Category Archives: Team Building
Conflict conjures up images of stress and battles on the job but managed well, it can stimulate employee engagement and productivity.
Stanford’s Professor Robert Sutton undertook a massive study into organisations and the majority of them were displaying ineffective behaviours when it came to building and maintaining teams. The angle of his research worked backwards from those repeated ineffective behaviours to the leaders’ mindsets and preconceptions that drove them, over and over again. One of those mindsets was a belief that team harmony was crucial to success. It isn’t.
The theme of this month’s issue is conflict resolution. I’ve run the occasional training session around conflict resolution. Often, I’ll ask the group for the pro’s and cons of conflict in the workplace. The cons are obvious enough and people are adept at quickly amassing a swarm of negative thoughts. But if provoked a little, people can work up quite the list of advantages of well-managed conflict in the workplace. And this is what Sutton concluded about team harmony. At one extreme, constant battles are unhealthy and unproductive but at the other extreme, the illusion of constant peace and tranquillity need not be all fluffy bunnies and rose petals either. Often, that veneer of civility is a facade for repressed conflict and passive aggressive behaviour. Zero conflict is unrealistic and not very productive either.
The answer isn’t even halfway, its north of that. Conflict occurs as it will normally with reasonable people. The conflicts are resolved professionally and courteously but they have to occur because it is from those ashes that innovation arises. This is where new ideas occur, problems get solved and sacred cows are challenged. This zone is called ‘Productive Conflict.’ Are you wondering if your workplace is in Sutton’s magical zone of productive conflict? The litmus test is this – Can the lowest ranked, least paid or newest member of your team speak up and say anything, challenge anything to the boss without fear of consequence? If they can, that’s a sign of the state of productive conflict. If they can’t, it’s a sign of something else. And that’s not good.
Most hiring failures occur due to attitude. Some of those failures result in employees leaving. Most result in employees staying but in a disengaged state, doing no more than they have to because they have to with all the performance management workload that entails. There are a lot more dimensions to this thing called ‘attitude’ than just trying to hire those with a ‘good’ one rather than a ‘bad’ one. One attitude to search for and target with your structured behaviour-based interview questions and so forth is a non-avoiding and mature attitude towards conflict.
My kids aren’t perfect and neither is my parenting but we’re all in a good patch at the moment. We have our share of family conflict. My son has had a weekend job at our local Pak n Save the past ten months and got seriously great feedback from his performance review. My daughter went with me to a Warriors game, got to talking to a woman she’d never met and walked away with a job interview appointment for a summer job. The point I’m trying to make here to parents and people who have ever been a teenager that are also employing young people is that young people can chose their attitudes as easily as they can choose their body piercings and tattoos. And that includes their attitudes toward conflict.
I’ve spent the past couple of months delivering thirty presentations to six thousand business people around the country. I’ve shared a bunch of research and a few stories and case studies on team building. A lot of stories came back at me, many involving conflict. Most were realistic about it being a process, a tunnel with a light at the end, albeit with absolutely zero idea of how long the tunnel is.
There’s the old joke that goes like this:
During a visit to a mental asylum, a visitor asked the director how to determine whether or not a patient should be institutionalised. “Well,” said the director, “we fill up a bathtub, then we offer a teaspoon, a teacup and a bucket to the patient, and ask him to empty the bathtub.” “Oh, I see,” said the visitor. “A normal person would use the bucket because it is bigger than the spoon or the teacup.”
“No,” said the director, “a normal person would pull out the plug. Do you want the bed near the window?”
When people are presented with a situation as a problem with a number of solutions, then that’s how they see it. Conflict need not be a problem but it will be if that’s how you choose to see conflict.
Too many employers see ‘Team Building’ as an event. Something you do, tick a box and move on. It’s really a continuous process and in addition to any team that’s getting built, your leadership is too.
My local burger place prides itself on being an equal opportunity employer. They’ve hired an Orc, a Hobbit and an Elf. Personally I think it’s just Tolkeinism. Bada bing!
