Connect, Adapt, Collaborate: Applying Army Mission Execution Fundamentals to Business

Army Ops

The U.S. Army has a timeless and sticky saying it uses in order to drive home the fundamentals of mission execution. From the very first days of boot camp, a young Private will hear the Drill Sergeants yelling “you must learn how to shoot, move, and communicate if you want to survive on the battlefield!” They then go on to spend weeks mastering their personal weapon, learning how to low crawl and find cover, and practicing how to speak properly on the radio. Over time, one learns how important these skills really are. Yes, there are many more advanced competencies to learn over the course of your career, but if you can’t do these three basics consistently well… it might all be for nothing.

These ideas are not limited to the military and there is much that corporate leaders can take away from this simple saying as well. Successfully executing any strategy, whether it be on the battlefield or the boardroom, is often a function of doing the fundamentals consistently well. So how might the Army’s fundamentals of shoot, move, and communicate apply to the modern business environment? There are many similarities but I would translate the language to connect, adapt, and collaborate.

TargetConnect – Just like the Private learning how to “put steel on target” at the weapons qualification range, business execution requires one to master their resources and connect them with distant objectives. Specifically, there are three connections to be made that foster better execution. First, master an awareness of your personal strengths and connect these innate talents with the team’s objectives. Ask yourself: what are my exceptional gifts to the world and how can I provide the most value in day-to-day execution? Next, smartly connect to the infinite resources outside of you. Who can do this challenging activity much better than you can? Savvy leaders realize their boundaries and connect with others that compliment limitations. Finally, fully connect with your customer’s needs and expectations. Little is more frustrating than executing well on something that is no longer in the greatest service to your key stakeholders. Like the bullet seeking its target, the energy of connecting with your customer is one of laser-like focus. Don’t wait for feedback; be proactive and purposeful in continuously reaching out to clarify how things are going.

mud soldiersAdapt – Successful execution is becoming less of a formulaic process, and maintaining flexibility and agility is increasingly important. In essence, we must practice our ability to move with our shifting environment and change plans as necessary. In the Army, we might rehearse a complex mission for weeks on end. Yet, we lived by the rules of “the enemy always has a vote” and “no plan ever survives first contact (with that enemy).” A more relevant example might be at Google, where the culture promotes the concept of “design and iterate.” Googlers see strategy and execution as being one – a continuously refined process of trial and error that speeds up results. We might intuitively understand these concepts; however, many find them difficult to implement. We frequently become wed to our brilliant plans or overly comfortable with stale execution processes. The key to overcoming these barriers is to cultivate a “beginner’s mind” and learn to approach potential change from a place of curiosity. When we already “know” how to execute best, we resist things that do not reinforce these beliefs. Yet, when we lose our rigidity and get curious about possibilities, change becomes a way to simply get better.

military-560475_1280Collaborate – Great execution today requires increased communication and collaboration. It seems simple enough, yet why can it be so hard to collaborate during execution? The answer lies in the two very different energies required to do these equally imperative skills. When we are personally executing, our heads are down, our eyes narrow, and we concentrate our energy so that we might overcome obstacles and complete our tasks. When we are collaborating, we pick our heads up, we open our eyes wide, and seek to see the bigger picture around us. Executing and collaborating well is an ebb and flow of contraction and expansion. We collaborate to build intent, execute initial steps, communicate needs, execute some more, check-in on collective progress, drive towards results… it’s a rhythm we all know well. Yet, we all seem to do much better at the personal execution part than we do at the collaboration part. Key to becoming a better collaborator is becoming aware of when you contract. When do you tend to put your head down and get overly focused on your piece of the execution pie? For me, I contract when I have made a personal commitment and am up against a tight deadline. In these moments, I can be a lousy communicator as I focus myself on fulfilling my promises and shut down to others in the process. Stress in general can make us all contract, so recognizing when we are stressed is a tell-tale sign that we need to communicate our needs and collaborate more with others.

Execution is what translates ethereal strategy into tangible results. Yet, disciplined execution is a rarity in today’s turbulent business environment. Learn to embody the three fundamentals of connection, adaptation, and collaboration…and all will marvel at your ability to get the mission accomplished!

(David understands how effective leadership generates success. A U.S. Army combat veteran with corporate leadership experience, he is the Founder & Principal Consultant of The Leader Growth Group, a firm dedicated to creating self-aware leaders who inspire more engaged and productive workplaces.)

