The Promise of High Performing Teams

Why do we hear so much about the importance of teamwork and high performing teams? UCLA Coach John Wooden won a record 10 NCAA basketball championships because he focused on the basic fundamentals that make a team great. He didn’t care how talented a player was. He understood we could accomplish so much more as a team, than you can as a group of individuals working together. There is a price to creating high performing teams, which most leaders aren’t willing to pay. Those that do, find their investment rewarded greatly.

Today, most people assume because they are in the same department, they are part of a team. Many hiring managers have a tendency to focus on top talent, rather than how well the individual will fit with their culture. People unconsciously favor natural talent to work ethic, effort, and motivation.[1] Teamwork takes dedication, commitment and hard work. Many leaders take a short-term approach that it is easier to work independently as part of a group rather than commit to the steps of becoming a high performance team. In reality, once they have committed to developing a high performance team, everything is easier.

Several years ago I worked for an organization that was, ironically, providing leadership and teamwork training to businesses. The company was struggling with sales during the 2008 recession, so I was asked to leave my position in training and development to focus on increasing sales. The sales department had hired and lost over 50 sales people from 2008-2011. None of them were able to have the success needed to remain working there. Clearly, the sales process was not working. I found that the sales practices of the company incentivized individual performance versus team performance. I learned everything I could from the best performers, and I brought my own experience as well. When I began to share my ideas, I was told my ideas would not work. In this situation, I felt it easier to take my own approach rather than follow the current process. I was working on a “team”, but we did not function as a team. I became the top sales performer within a year and I remained one of the top performers. Then I was promoted to sales manager.

Because of the toxic culture this was a big challenge. As a manager, there was tremendous pressure to produce. Ownership had a short-term focus and had little patience for the work it would take to change the culture. Top performers behavior was seriously disruptive. Because sales were low, leadership opted to allow top performers to work from home to reduce friction and drama. It would have taken time and commitment to hold them accountable and build a cohesive team. Instead, this short-term approach created sales results which were difficult to sustain. Sustained results require much more than individuals with talent working separately. It requires people who are willing to work hard and put the team ahead of their own personal ambition and agendas. It requires that the members of the team trust each other’s motives and actions. It required me to take more ownership of the process and be more courageous than I was at the time.

My experience is that business leaders are afraid of replacing disruptive top producers. They rely on their production and are not sure they can replace it. In my experience, your organization will thrive without these disruptive talents. I find that when they leave, trust increases and the rest of the team is more willing to step up and take greater responsibility. I would rather have a team of average players who are committed and motivated to work together, than a “team” with great talent who thinks they can do it alone and so would you. Billy Bean, the manager of the Oakland A’s starting in 1997, showed the impact of average players working as a team who could get on base vs. the all star with a “big bat.” His approach was revolutionary and was chronicled in the 2011 movie “Moneyball” starring Brad Pitt.

Several years ago, Boyd Packer was at a county fair in Vermont. He was interested in the main event, which was an ox pull. Teams of two oxen where given three chances to pull a sled of cement blocks starting at five tons. As more weight was added, teams were eliminated until one team remained. He observed several teams; one in particular with enormous oxen seemed favored to win. They did not even place. Instead, an unlikely much smaller team won the event. He asked the local New Englanders how this was possible? They explained that the small team pulled at exactly the same time allowing their energy to be evenly distributed through the yoke creating tremendous power. The bigger teams did not work as well together and the difference of one second as the oxen would pull caused the energy to be lost and the pulling power to dissipate.

Teamwork is one of the greatest advantages any organization can have. It will have more positive impact than any individuals with intellect or natural strength or ability. Change is happening so quickly today. It is reported that information doubles every twelve to eighteen months. Computing power doubles every two years. We must learn to work as a team to keep up.

If teamwork is so vital to our sustained success, why are there not more effective teams?

  1. It takes commitment, effort and courage. It takes a willingness to embrace change to create high performing teams

  2. Most leaders do not know how to transform their people into a high performance team.

  3. Many leaders are under so much pressure to produce today, they forget about the need to produce tomorrow and the day after that.

  4. There is a culture of blame. If the leader blames, he cannot expect anyone else to take ownership either and this creates a vicious cycle of poor accountability.

  5. There is a bias toward talent. Often high potential performers are overlooked because they do not immediately stand out. A team of dedicated and committed people will outperform a group of individually talented people.