I wrote that joke when the ‘Lord Of The Rings’ movies were big and I’ve never had an opportunity to use it. Many of you might be thinking that I still haven’t had the opportunity and that I just force-fitted it here because I thought it was a good idea. Many times, that’s how employers treat team building – they force-fit people into roles and into groups because that’s all they’ve got to work with, or they think that it is. They don’t take into account the tremendously real, negative and lasting costs of poor fit to the employer, employee and the wider team’s morale and productivity.
Team building is a term loosely hurled around to justify ten pin bowling. I’m not disrespecting ten pin bowling. It’s great. I especially like those bumper rails they put up on the lanes for the kids to avoid the gutters. (Some people need those bumper rails to follow them around for when they’ve walking after they’ve been drinking, often during bowling. Gutters are everywhere!) Team building should be a continuous process incorporating a formally thought-out plan for what the team culture is, versus what it should be and how to plug that gap via recruitment, orientation, employee engagement and evidence-based performance management. It isn’t a themed scavenger hunt on Waiheke Island using those motorised bicycles.
“How’s the team building going Kim?”
“Oh, really good, we did it last week.”
I’m not saying that bowling, motorised bikes and drinking aren’t part of the solution. (Although, definitely not at the same time!) These fun aspects are potentially genuine short-term stimulators of productivity, albeit often fraught with some peril for those organising them and paying for the insurance on the bikes. Recent research has proven that time flies when you’re having fun. From the people who proved that men and women are different, diets are never the means to sustainable weight loss and that bears do stuff in the woods. Seriously, Philip A. Gable, from the Department of Psychology at the University of Alabama (yes, THE University of Alabama) has shown via the scientific method that people’s perception of the passage of time is influenced by the nature of the experience including fun. More specifically, Philip used the term, “positive approach motivation” which just goes to show what a wild and crazy guy he must be. Nice work if you can get it.
The Christchurch post-earthquake experience has injected a new word into the zeitgeist. (For me, ‘zeitgeist’ is also a new word and it was also force-fitted because I thought it was a good idea.) That word is ‘deconstruction.’ Not ‘demolition’ but ‘deconstruction.’ There’s a definite, distinct and important difference that also applies to teams.
Few of us get the chance to genuinely build a team from the ground up – so to speak. To start from scratch and recruit people where before there were none, specifically and sensibly chosen for specific purpose. Mostly we inherit a team when we start out leading people and they come and go and we replace them. When you were a kid, maybe you got some Lego blocks as a gift? You opened that box and spilled out the loose individual components? Or did you inherit the blocks from an older sibling with various pre-made and abandoned clumps of failed constructions. Bits were missing. There were teethmarks. And you had to work with what you got? People are like those Lego blocks and not just because they hurt when you stand on them.
Team building, rather than fun and beer and skittles, might have to involve a period of deconstruction. If it’s true that 26% of employees are engaged and 28% actively disengaged, then 46% of employees are showing up and doing the bare minimum. Sure you want to attract and keep more of the highly engaged and sure you want to amp up the efforts of those just showing up but how much angst is warranted with those who just do not fit?
Real and useful team building is made possible when budgets, time and priority is given to planning and upskilling those people who lead teams. Then they’re aware of, and able to do, whatever they can to achieve the fit and goals they need. If that includes a karaoke night then great. (Note – it should not include a karaoke night.)
And just like Lego blocks, if a person doesn’t fit, then no amount of banging with a hammer is going to make them fit. And any teethmarks will be traceable back to you.
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The Brain-Based Boss
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This article talks about the impact of employees chatting, gossiping and asking questions about work stuff “around the water cooler.” The grapevine, or call it what you will, is a natural human communication system that occurs whether you like it, want it or not. Trying to tame it is tough and, unless there are legal, morale or safety reasons, maybe you shouldn’t. Trying to leverage it or manipulate it for your own ends? Good luck. Laws of unintended consequences come into play there.
But you should always be aware and have an ear to the ground and a finger on the pulse (and a nose to the wheel and a shoulder top the grindstone… Just one shoulder though or you’ll stuff your back.) If issues crop up, you can nip them in the bud. Better to deal with a pimple than a volcano, I always say.