*All Rights Reserved. Reproduction, publication, and all other use of any and all this content is prohibited without the authorized consent of the author.

“Soft Power” – Leading Without Authority

Bear FaceHave you ever tried leading a person or a group without any formal authority to fall back on? For many, this is one of the greatest leadership challenges we might face. Without the traditional “carrot or stick” to help get things done, we can feel powerless and limited in our ability to influence. Yet, some people seem to thrive in these situations and we admire their ability to still get things accomplished. I call this demonstration of applied emotional intelligence—leveraging “soft power.” So what are the secrets of “soft power” and how can we use it to accomplish both individual and team objectives? Here are three ideas to consider.

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  1. Give Power to Others. When working in groups where the formal power dynamics are flat, it is important to recognize that everyone is subconsciously “racking and stacking” one another and creating their own personal hierarchy. This evolutionary process is deeply ingrained within all humans and allowed us to organize ourselves for survival. Expect that there will be power plays as group members test to see where they fit in the group. Instead of allowing these dynamics to naturally unfold, tactfully intervene and try to facilitate a space where everyone’s voice gets heard. Rather than leading with your opinion, ask for input from others and encourage quieter voices to speak up. Insist on mutual respect for all team members. In creating a space for power to be shared, others will trust in you more and naturally give you an informal leadership role.

Create Space to Listen Deeply

2. Actively Listen. When we hold formal authority, we are frequently directing and telling others what needs to be done in order for the team to be successful. Thus, managers tend to get really good with their directing skills, often to the neglect of practicing their listening skills. In a power flat relationship, it is the better listener who will assume leadership. Use techniques like mirroring back what you heard and asking meaningful questions to gain further clarification. When others feel you are a great listener, they are more likely to trust you and hence give you referent power, which is the highest base of power a leader can access.

Hands

3. Serve & Synergize. In power flat relationships, the synergistic details that lead to better teamwork can often be neglected as everyone stays in their personal lanes of responsibility. To be seen as a leader in a team, hunt down the resources that everyone knowingly needs, but no one finds the courage or the time to make a priority. Or perhaps you might seek out the management/stakeholder feedback needed to make the team work better, and then act as a liaison in making the team more aware. Make it your priority to help others succeed. These small acts of service will increase your value to the team and others will intuitively begin to seek out your leadership.

Leading a team without formal authority can often feel like a daunting challenge. Yet, when we smartly recognize the group dynamics at play and practice the use of “soft power,” we provide the leadership necessary to achieve results. The next time you are leading without formal authority, try using some of the above ideas to influence others… you might be surprised at how persuasive you can become!

(David understands how effective leadership generates success. A U.S. Army combat veteran with corporate leadership experience, he is the Founder & Principal Consultant of The Leader Growth Group, a firm dedicated to creating self-aware leaders who inspire more engaged and productive workplaces.)

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3 Leadership Lessons from Dr. Seuss

Many of you may not know this about me, but I have four young kids ranging from one to ten years old. As a family, we enjoy reading a lot of children’s books together and over the years, we’ve determined a few favorites. At the top of our list are several books written by Dr. Seuss. His rhymes are fun to read, and the brightly colored illustrations capture their imagination. I’ve also noticed that some of his stories carry a wonderful leadership message within them. A message that many adults could stand to revisit. Here are three of my favorites:

1.      Yertle the Turtle – These are King Yertle’s famous last words. Just a few pages later, we find him falling from his great height, face first in the mud, never to rule again. How did the once proud and mighty king end up like this? Well, he wasn’t grateful for the wonderful kingdom he already had and became overly ambitious. Leveraging his positional power for his personal benefit, he literally walks on the backs of his subordinates to make himself more magnificent. Meanwhile, he treats his people with great disrespect. If you’ve been in the workforce for more than a day, you have probably met your own personal Yertle somewhere in your career. Leadership lesson…don’t be King Yertle! Instead, embrace humility as a leader and use your power to serve, rather than exploit, others.

2.      The Sneetches – Oh those silly Sneetches! Always trying to outdo one another and put down those that are not like them. There are several solid lessons here. In the formation of all groups, a natural phenomenon unfolds where “racking and stacking” takes place. We are unconsciously determining the social pecking order, and this often results with an “in-group” and an “out-group.” When this occurs, unspoken jealousy and resentment can plague a team’s dynamics and effectiveness. Leadership lesson…no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches! All team members have unique value. Leaders must be aware of where unhealthy dynamics are festering in their team and learn to unleash the often repressed value that the “out-group” brings through their diversity.