  6. Incentives often reward individual versus team performance.

  7. Not enough time is devoted to building trust with team members.

These challenges can be overcome. Working on a high performance team is fun and energizing. The return on investment is exciting and profitable.

Think of the best team you have ever been on. What made it great? What did you accomplish? Years ago, I played basketball in a city league. The members of this team were not particularly talented or fast. We had fun together and we worked cohesively. One Saturday, we were practicing on a court by the beach. A group of young and individually talented men challenged us to a game. They were supremely confident in their success and told us we should be ready to lose. Instead, they became frustrated as we began pulling ahead. We were playing as a team. They were showcasing their individual talents and eventually began arguing and blaming each other. They lost and left in disgust and frustration.

How do you get committed to the team? You have to be willing to own the results of the team. You can’t say you are succeeding and failing because of someone else. It is our boss, our co-workers, or our customers who are fault. Our marketing is poor, our product is weak, our leadership doesn’t know what they are doing. You must own the results of the team you are on. Regardless of title and position, you can influence the team to improve, by your commitment to the team. It is easier to blame and go it alone or leave. That is what many of us do.

If you are willing to pull together, you will be rewarded. I have a client that today is absolutely thriving as a high performance organization. There are multiple teams at many different levels. It took several years of hard work to make some major changes. They had to ask one of their founding principals to leave. This process took tremendous courage and commitment. The individual was immensely talented but toxic. The team was so much better in the long run. They were able to heal and come together to fulfill the very important mission of the organization. At the time, there was uncertainty about losing the talent of this individual, though there was damage to this person’s reputation and also the organizations reputation. The results two years later were unmistakable.

It is so much fun to be an underdog that exceeds expectations. Your leadership matters to the performance of the team. You do not have to be the smartest or most talented. You just have to be the most committed to creating team performance. You are much more effective as a team than alone.

The author Spencer Horn is the President of Spencer Horn Solutions, LLC. Additional articles which may interest you: 7 Steps For a More Productive Team; Leadership Is About Impact Not IntentionHow To Prepare Your Next Generation Of LeadersIncrease Your Effectiveness As A Leader With Perception Science;  How To Create Success From Failure; How To Get Your People To Change TodayCure For The CEO DiseaseThe Importance of Values; Results Killing Virus

If you would like to take a closer look at how much more productive your team could be through greater teamwork, message me and I will send you a comprehensive diagnostic tool.

[1] Chia-Jung Tsay, an assistant professor at University College London, “Beware Of The Bias Toward Natural Ability”, Harvard Business Review, April 2106, pgs. 28-29

What Is Innattentional Blindness Costing You?

Have you ever gone to a movie when the theater was packed and you scanned the theater for open seats? You finally find them and take your seats. After the movie, you run into some friends who happened to be at the same show. They said they had two seats next to them and were waving at you when you came in, but you did not seem them? Or perhaps you were watching your favorite sports team on TV and you did not notice your significant other asking for your help. Have you ever been so focused on something that you missed what was going on around you?

This phenomenon is called innattentional blindness, and was first discovered by Ulric Niesser, known as the “father of cognitive psychology”, at Cornell University in the 1970’s. It is also known as perceptual blindness and occurs when an individual fails to perceive or recognize an unplanned stimulus clearly in their field of vision. When we are focused on something specific, it is possible to miss other plainly visible details that may appear.

Niesser’s experiments gained interest and popularity in the following decades. Harvard Psychologists, Daniel J. Simons and Christopher F. Chabris tested his experiments further. Their findings are reported in their article, Gorillas in our midst: sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events. The research points out we are missing a great deal of what is happening all around us. They have since written a book about their findings, The Invisible Gorilla.

When I first saw the monkey business video, I was focusing on a specific task and I completely missed the man in gorilla suit who appeared on the screen for a full 9 seconds and pounded his chest. I was happy to learn that I am not the only blind casualty of this psychology experiment. About 50% of people, under the same conditions, do not see the gorilla. So what does this have to do with you and I? This implies, that to our detriment, we miss a great deal of what goes on around us. I work with many hard charging, results oriented, get it done now, professionals. These are certainly good qualities, but they come with cost, if we are not careful. Just as with the above example; of someone not noticing their partner while watching a sporting event, it is possible for us to not see how we are impacting important people, in our business, by our narrow focus.