The article rightly reckons that by delving into water-cooler chat, you can pick up the consistently asked questions and that’d be good to know. Questions indicate uncertainty and I believe a critical role of workplace leadership is to minimise uncertainty. The article cites some examples:
1. Are the top leaders at my organisation are committed to making it a great place to work.
2. Is there is trust in the leadership of the company where I work.
3. Can I believe this company will be successful in the future.
4. Do the top leaders at the company where I work really value people.
5. Do I know how I fit into the organisation’s future plans.
6. Are career development and growth opportunities are available to me at this organisation.
And of course, the most pressing question of all – who is going to swap out the empty water cooler!?
I sometimes flash the Gallup (and others) engagement questions as a prompt in workshop activities. One question that always raises a few eyebrows (and rolls a few eyes) is, “Do you have a best friend at work?’ While I get the vibe they’re trying to tap into in terms of workplace culture, is that really the best indicator and really the best question? This article suggests an alternative that I quite like: Do you have many strong working relationships at your job? You don’t have to donate them a kidney or go to their barbeque but positive and constructive connectivity is crucial. Even then, they don’t all have to be positive in the sense of friendliness – an argument can be positive.
This article offers alternatives:
BI Worldwide Rodd Wagner’s (new) key questions
- Do managers support each employee as a unique individual?
- Is pay fair, if not generous?
- Are leaders transparent?
- Is there a clear mission and do employees feel a strong connection to it?
- What paths do people have to advancement?
- Do more junior people sometimes get to take charge?
- Are employees well recognised?
- Is this a cool place to work?
- Do people feel energised or fearful?
- How well do colleagues work together?
- How often do people feel a sense of accomplishment?
A good friend will donate you a kidney. A great friend will donate you a kidney… that isn’t their own…
This HBR article about debriefing is one I wish I’d written. (From meglomaniacal me, that’s high praise.) I’m often directing participants in my training workshops to conduct debriefs. I tend to use experiential models a lot. For non-trainers (muggles?), that means we do things, then learn from them in a structured way. I favour a 3-phased approach, repeated over and over:
- Frame the activity
- Conduct the activity
- Debrief the activity
I hear a lot of people using the word ‘debrief’ and its meaning seems to vary wildly. In that sense, the word ‘debrief’ is much like the word ‘spicy’ or the word ‘love.’ I try to consistently summarise the meaning of it in my workshops, not just because we’ll use it in the workshops but because it’s one of the most useful things you’ll ever learn in life, not just for work, but for situations where things happen and you’d benefit from learning afterwards. That applies a lot outside work (hopefully.) Relationships and families could well do with that skill. It’d certainly give us something to talk about over compulsory sunday night family dinners.
To do something and to deliberately learn from it is what successful people do. That might even be a great definition of what success is. To do something and maybe learn from it or not learn from it is what most people do most of the time. Don’t be most people. They’re nice enough but…
The HBR article gives a great structure if you want to either learn debriefing yourself or communicate it to others:
- Schedule a regular time and place (ie make debriefing part of the way things are done around here!)
- Create a learning environment
- Review 4 key questions: What were we trying to accomplish?; Where did we hit or miss our objectives?; What caused our results?; What should we stop / start / continue doing? (I’m a big fan of stop / start / continue; That’s the name of one of my books ‘Stop Start Continue’!)
- Codify lessons learned (People after us will learn from our mistakes, not theirs.)
This recent article in the business section of the New Zealand Herald cites research conducted by a firm of recruitment consultants. I’m not suggesting for a moment that they have a vested interest in interpreting the results in any particular way, but they interpret the results in a particular way… that says employers aren’t recruiting effectively. (If only there was someone around who could help them?)
Sarcastic and cynical as I am, I’m not disputing the results of the survey – just their narrow interpretation of the cause. There’s never ONE cause. Maybe poor recruitment contributes. I bet it does.
The Hudson survey “paints a bleak picture for employers”, saying: “Of every 10 employees: four are not good hires, eight aren’t engaged in their work and six are actively seeking other employment.” Ouch! This is born out by other research I’ve been reading over years and around the world. There’s a bit of variation, mostly by industry, but this survey isn’t that surprising and New Zealand isn’t that bad. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of scope for improvement.