3.      The Zax – This one is my favorite! It’s a short tale of two prideful and stubborn Zax who find themselves at a crossroads, unable to compromise on a solution (great metaphor for the current state of American politics, anyone?). Instead of exercising empathy and compassion, the two Zax angrily argue their individual viewpoints. The result—zero progress and personal irrelevance as the world passes them by. Leadership lesson…learn to notice your inner Zax and manage it accordingly. Leaders should be principled and passionate, however, not to where they are getting in their own way.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy my new children’s book, “The Legend of Stinky Toes McGee.” Inspired by Dr. Seuss, it’s intended to teach kids that some problems cannot be solved with our heads, but rather, they can only be solved with our hearts.

You can pick up a paperback or digital copy exclusively on Amazon by following this link:“The Legend of Stinky Toes McGee”

David Spungin is the Founder & Principal Consultant of The Leader Growth Group, a firm dedicated to creating self-aware leaders who inspire more engaged and productive workplaces. Follow him on LinkedIn , Twitter, and Facebook to see more of his articles.

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Are You a “VUCA Proof” Leader?

Attention all leaders out there. It’s a new year and I imagine you have some audacious goals already lined up for you and your team. You probably have a strategic plan by now, and you intuitively know that exercising leadership will be imperative to getting things accomplished. In this light, I have an important question to ask you….

After 20+ years of studying leadership, personally leading teams, and helping Fortune 500 leaders to effectively do the same, I’ve come to a few of my own conclusions that I’d like to share with you.

First, I should highlight that the words management and leadership often are conflated together. The purpose of management is clear, to increase efficiency through enhancing control over one’s environment. The purpose of leadership, however, is more up for debate. I believe leadership exists to disrupt one’s environment for the better. In this regard, the purpose of leadership then is to extinguish the status quo, envision a superior outcome, and align actions towards producing new results.

Yet, given this purpose, there has never been a more difficult time to be a leader. Today’s executives must learn to compassionately disrupt in an already highly Volatile, Complex, Uncertain, and Ambiguous (VUCA) business environment. We’re talking about leading change in a world where predictability and control are limited. Pushing individuals outside their comfort zones and taking them to their edge when they are already overwhelmed, stressed, and anxious. Leaders today must learn to challenge followers to the highest levels of performance without breaking them (or being broken by them). For many years now, we’ve relied on a heroic leadership model to do this work, yet times are clearly changing.

So how should one adapt to effectively lead today? While no one approach works for every leader in every environment, there’s been a shift in the last several decades from heroic, authoritative, command and control approaches to more collaborative and adaptive methods. This hasn’t been some egalitarian impulse by leaders to more fully empower their people as some might argue, but rather a product of necessity. To be effective today, leaders realize that they need to be more strategic, flexible, and balanced. In essence, they’re learning to VUCA Proof© their leadership style.

What then does it take to VUCA Proof© one’s leadership style? It starts with critically looking at yourself and then building greater individual capacity in three critical behaviors: being more passionate, bold, and mindful.

1.      Be Passionate – Inspiring change requires a transfer of energy, and if one is to transfer inspirational energy to others, they must be inspired themselves. The more passionate the leader, the more inspirational they become to others who share similar ideals.

2.      Be Bold – As Nelson Mandela once said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” Leadership requires us to boldly challenge followers by walking with them to edge of possibility, and acknowledging our own vulnerabilities along the way.

3.      Be Mindful – Most people practicing leadership are in positions of authority, and with authority one can easily become self-absorbed. Effective leaders today must practice empathy and compassion to a greater extent than in the past, constantly seeking out ways to serve others before self.

Once you’ve built a strong foundation in these behaviors, then you can apply them at the team and organizational level. Importantly, these behaviors intersect with one another, to form three critical competencies for effective leadership in a VUCA environment: Alignment, Activation, and Attunement.

1.      Passion + Mindfulness = Alignment – An Aligned leader understands themselves and how they may best serve their environment. By being aware of what they stand for, what their value is, and where they fit in the world, they are more prepared to communicate their vision and make decisions in a turbulent VUCA world.

