Category Archives: Teams
What is a ‘BackBrief’? I first encountered the concept running a delegation workshop for a prestigious lawfirm.
The point of delegation is to drive optimal productivity, right. The lowest cost resource that can do the work should be assigned to do that work. The high-cost resources such as the partners, specialists and so forth should be doing high value work. Those in supervisory roles need to be delegating effectively, using systems to ensure work is done to standard, to time, and on budget.
There’s a lot that I could write about delegation and perhaps will in future but, for now, I want to focus in on one person. That person is a senior solicitor in that firm. He knew at a logical level that he should be delegating but his personality was such that he struggled. “No one can do this as well as me”. “Even if someone could do this as well as me, it won’t be the way that I would do it”. “Look, it’s just quicker and easier if I do it myself”.
Obviously those are just excuses and you can probably counter those excuses yourself. It’s short-term thinking, ultimately unsustainable, and certainly not optimal productivity. He was however able to cite several instances where he’d assigned work that ended up being poorly done, or not done at all, due to a lack of understanding on the part of the people being assigned the work. You could argue that adult professionals should not go around nodding that they can do a task when they aren’t sure. You could assign blame to the delegator who is ultimately still accountable for the work and its quality and timeliness. Better is to implement a simple system that invests a small amount of time upfront that ensures there is accurate understanding or there isn’t. Another lawyer in the room was ex-military and she introduced us all to the concept of the ‘BackBrief’.
A ‘BackBrief‘ is exactly what it sounds like. The person or people receiving the instructions give a synopsis of the instructions they just received. The person originally giving the instructions can then determine whether the message was received properly. If it’s a small task, then the ‘BackBrief’ might be a swift verbal remark. If it’s a task of substance, then it might warrant some time and a small presentation.
It’s a great idea I’ve been introducing in my workshops that a lot of professional non-military workplaces are picking up on.
At the end of last year and into this fresh new year, I’ve been running some workshops with a big corporate on critical thinking. The emphasis is not so much about the mechanical elements like models, tools and processes, although they do prove popular. The intent is much more about creating, maintaining and supporting a culture that is friendly to critical thinking and thinkers. They’d like a ‘don’t shoot the messenger’ kind of vibe.
Like any organisation attempting to bolster its stock of skills, there are a few ways of going about it. Training is an obvious one and, as a trainer by trade, I am not going to talk you out of that. Depending on the money you’ve got to throw around as an incentive and what time pressures you’re under, another option is to recruit or outsource that skill. What if we’re not talking about the skill of critical thinking though; what if we’re talking about the critical thinking attitude? Do we recruit that? Could we outsource it? Is it even possible to train it?
Before we tackle these questions, let me start by saying the moment you reveal to any trainees a bunch of critical thinking tools, they may well have the intention of applying these on serious strategic and operational work issues and projects but that’s not the first thing they think might benefit from the tools. People default to their personal lives and decision matrices, forcefield analyses and cause-effect diagrams get applied to wedding plans, house purchases and to relationships (both forwards and retrospectively). I swear there is a fortune to be made for critical thinking trainers in relationship decision-making, although that is a workshop I definitely do not want to run!
All jokes and broken marriages aside, providing tools that normal people can see as relevant and applicable to their personal and work lives is one element of nurturing a culture. Get enough people engaged like that and you generate noise and interest. Soon there is a critical mass and a tipping point. It’s less some weird new thing that we learned on a course that we use on special occasions; it’s become more of ‘the way things are done around here’.
Yes, you can train it. Yes, you could accelerate the process by recruiting it. As long as you are adding competencies like teamwork, customer service, and problem solving to your list when recruiting, would one more hurt? The trick in the tale though is if you recruit critical thinkers or people inclined to do so, but then once they arrive it becomes clear quickly that critical thinking is not the ways things are done around here. Training is not going to solve anything other than a skill issue. What would be helpful is some role modelling and structural elements that make critical thinking part of business as usual. When newbies witness someone sticking their head above the parapet to critique something in a healthy way, what happens next is a powerful and essential indicator of the extent to which they’ll ever stick their own head up. As part of any onboarding / induction process, it would be helpful to create or immerse new arrivals into situations or simulations where people do apply critical thinking and their input gets acknowledged, addressed and perhaps even rewarded.