Apart from the recruitment tools being used which the recruitment company focuses on, the primary cause of the problem implied is that employers are recruiting almost entirely for skills – technical skills. It’s that old mindset of, “I’ve got a vacancy, I’d better fill it because it’s costing me money” without doing the correlating maths on how much it costs to fill that vacancy and get it wrong – to fill it with someone technically competent (and that’s even assuming they get that bit right) but quickly disengaged or a misfit in several other ways.
Bad luck? Like most games, you make your own luck in the recruiting game. I was meeting recently with a manager who hadn’t had a single instance of negative turnover for nine years. Yes, people had moved on but for the right reasons such as internal promotion. He used the usual suite of tools to find a pool of potential applicants, whittled them down through CV checking, interviews, reference checks and even the occasional behaviourial profile. But he added another step. Shortlisted applicants all got to sit in on some actual work with some people who, if their application was successful, would be their co-workers. Those co-workers got a right of veto. I used this myself in the past with some success in a call centre that wasn’t a typical call centre. It gave applicants a dose of what their potential working reality could be. Sometimes they got put off by us and our work; sometimes we got put off by them. Either way, it’s better for both parties that be known early and up front so neither employer or employee have to suffer the consequences of misfitting. And those are greater than the costs of vacancies.
Another means of increasing your odds is to encourage referral of potential applicants from existing employees. Some firms even offer a commission for this. BUT if you do that, ponder how this might affect behaviour and what exactly it is you’re wanting to incentify and provide commission on. Any commission should be for a successful applicant who is still there after a predetermined period and performing well. Not just for putting someone with a pulse into a vacancy. Rather than just advertising to the great untargetted masses for your specific vacancy, wouldn’t it increase the chances of success if you sought via an informed gene pool – the people who are already aware of what it takes to do the job and who is likely to prosper there?
Wringing the final life out of my luck metaphor, when it comes to those few shortlisted candidates who are demonstrably technically competent but you’re not absolutely certain that they’ll fit and be engaged, you’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run. Often it’s better to walk away and play another day. Cheaper in the long run even if baby needs a new pair of shoes.
Re-blog from Nov 2011 & my most read post ever
I don’t know what responses we’d get if we asked one hundred people to tell us the first thing they thought of when we mentioned the term ‘screening.’ They might think of screening as in airport security or preventative health check-ups – keeping the dangerous out. They might think of screening as in letting your phone go to voicemail or checking caller ID and answering for only for the sexy callers – keeping the timewasters and unsexy out. Screening is also a gold mining process – keeping the valuable in. They might think of a movie screening. The difference between a movie screening going badly and employee screening going badly is that the movie screening will just spoil one night. Poor employee screening could mess you up for years. Employee screening is probably a combination of all these different perceptions of screening – except for keeping the unsexy out. That’s illegal and also clearly not working. Where would the unsexy end up working – in any department of a radio station other than sales?
My uncle, now in his 80s, and my son, now in his 18s, were talking about getting their first jobs. My son’s first job was with a supermarket in the seafood section. He made a written application and went through several written interviews and assessments before winning his role. My uncle spoke of showing up on an Aussie building site, saying he was from New Zealand, demonstrating which end of a hammer was up and that was it. (He got the job.) Times have changed. I’m not sure they still use hammers, I think the internet does that now? And now, no one in their right mind would screen an employee so poorly and perfunctorily. Actually, applicants are often screened to make sure they’re in their right mind. Even leaving aside things like skills and attitude, there was no screening for previous work injuries, criminal records, financial shenanigans, child-molesting, non-child molesting, drug use, bringing employers into disrepute in well-light Christchurch offices across from pubs, being a jerk on social media and all the other things you need to screen for now.
I should probably call it pre-employment screening. It might be the smallest part of the phrase but that ‘pre’ is awfully important. Anything you find out ‘post’ is too late – someone’s potential problem has now become your actual problem. Pre-employment is to employment as dating is to marriage.