2.      Passion + Boldness = Activation – In a constantly changing VUCA world, being too comfortable can lead to a rapid demise (here’s 30 examples of companies struggling with VUCA who may disappear in 2017). An Activated leader abhors mediocrity, avoids safety, and inspires others with challenges. They know what it will take to achieve their leadership purpose, and they help others to boldly push beyond the boundaries of what is possible.

3.      Mindfulness + Boldness = Attunement – Perhaps the biggest shift leaders must make from a heroic leadership style is towards greater attunement. An Attuned leader recognizes the emotional impact of new initiatives on followers and others. They “feel” where there are pain points and opportunities to strengthen relationships. Most importantly, they care enough to make bold acts of compassion that keep people motivated during adversity.

So the question now becomes…how VUCA Proof© are you? Truth be told, when I first started leading, it was mostly a command and control world and I was a heroic style leader. My own transformation to a more VUCA Proof© style was born out of necessity, in order to meet the needs of the changing world around me. If you or your team is interested in walking a similar path, contact me directly at dspungin@leadergrowthgroup.com to learn more about VUCA Proof© team training and personal coaching programs.

(David understands how effective leadership generates success. A U.S. Army combat veteran with corporate leadership experience, he is the Founder & Principal Consultant of The Leader Growth Group, a firm dedicated to creating self-aware leaders who inspire more engaged and productive workplaces.)

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Can a Llama Teach You Leadership?

Having finished cinching down the buckles of our llama’s saddle, my tent mates and I took turns loading our gear on the animal for the first time. It was a hot day and we were sweating greatly, yet as my eyes shifted to the trail ahead, it was clear the snow-capped peaks in the distance would offer something quite different. I am part of a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) expedition where a group of thirteen senior executives are practicing the art of leadership by exploring the Wyoming backcountry together. We will navigate many miles of increasing elevation daily. We will learn new outdoor skills and how to care for the environment. Yet, most importantly, we will learn to behave in ways that inspire deep trust with one another.

A core part of the learning comes from the llamas themselves. Magnificently agile animals, they can leap over three feet high logs, with 70 pounds on their backs, and calmly stick the landing on the side of a wet cliff. It’s an amazing sight to behold. Much like humans, they also have different personalities, varying moods and preferences. Some are more dominant than others and “act up” if placed in the back of the pack. Others are almost cliquey in nature, and will only move efficiently when placed next to their best bud.

Similar to leading with a team of direct reports toward a goal, our group had to learn how the llamas wanted to be managed! We had to uncover the pack’s dynamics, assess their personal needs, and then adjust our management style to meet those needs. For instance, we quickly learned that a command and control style would often backfire immediately (as it does in most modern organizations). In fact, push too hard, and you just might get spit on in retaliation! However (unless you speak llama) it’s rather hard to communicate a vision and then empower a llama to drive results. The llamas needed a balanced approach to leadership; not only one that took into account the environmental pressures being placed on us to accomplish the day’s mission, but also brought them into the decision-making process. Over the course of seven days together, here’s what a bunch of llamas taught us:

1. Know when to give ‘em more lead, and when to reel ‘em in

We all took turns as a llama handler as we trekked across the remote and sometimes dangerous terrain. When guiding your animal, you hold onto what’s called a lead, which attaches to their bridle and gives you about 6 feet of rope to work with. Mastering how much of that lead you hold in your hands is an art and it’s constantly changing. When navigating tight areas, you might shorten it to just a foot or two so you maintain strong control. When crossing a fast moving creek, you might release all of the length, giving your llama the freedom to cross the danger as he sees best. The parallels to leading a direct report are clear. Sometimes they “don’t know what they don’t know,” and you need to provide strong direction and guidance to best help them. Other times, strong guidance works against you as a manager, and reports need space to find their own solutions. A great manager does not adopt a single style of leadership,  rather applies the right style based on the individual’s need and the task at hand.