When you google the term ‘critical thinking’, the top three results are: what are the five critical thinking skills; what are the six critical thinking skills; what are the seven critical thinking skills. Are critical thinking skills like razors? They just keep adding another blade as some never-ending marketing game of chicken? I think the ‘five people’ should talk to the ‘seven’ people. I think a critical component of critical thinking isn’t the comprehensiveness of the toolkit nor the 5-7 skills required. I think it’s the ability to better understand the way we think and the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of getting to our conclusions. That requires a self-awareness or a desire for a self-awareness that should be aimed for in recruiting, supported during onboarding and boosted via subsequent training and practical application and reinforcement.
It’s fantastic that for years we’ve been able to walk into parent-teacher meetings in many New Zealand primary schools and see DeBono’s six thinking hats posters on the wall. (Look it up). A classic critical thinking tool being used by educators across a society to enable kids to think critically and examine ideas from differing perspectives if they choose to do so. (That’s the trick, especially during election time). Kids, the employees of tomorrow with ever changing and expanding content need to know how to think not just what to think today. I’m not sure how many boardrooms or planning spaces have those posters. The google debate rages over whether there are five or six or seven critical thinking skills but there are always only ever six thinking hats.
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I talk / preach about ‘behaviour-based core values’. I’m not generally a fan of leadership guru-speak but two terms I think that deserve keeping are that and ’employer brand’. I once got headhunted for a job and subsequently discovered the organisation would never use their name, logo or any identifiers in their job ads as “it would put people off”.
That’s probably a sign of a problematic employer brand and disconnection from desirable core values. So, yeah, I think they’re valid and timeless concepts. Even if an employer doesn’t know the meaning of the terms and has never done anything about them, they’ve got them…
I got booked to present to a conference of hirers. Blue collar, grass roots business people. I gave the booker three options for topics. He ran the options past a selection of his people and the chosen topic was unanimous – building a positive and productive team culture. It seems they had a shared problem and that problem was people. Except, of course, the problem wasn’t people. It was their lack of a plan. And THAT was my key message to them.
Part of what attracts and retains talent is behaviour-based core values and employer branding. Both are components of the team culture whether it’s positive and productive or not. With a plan, you have a chance of getting to where you want or at least moving in the right direction. I do not particularly care if they remember or use the terms behaviour-based core values and employer branding, as long as they draft a plan to deliberately develop their behaviour-based core values and employer branding.
You can keep your leveraging, go-forward and so forth, but I’m sticking with the these two concepts. They’re magnetic and like magnets, they can both attract and repel.
1 out of 5 people are difficult. Look at the 4 people around you. If it’s not them – it’s YOU!
OK, the 1 out of 5 statistic above is a joke. It might be true but that can said of 57% of all statistics. Tony Schwartz in his HBR blog writes that the difficulty in the dealing does indeed actually lie with YOU.
He makes some good points. It’s bad enough for you if you have to deal with someone you find difficult at work and you’re stuck with having to deal with them every working day. Schwartz stresses how much worse it is when that person is your boss. Firstly, it’s a natural stressor when you choose to believe you’ve lost control and / or are powerless. Both these situations will add to that. And, of course, when it’s your boss, you’ve got a dollop of fear thrown in for good (bad) measure. Baseline security fear, the powerful kind. (Thanks Maslow.)
Schwartz uses a very helpful ‘lens’ metaphor as a possible solution. There’s the lens of ‘realistic optimism’, the ‘reverse lens’ and the ‘long lens.’ The stress, the feelings of control and power and the fear are largely driven by how you choose to react to situations. So, choose to stop and look at it from some different perspectives. What are the facts and what am I telling myself about those facts? What is this other person feeling that is driving their behaviour? To what extent can I influence that? Ask some other questions about how this might play out and what can be learned and how important it is in the scheme of things.
So far, I’ve written from the angle of you having to deal directly with a difficult person of your own. If you’re reading this, you’re probably an experienced grown-up. You’re probably able to take care of yourself instinctively. But how can you help your people who perhaps aren’t as instinctively clued up?
I like Schwartz’s approach of using questions, only instead of asking yourself, you engage your team member in a private conversation. They may come to you with a problem in dealing with someone else in the workplace. You cannot realistically give them some miraculous piece of advice that will work every time. You do not want to create a relationship of dependence with you having to always step in and solve others’ interpersonal problems. But in engaging them with these questions, it’ll drive them to think, not just with this person they’re having difficulty dealing with today but in the future as well.
