said “we hire people for what they know, and fire them for how they act.”  One of the universal lessons I’m hearing from all the teamwork experts is, we do need to pay explicit attention to creating a shared understanding of how the team members should interact.

That flies in the face of standard Western thinking, which is to focus on the tasks, not the people.  This is one of the reasons why Peter’s practice of creating written Operating Principles for each team is so effective — it makes the team focus on the people and the relationship aspects of teamwork.

Getting this right can have huge impacts.  When Peter took over a mature product team some years ago, it was lost in recrimination and infighting.  Each was excellent in his or her field, however there was no relationship, and they never took the time to build the deep trust and respect between each other.  They never even asked themselves if they needed it.  Peter made it a point to take the team through the steps needed to build relationships, and the results were dramatic — their barely profitable product became very profitable (a 30% margin), and they extended the life of the product by five years.

Perhaps the single most powerful rule for teamwork is:  “Assume constructive intent.”  Assume that the other person actually wants a good shared outcome.  

Peter in 1980 did his first team intervention.  He had a team of engineers, whose members were at each others’ throats.  He asked everyone to hold up their badges.  “Does anybody here not work for our company?  We are all on the same side.  We need to act like it,” he said.

On this dysfunctional team, there was a belief that the other department was wrong and my department was right, and the purpose of interactions was to “win” these internal battles.  Why did they not trust each other?  Peter says the human mind is good at inventing barriers and walls and silos.  He once saw a siloing based on floor — the 4th floor people vs. the 2nd floor people.

There are three areas in which to get the team to create operating principles:

  • Behavior (Be fully present in our team meetings and participate actively. Turn off the phones.)
  • Mindset (Assume each person’s input is valuable.  Assume constructive intent.)
  • Decision Making (We will discuss issues with the goal of achieving the best possible business outcome.)

When you don’t get what you expect from the other person and you’re tempted to believe ill intent, stop and ask.  By asking, you allow both people to learn about each other more deeply.  When you become uncomfortable, let that be the trigger to ask about the other person’s intent.

Notice that stopping and asking is not easy — doing that will require a reservoir of good will and mutual trust. Doing it well will fill that reservoir even more full.

John Bender – Virtual Teams
John Bender talked about virtual teams in particular.  John’s take on teamwork revolves around “Three Cs“:

  • Connectivity
  • Confidence
  • Commitment
Teams need to have constructive conflict.  With virtual teams, it is very hard to notice when conflict is not constructive.  That’s because we don’t see the daily interactions, goals, and results of the team in real time.
Virtual teams have to communicate using various kinds of technology.  Technology strips out a lot of nuance, social context and nonverbal communication — and email strips out the verbal element of tone of voice.  A lot of it is non-real-time.  
Senior leadership teams are especially vulnerable.  They are expected to make very fast decisions, with major impacts on the organization, using limited data.
It’s easy for constructive conflict to slip over into destructive conflict.  This is particularly true with folks you don’t know well — it tends to be a high risk in the Forming and Storming phases of team formation.  You can easily ask, “What’s really behind that comment?  Are they positioning themselves? Do they not like me?”

As a leader, you have to notice very quickly when you see the conflict starting to cross that line.  At that moment you need to interrupt, say “I think this violates one of our agreed upon operating principles,” and immediately have a dialog about the “how” of the interaction.  Doing this well can build a lot of trust and strengthen the team.

With New Teams, Start Strong
You need to start off strong with a new virtual team.  If possible, start in person. Build social norms. Build trust. That early interaction is when folks learn how to understand and interpret each other.  It can be a big advantage to seed the team with folks who know each other already.  
Virtual tools – be clear on when to use which ones.  Email is great for some things, conference calls are good for others, and you may need to go to video and face-to-face for still others.  
Do not underestimate the difficulty of doing this well.  If you are a manager, do not underestimate the toxicity of virtual conflict.  By the time the remote manager notices it, it’s probably already pretty bad.
John worked with a senior leadership team at a very large oil-and-gas firm undergoing some change.  The president of this division needed to embark on a new strategy that was going to make them more vital to the overall firm, yet it involved big changes from the status quo.  The team he had was geographically diverse, from different cultures.  They were also at different places in their careers and personal lives.
When John intervened with this group, he had them each share the reasons why they cared about the firm and what they each wanted to accomplish.  He focused with them on the Three Cs.  They went on a three day offsite to focus on the goals of the new strategy, to rebuild their relationships with each other, and to share with each other what they liked about the new strategy, what they found daunting about it, what their hopes were, and so on.  And they were asked to start thinking about making a commitment to this new strategy.
Team Members Have to Buy In
Ultimately each member needed to “enroll” — to make an explicit choice to buy in to the new approach.  So it must be easy both for them to choose to buy in AND to choose not to — it’s up to the leader to make that possible.  And if the leader cannot offer that choice, it may be more directive — you may need to say “shape up or ship out.”  (If you have to be directive, you must be aware that you don’t yet have the hearts, minds and souls of those people, and you need to continue to work to earn that.)  It’s better to provide that choice, because the team members who do enroll will have a higher level of commitment.