2. Listen to your llama, sometimes they know best

On day five, we began our descent from roughly 11,500 feet. The terrain was steep, rocky, and the riskiest part of the week’s expedition. As we descended, it was unclear as to where a proper trail was at times. At one point we attempted to lead our llamas down a particularly steep part of the trail. We knew it wasn’t a great route, but it looked doable and appeared to be our only option. Then our lead llama just stopped in his tracks. “Not going that way” he communicated to us by digging his heels in and refusing to budge another step. At first we tried pulling harder, then we tried a gentle smack to the animal’s rear. Usually this would get your llama moving again but this time was different. He just sat there, looking at us like we were crazy. Then it occurred to us, maybe he knows something we don’t and we started searching harder for an alternate route. Lo and behold, there was a much better trail about 20 feet to our left! The llamas then followed us down safely. The lesson was clear, sometimes as a leader you must get out of your own way. There will be times when your followers know best. Perhaps it’s the front line manager who knows your customer’s needs better than you do. Or maybe it’s the brilliant middle manager who just needs space to voice  that next best idea to the company. The best managers know when to lead and when to follow.

3. Love your llama, and your llama will love you back

Finally, the llamas helped ground the importance of being a servant leader. When you are deep in the backcountry, you quickly realize how important the llamas really are. If one were to get injured or developed a saddle sore, we as a team would be carrying an additional 70 pounds between us. As such, we used an old cavalry saying to help guide our priorities of work each day; “First, take care of the horse, then the saddle, then the man.” This translated to first feeding and watering your llama, then setting up your group’s tent and collective responsibilities, then tending to all your personal needs. Repeating this process multiple times a day emphasized where a leader needs to be dedicating his or her valuable time. You simply won’t meet your goals without your follower’s dedication and team’s support. Yet, when your actions consistently demonstrate a willingness to put other’s needs above your own, you cannot fail to inspire respect, admiration and loyalty.

So yes, I believe that you can learn much about leadership from a llama. In fact, the greatest lessons often came from allowing a llama to lead you. Yet, like all successful relationships, it is a reciprocal dance of give and take. The llamas would be lost without us, wandering aimlessly without purpose, and we lost without them, struggling mightily under the limits of our human capacities. I offer that you go find those llamas in your life that need your leadership, then practice working the lead, listening deeply when challenged, and serving them every day. Do so, and you are destined to climb some impressive mountains together.

If you are adventurous business executive who enjoyed this post, I invite you to “follow” this blog or connect with me directly at  dspungin@allamericanleaders.com  so I can share with you upcoming NOLS/AAL expeditions that you may want to take part in.

Feedback + Coaching = Higher Performance

Feedback + Coaching = Higher Performance

What do you believe most contributes to missed performance expectations in the workplace? Too lofty of goals to begin with? Not enough talent in place to do the work? Insufficient effort or a lack of incentives to properly motivate? Perhaps.  Yet, my experience is that the more significant culprit is one of two things: 1) a leader’s failure to clearly communicate expectations upfront or 2) a leader’s failure to provide proper feedback and coaching. This is not too surprising as these are challenging skill-sets to learn and can take a lifetime to master (effective coaching in particular).

There are a few key ingredients to demonstrating good coaching as a leader. First, coaching begins with practicing curiosity and a leader will benefit from adopting a coaching style that values inquiry more so than advocacy. This is unnatural for most managers who like to speak from their experience and advocate solutions based on their personal expertise. Yet, if leaders place a premium on listening before speaking, they are more likely to build trust with their coachees and help them develop their own solutions to challenges. Perhaps this highlights one of the greatest differences between management and leadership. Managers seek to control outcomes by problem solving and offering solutions to their people. A leader realizes his or her ultimate goal is to create more leaders. Thus, he or she ask questions that inspire and challenge. Leaders seek to build capacity in the coachee and lessen dependency on the coach’s expertise.

Indeed, if a leader must do one thing exceptionally well to be effective, it’s coach! Yet, because this is such a huge topic of discussion, we cannot possibly cover all that I would like to share with you in a short article. Thus, I am going to focus on one of the most difficult coaching conversations that managers seem to get wrong more often than they get right; delivering constructive feedback and then coaching towards improvement.

Oh the agony we feel when preparing for this coaching conversation! Do
we directly deliver the feedback and simply hope that they take it well? Or perhaps we should indirectly address the feedback, which will likely lower their defensiveness? No wait! Of course. We’ll go with the “feedback sandwich” and deliver a compliment, followed by the criticism, and finally, another compliment to keep their spirits high and save the relationship! While it must be noted that most everyone likes to receive feedback differently, I believe there is a universal approach that can set you up for success. One that reduces anxiety for the feedback giver, lowers defensiveness in the receiver, and ultimately inspires change. I call this framework: The Five Pillars of Constructive Feedback.