I read of a social experiment. Individuals were told they’d be working with a partner in a another room. Each would do one of two tasks, one of which was unpleasant. You got to choose who did what & your partner would never know. (Of course, there was no partner in the other room.) The researcher left for a few minutes while the subject decided. They had a coin in a sealed plastic bag in case they wanted to “decide fairly.” 90% of non-coin tossers gave the crappy job to their partner. Of those who tossed a coin, the crappy job was given to their partner…
The only variable that made the decider make fairer decisions = putting a mirror right in front of them.
More ideas at http://gettingbetterbuyin.com/
Meta-cognition is a fancy term for thinking about how we think. We don’t often do it because we’re all so caught up in actually thinking or, more probably, doing stuff with as little thought as possible. (I might be judging myself on that point). The mindset and beliefs we have got us to this point and if this point is OK or better, there are risks in changing and challenging. But things won’t get better if you don’t.
In short, one answer is to deliberately surround yourself and seek out and expose yourself to information sources that you know will challenge you. I’m not suggesting you live in a perpetual state of stressful heightened awareness and self doubt but at the very least you gotta have someone who’ll call you out. Diversity is the broadest sense is even better. Source from beyond your bubble.
You won’t have time to think about everything, after-all that’s why you revert to confirmation bias to begin with, but perhaps approach conversations with an open mind. Don’t be so quick to judge.
Surround yourself with different types of people. Don’t label yourself. Be well-rounded and willing to hear different types of opinions on politics, religion, and life in general. This is a sign of intelligence not passivity.
It takes incredible mental strength to challenge your own deep-seated beliefs. Stand by your convictions, of course, but just realize some of that just may be rooted in confirmation bias. Be open. After-all. life is full of the gray stuff. We wish it were simple. This is right. That is wrong. It doesn’t always work that way. That’s why it’s good to be aware. Self-aware.
This article explains confirmation bias and some more thinking around addressing it.
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More ideas at http://gettingbetterbuyin.com/
I ran a couple of workshops this week on effective delegation with a law firm. I’ve also run these many times with many non-law firms. There’s a point after we agree on a definition of what delegation is, then discuss the potential benefits and differing objectives delegating might purposefully achieve if conducted effectively in a structured and tailored way. Right after that we tackle the reasons, justifiable or otherwise, why some people might choose not to delegate, or to do so ineffectively (whether or not those people were even consciously aware of why they were doing so).
Earlier, I’d sought from participants real-life stories from their own experience or observations of instances they considered to be effective and ineffective delegation. This week, as always, the vast majority of ineffective and unfortunate examples involved actions that could be encapsulated as ‘micro managing’.
We’ve all been there.
My own story was being lectured and berated on my sweeping technique in a building supply warehouse in which I worked in the mid 80s. I’m certainly over it but even in the retelling, I still get a hackle-raising sense of frustration in my blood. Others shared similar tales from their own back-stories.
One of the major reasons the groups self-identified behind people choosing to either not delegate or to pretty quickly start sticking their oar in again was to do with time and perspective.
If all you’re focused on is today and the ticking clock of a deadline, it may well be true that you can do it better and quicker yourself rather than delegating it. But if you’re focused on the big picture and the long game, you’re more open to realising and accepting that the point of delegating isn’t just about getting this piece of work done as soon as possible. It’s about getting many more pieces of work done again and again constantly. It’s a false economy to try and fool yourself that hanging onto tasks that could be done by others is effective leadership, simply because this one time you beat the buzzer. There are many more pieces of work than you are physically and mentally incapable of doing. It’s a simple capacity issue – if you’re focused beyond today. Delegating isn’t about flicking a task or two to the lowest-cost grunt able to competently do it, it’s about building capacity in your team in a planned, measured and deliberate way. Quite apart from getting stuff done, it exposes different people to your clients, builds trust, identified problems and mistakes early enough to rectify them, creates skills for succession planning and developing cover. If only one person can do a particular task and they get hit by a bus, or leave, or set up in competition, that’s a poorly managed risk.