In the case of John’s senior team at the oil-and-gas firm, within six months there was substantial turnover on the team because three members really didn’t have it in them to be part of the new direction.  The leader made it easy for them to transition to constructive roles elsewhere in the organization — two were voluntary, and one was asked by the leader to leave.

Another exercise John did with this group had to do with uncertainty.  Even when people can commit, everyone needs to acknowledge the uncertainty.  It makes it easier for everyone to embrace scary changes.
The room setup can dramatically affect people’s comfort in engaging in dialog.  John had the regular hotel conference room furniture removed, and replaced them with sofas, arm chairs, and coffee tables.  This signaled that this was a different experience, and it also made for greater physical comfort.
Bringing on a New Team Member
Peter mentioned the importance of having an explicit on-boarding process for new team members.  This allows the new member to understand the team’s operating rituals and norms, and to buy in to it, and to even shape it somewhat for themselves. You can assign another team member to help bring them along, like a mentor or liaison.

If you’re going to get the buy-in and enrollment of this new team member, you have to make an explicit effort to get the new member to understand what that buy-in means, what the team’s rules and norms are, and so forth.  Otherwise they will feel a lack of control, and they will likely hold back their full efforts.

Folks who are not fully on board — who are not comfortable bringing all their ideas to the table — they may just stay quiet.  They may not be destructive, however they also are not challenging other people and are not offering new and potentially disruptive ideas — both of which, in a good team, will get synthesized into better shared ideas.  You want everyone to be willing and able to say, “This is probably silly and doesn’t make any sense, but…” and share their thoughts.

I have to value your thoughts to be willing to question my own beliefs.  That’s especially hard for the leader.  Most managers tend to rely on one or two conflict management techniques with which they are particularly familiar.  You’ll want to have at least five, including such things as passivity, competition, and bargaining.  The right approach will vary based on the culture of the team members involved.

The Five Blind Men
It’s like the parable of the blind men who encounter an elephant, and each feels a part of it and describes it to the others — one feels the tusk and says it’s like a spear; another feels a leg and says it’s like a pillar, and so on.  If they had been on a functioning team, trusted each other’s experiences, and had a high bandwidth of communication, they could have created a more complete, shared understanding of the elephant.  Without those elements of trust and communication, they just disagreed.  Teams are that way — each person sees their part of the problem, and has their perspective on the problem.

IBM’s CSC as an Example
IBM is now taking some of its most promising employees and managers — each from a different IBM office — and sending them off on multi-week-long philanthropic projects in the developing world to help the local people.  These trips become intense bonding experiences for the participants, and they forge deep ties that last a lifetime — and it helps IBM to have better communication across departments and locations by investing this way in their people. (This is IBM’s Corporate Service Corps.)

It’s a brilliant way to do good in the world while tackling one of the biggest challenges of a large, geographically diverse firm, namely building deep trust across divisions and locations.  John in particular was impressed with this, and with IBM’s willingness to move core functions like procurement overseas.

When your team includes people from different cultures, your leader will need to understand those other cultures pretty deeply — three are the competitive (i.e. US) culture, the status culture, and the consensus culture.
Final Thoughts
When seeding a team with some folks who already know each other, says Peter, be sure to prevent cliques from forming.  You don’t want the old-timers walling themselves off from the newer folks.  That’s easily managed.  And while much of this is easy intellectually, it quickly becomes hard when you try to do it in real life with real risk on the line.  So, hire experts and use them.  And, remember that we all have a three-layer brain — rational, mammal, and reptile — and high functioning teams require the members to have a deep, animal level of trust.
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