There’s forensic CV analysis too. That’s a thing now. That exists. In an age where there is software to compare a student’s essay via a search engine that compares it to anything else written ever for familiarity without accreditation, there would have to be forensic CV analysis. I see ‘forensic’, I think CSI. First there was CSI Las Vegas, then CSI Miami, then CSI New York. Now we have CSI HR. Which song by The Who should be the theme song to that show? I think all the good ones are gone.
I found one New Zealand company online offering polygraph testing as part of their pre screening process. I’ve seen too many movies with the cliché lie detector scene to take that process seriously (cue sound effect of heightened heart beat.) In fairness, it was quite an impactful marketing technique to list a series of headlines beneath that offer highlighting the dangers of not taking up their services. Examples of these headlines included: ‘Former insane mass killer unknowingly hired by Wellington school’ and ‘Convicted arsonist gains job as fire fighter.’ Although, in fairness, the latter could actually be a really good news story – a story of redemption about which movies are made (movies like ‘Backdraft,’) I checked the mass killer one. He’d killed six people, described as “friends, family, neighbours and complete strangers.” No teachers or students, so it’s questionable as to whether it’s relevant to his role working in a school but their point is still a powerful one. Frankly they shouldn’t limit their services just to employers. Remember my previous “Pre-employment is to employment as dating is to marriage” remark? I’ll take someone on their word that they like long walks on the beach but I’d sleep a little easier with greater certainty on the non-former insane mas killer front.
There are few risks and many benefits in conducting a systematic and thorough pre employment screening process. You reduce risk, increase certainty, lower costs, enhance productivity and profitability and minimise your chances of being murdered.
Obviously in this modern age of internet hammering and privacy legislation, you need the permission of the applicant to conduct any screening. Although a quick Google could be legal, illuminating and disappointing very quickly. A refusal to provide permission is the easiest and cheapest screening of all.
[Originally published in the May issue of Employment Today magazine.]
Here’s a neat DIY psych test for yourself, your friends or soon-to-be-ex-friends, and maybe colleagues. Don’t you hate people who are bottom-of-escalator-blockers & doorway blockers & non-indicating-drivers? They skew heavily towards being self-centric people generally, which is never much fun or productive in teams.There’s a neat amateur psych test you can do and covertly get targets to do. Get them to use their finger to ‘write’ a capital E on their own forehead. They’ll either write it so it’s readable from their own point of view or the point of view of others. Also relevant to those who tattoo their own faces but that’s a whole different psych test…
I blog about engaging people – employees, customers, people generally. One major tool for achieving that is feedback, in the broadest sense of the word. I also have a bit of a sideline as a stand-up comedian. I have a show in the comedy festival coming up in May. As part of that, the festival folk run a series of shows beforehand as mini preview workshops. It’s a weird and surreal experience as a performer. Performing stand-up isn’t that normal generally but this is really putting ourselves out there.
The format has an MC who’s more of a facilitator. The ticket is free and the show is advertised as what it is – not a normal show. The crowd on my night was a whole lot of people who seemed to really know their comedy as consumers or fans or officionados. They were a good test crowd generally. They laughed if they thought it was funny and they didn’t if they didn’t. Which is what you want as a performer trying out stuff en masse for the first time. Each performer did 15 minutes then sat on a chair on stage for 10 minutes while the MC facilitated out questions to the audience. I’ve been doing comedy for 10+ years and I regret not having an experience like this sooner – undiluted, instant, specific reactions. Plus a fair few new ideas to build the content.
I thought it might be a good blog topic as I walked away, abuzz to get writing and re-writing the comedy but with a parallel thought as to how much this would be a useful idea to anyone in any kind of job. Plumbers, salespeople, neuro-surgeons (they don’t like being called ‘brain surgeons.’ You know what they say about brain surgery? It’s not neuro-surgery!)
The very next day I was running a training workshop (or as I like to call them, a ‘learning workshop. It was on communication for a team of sales reps for a wine brand. I told them the comedy lab story and they took it on board and put it in play for their own workshop.
It really worked.
Maybe ask yourself, how can you set up an environment at your workplace for newbies or not-so-newbies to bolster their ‘performance’ and hone their ‘material’ in a safe but constructively challenging way?