Some people naturally have a time focus on the immediate short-term; others naturally look down the line a bit. The group had some ideas about how to not rely on nature, logical argument and luck to nudge the mindsets of those those now-fixated folk into the future a bit. One was around stories – not dissimilar to Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmas past and present. If micro-managing leaders can be exposed to leaders who used to be like them but saw the light, or that light they saw was the fire that burned them, them some lessons can be passed along forming organisational learning and memory. And everyone benefits, maybe not today but soon enough. And the sooner they start, the sooner it’ll happen.
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More ideas at http://gettingbetterbuyin.com/
There is no ideal model workplace culture and no single path to get there.
I’m writing a new book and am at the research stage. The most obvious visible behaviour for me at this stage is not writing. So much reading! The book will be about adding ten productive years to your life and a section will be about extending our healthy lifespan. As a result, I’m reading a lot of inherently contradictory information, much like we’re all lambasted with constantly. Eggs are good for you. Eggs are bad for you. Some bits of eggs are good for you and some bits are bad for you. Some eggs should face trial for war crimes. That sort of thing.
There is some absolute quackery about miracle cures for aging that, no doubt, someone will try and sell you in pill form very soon. Telling us that there is a restorative compound in red wine is useful. Finding out that we’d need to drink a bathtubfull a day to get enough of that compound is less helpful. I’d need to refer back to my notes but I may have read somewhere that our wine limit should be 2 glasses a day. Perhaps there is a market for glasses the size of bathtubs? That is definitely one bathtub where you’d want to utilize a non-slip bathmat. Perhaps several, for the footpath for your long walk home?
I’m keen to believe the probiotic yoghurt propaganda. (The theme of this month’s issue of Employment Today is, after all, culture.) In case you’ve missed the infomercials, here’s the downlow on the lowdown bugs in our guts. There are bugs in our guts. There are bugs all over our bodies. (And, no, I’m not talking about the imaginary ones you’ll hallucinate when you try to cut down on your two-bathtubs-a-day red wine habit.) There are bad bugs which is why we should wash our hands and good bugs which is why we should not smother ourselves inside and out with disinfectant drugs and chemicals. For decades as a society, we’ve been pointlessly amping up on anti-biotics for sniffles and viruses which is useless and increasingly diminishing the effect of antibiotics and breeding antibiotic-resistant hospital-loving superbugs. Antibiotics also fail to distinguish between good and bad bugs, killing both in a broad spectrum kind of way.
So, the sales pitch goes that this lifestyle, plus our sad, beige diets has led to imbalance in the gut bug world and a lot of our ailments can be attributed to this. Please buy our brand of probiotic yoghurt or pills. I’m prepared to partly accept this because I like yoghurt and I’m always a lot more open to new information when it in no way conflicts with my existing beliefs and behaviours. You know, like virtually everyone.
The thing I didn’t know about our gut bugs is that we don’t all have the same ones or the same mix. At some point in our early development, we get colonised and that type of bug is ours for life. It’s a bit like blood types with types A+ and O-. Some researchers are mooting that in the not-too-distant future, there will be probiotic cafes where you can get customised smoothies with the gut bug that’s right for you. I’m guessing that they’ll get the marketing department working on a better brand name than ‘gut bugs.’ (GB?) Knowing my own gut bug type is currently a level of self awareness that I have failed to achieve.
This might be the longest bow I’ve ever drawn, or the most tenuous of metaphors, but, in a way, isn’t workplace culture a bit like this?
So many books, blog posts, LinkedIn articles and conversations revolve around the premise that there is this mystical, magical and elusive one-right-way to generate a successful results-oriented, customer-focused, highly engaged workplace culture. Implicit is that there is one ideal model culture to which to aspire. There isn’t. It depends.
Like gut bugs, workplace cultures need to evolve. Like the probiotic cafes of the future, we need to know what workplace culture we want before we start any efforts to build one or improve one we got stuck with. And, we need to stop poisoning our workplace cultures, killing the good alongside the bad, with broad spectrum shotgun efforts.
How anyone thinks there can be a uniform and constant workplace culture is beyond me. Just driving around with your eyes open displays sharply that contemporary New Zealand is multi-cultural and increasingly so, in the more usual demographic sense of the term. Workplaces are reflecting diverse racial and national cultures and you can throw in age, attitude and other demarcations too. The point here is that there is no point – not a single point anyway. What’s needed is an openness amongst employers to diversity, coupled with an acceptance that the now and the future need a lot more personalised approaches to workplace culture than a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.
Is there a red wine yoghurt? Asking for a friend.
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.