1. Create the right mindset

Why is it so unpleasant when we have to give constructive feedback to others? All that anxiety we often experience has to do with our own ego and how we might be perceived. Will they think I am a nitpicking idiot? Will they think I am just a clueless leader who isn’t seeing the whole story? Or maybe, I’ll be seen as the a’hole manager who is a demanding tyrant! Remember that providing constructive feedback to another has nothing to do with you, and it’s not about “fixing” the other person. Constructive feedback is a service and you are engaging in a conversation to help the other person reach his or her potential. If your mindset is to “fix” everything, your voice will communicate judgement and trigger defensiveness. Yet, if your mindset is to “serve,” that will also show up throughout the conversation and create trust. Nothing opens persons (coachees) quicker to your feedback than when they sense you genuinely care about them. To help promote this mindset when delivering constructive feedback, remember without humility, expect futility.

2. Ask permission

“May I give you some feedback?” It’s a simple question, but how often do we jump straight to the assumption that the other person is both ready and willing to hear us out. After all, you are there to “serve” them and you care about their performance. Why wouldn’t they want to listen to what you have to say? Yet, maybe the other person is not in the right frame of mind. Perhaps they are having a really bad day and no matter what you say to them, they will see your feedback as an attack. If you ask the question upfront, you are giving them power and they must choose to give it back to you. In that seemingly insignificant exchange, you have already established a mutual respect that will make the feedback recipient more receptive to you.

3. Remember SBI

This is a tried and true process that works like magic when done right. SBI stands for Situation/Behavior/Impact, and I find it incredibly useful in helping me to remember what’s most important when giving feedback.

 

(S) ituation – This is when you anchor feedback in time, place, and circumstances and it helps the receiver understand the context of your feedback. For example, “remember yesterday afternoon in the staff call, about halfway through the meeting, Bill asked me for my thoughts on our financial outlook.”

(B) ehavior – This is when you are specific to the behavior or non-performance you would like to see changed (again, so the other person may meet their full potential). Think of it like replaying a movie for the other person. For example, “As I began to communicate the importance of adhering to the monthly budget, I noticed you rolled your eyes slightly and then began to check your phone.”

(I) mpact – This is the key to your success. If you just focus on their behavior, expect defensiveness to ensue. Yet, if you speak to the impact on you or the team, you are creating space for a more empathetic conversation. Most people care about whether or not they are disappointing others. If you speak to how the behavior made you feel, you move the other person out of their head and into their heart. For example “This embarrassed me, as I feel it made us look disjointed in front of the team. Others picked up on the tension and I felt as if I was scrambling to regain credibility with them.”

4. Get curious and create spaciousness

Now is the point in the conversation where you might transition from advocacy to inquiry and facilitation. You have delivered your feedback, now give them a voice! How did they view the situation? How might have you contributed to their reaction? Are their deeper concerns that need to be addressed? Know that this is a tender moment for many, and you can possibly expect some level of defensiveness to ensue. Give them space to be heard and acknowledge their point of view. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, only that you empathize with their feelings, while respecting their point of view. Note that a common diversionary technique is to broaden the conversation to where their performance is no longer the focal point. Your job as a leader is to keep the heat on them in a respectful and supportive manner.

5. Coach towards the desired performance

It is important when you work with a coachee to determine a clear path to success together. However, there is no need to give him or her all the answers. It is important they discover on their own how they can improve. You might ask, “how do you believe we could avoid this challenge in the future?” Then after hearing them out, you might offer, “If you have an opposing opinion in the future, I honestly want to hear it rather than have you feel like challenging me will offend me. My expectation is that we have a united front when engaging with the larger team in these meetings, and, if we have differences, we should hash them out in private beforehand. Is that an unreasonable expectation or can we both agree on this moving forward?”

This post is a sample chapter from my new eBook “ACTIONABLE! Leadership: Develop Your Inspirational Ability, Motivate Teams, & Achieve Extraordinary Results.”  Claim your free copy by following the below link and start taking action towards meeting your full leadership potential.

Free ACTIONABLE! Leadership eBook

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Google’s Surprising Insights on Team Effectiveness

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After two plus years of rigorous research leveraging over 200 interviews focused on 250 attributes of 180 active teams, Google’s People Operations (think HR department with analytics capabilities) determined there is one question that every leader should be asking themselves if they are seeking to create an effective team…

How’s our psychological safety coming along?

