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.
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“:
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.
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.
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 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.