Huh? Yes, I had the same reaction when I first read this excellent NY Times article on the research. You mean to tell me that building an effective team is not about selecting the right mix of talented people who possess unique skillsets that complement one another? Or that forming effective teams is not mostly about creating “team chemistry,” and aligning personality traits to where team members gel together naturally. Nope. Apparently, it’s not so much about who is on the team, but more about how people interact with each other. While Google’s researchers found five key findings that set its best teams apart from others, psychological safety was clearly the most important…and the more you read about it, the more sense it makes.

So what is psychological safety and how can we know if it exists within our team? The short answer is that psychological safety is the underpinnings that lead to a trusting environment. Do you feel safe with your fellow team members? Are they willing to both challenge and support you in a positive manner? Do they have your best interests at heart? Will they listen empathetically to your ideas and in a non-judgmental way? Can you be vulnerable with one another? To include sharing each other’s mistakes and shortcomings? These are just a few questions that one can use to assess the level of psychological safety within their team.

This is related to what we know from recent brain-based research, in that we as human-beings have a need for status and relatedness. When we come together as a team, we are constantly assessing where we stand within the team’s “pecking order” and if we are a part of the “in” or “out” group. This causes us to be guarded in our interactions and limits-our willingness to take risks with one another. We simply don’t want others to negatively assess our “competence, awareness, or positivity.”1 Perhaps more importantly, “in the absence of safe social interactions, the body generates a threat response.”2 When our bodies become inundated with cortisol and testosterone, and are focused on how to either fight against or flee from fellow team members, we can assume that trust will be degraded.

So what can a leader do to create the conditions for greater psychological safety to exist on their team? Here are a few ideas to consider:

1. Communicate expectations – If you are leading a group and have formal authority as well, be clear and upfront with how you would like team members to interact with one another. For example, expressing “team, I want you to know that I truly value everyone’s opinion, and, as such, I expect that you will bring your ideas forward, no matter how crazy they may sound or how contradictory they may be. Furthermore, this is a safe space to do so and I will not tolerate personal attacks in our interactions. We want to challenge each other and foster healthy debate, but not at the expense of our relationships. Can we agree to this?” If you are attempting to influence a team without formal authority, you might make a similar offer and then work towards norms that will allow for peer accountability and enforcement.

2. Be the example – A leader is always on a stage and team members are constantly looking to the leader and determining “what right looks like” in how they will interact with one another. If you as a leader are not present, not fully listening, discounting others ideas, interrupting, or ignoring certain voices…others will undoubtedly do the same. So after you clearly set expectations, work hard to model those expectations and give team members license to call you out if you are not! Perhaps the most important area where a leader needs to lead by example is in expressing vulnerability. If you don’t offer your shortcomings and where you have made mistakes to the group first, don’t expect anyone to let down their defenses either.

3. Lead through facilitation – A team’s culture will not only be shaped by the leader’s behavior, but also by what behavior he or she allows from others. A wise leader will practice upholding shared values and facilitating productive conversation. When an unfair interruption has occurred, someone might say “wait a second Jim, let’s hear out what Jane was just saying and we’ll come back to you once she’s finished.” If a team member has been noticeably quiet, the leader may practice inclusiveness by saying “Pranov, we haven’t heard from you yet; please help us to understand your stance on the issue.” If the team is dealing with a failure and assigning blame to each other, the leader may offer, “we all had a role to play in this, including myself. I want us to stop focusing on who is to blame and start focusing on what we have learned and how we can solve the problem.” The foundation of good facilitation is curiosity. Always be asking yourself, what’s most important right now and what questions or statements will help move the team forward together?

Google’s latest research on teams helps to confirm what many of us already knew, without trust there can be no team. And while the term psychological safety may be new to us, we all intuitively get it — people need to feel safe with each other to trust one another. The real value in this work is in helping leaders to identify where they need to focus their efforts in creating the conditions for psychological safety to exist. Thus, I offer that you reflect upon your own team….How’s your psychological safety coming along?

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  1. Rosovsky, J. (2015, November 17). The five keys to a successful Google team. Retrieved from https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/five-keys-to-a-successful-google-team/
  2. Rock, D. (2008). SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. Retrieved from http://www.your-brain-at-work.com/files/NLJ_SCARFUS.pdf

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