As a CEO, I remember I was so focused on accomplishing a particular task, that I gave my administrative assistant some assignments, almost unconsciously. I failed to notice she was under tremendous stress because we had multiple clients in the office, she was supporting. At the end of the day, I could see more clearly and recognized that I had created a great deal of stress for my good employee. She was not about to tell me no for several reasons: My position power as CEO made it hard for her to say something like, “now is not a good time” or “can I complete these tomorrow?” Additionally, she was generally conflict avoidant, a behavior I knew to be a part of her behavioral traits and personality profile.

At the end of the day, I apologized to her because I wanted her to be a happy engaged employee. I did not WANT to put her under unnecessary stress. She was working hard and helping our customers. What I asked for was important, but it surely could have waited for a day. I was just hyper focused on getting things done; I did not notice the impact of my focus. The apology was accepted, yet how often do we repeat the same behavior. What happens to our team member’s engagement when the leaders poor behavior is repeated again and again? Employees become disengaged. They lose trust in leadership and the culture is weakened.

As leaders, we have a responsibility to get the job done (results). However, we can never get everything we need done alone. We must enlist the help of our team. We get so much more done when we have a team that is engaged and motivated. Leaders who have developed relationships of trust most easily achieve this condition. To get our desired results, we must also pay attention to relationships. Some leaders seem to have a natural talent for this. Some leaders can spend too much time on relationships, sometimes at the expense of results. The best leaders learn how to effectively balance tasks and relationships.

Let me give a personal example of balancing task and relationship. I have five children and I want a great relationship with each of my children. I also enjoy having a clean house and order especially when I come home after a long day at work. It just so happens, that some of my kids come home from school and immediately take off their shoes and socks. They just leave them where they are, which is usually on the family room floor. If I am just focused on the task when I come home, I see the socks and the first thing I say to my son, “why are your shoes and socks on the floor again?! Go put them away!” He gets up after rolling his eyes and takes his things stomping out of the room. When he returns, I want now focus on the relationship. I ask, “How was your day? How did your math test go?” My efforts at relationship building are not well received. My son is no mood to talk to me now.

Let me change the scenario. I come home tired, and I notice the socks and shoes on the floor. Instead of immediately focusing on the task of creating order, and a clean house, I focus on the relationship I want with my son. I ask him about his day and math test. I ask him how volleyball practice went and if the girl he asked to the prom responded to his proposal. We have a great conversation. I then turn my attention to the socks and shoes and say, “where are those supposed to be?” he says, “Away.” I say, “go take care of that please.” In this scenario, the outcome is so much greater. I have strengthened the relationship and improved household order. You can have both, and in the long run, balancing both is so much more effective and rewarding.

If you are like me, and get too focused on “task”, there is hope. You can improve your awareness and perceptional limitations. It takes a desire to improve your self-awareness. Improving your emotional intelligence will be a great help. Some of the suggestions I have given in other articles about emotional intelligence will apply here and some are unique. (See links at the end of the article.)

5 Suggestions To Improve Your Vision:

  1. Think about the end result:

    Sometimes in our rush to get things done, we may not think about the consequences of our actions and behavior. Slow down a little and think about the outcomes. We may still be innattentionally blind to some of the outcomes even when we slow down, however, this practice will help us to improve more and more over time.

  2. Change your focus:

    I find that if I am watching TV and focused on a sporting event and my wife talks to me, I may not hear her. I have learned to stop, disengage in what I am doing, and focus on her. The benefits of this to my relationship should be obvious.

  1. Schedule time to focus:

    As a busy executive, I am often focused on important tasks. If you are like me, you get many interruptions throughout your day. People constantly stop by my office with “got a minute?” situations. Several problems arise in these situations. Possibly, you ignore them because you are so focused, and they leave disappointed. Or you keep doing what you are doing and pay only partial attention to what is needed. You miss important details and send a message the employees concerns and the employee is not important. Maybe, you continually stop what you are doing, to focus on the needs of your employees, because you value the relationship. This can cause your own tasks to suffer.

    A better option is to let your team member know they are important. Tell them you want to give them the time they deserve, however, right now is not a good time, unless it is an emergency. You schedule time when you can give your complete attention to their concerns. You can effectively balance task and relationship.

  2. Identify your blind spots:

    Become aware of when you have blind spots. When you are talking on your cell phone, watching TV, in a stressful situation, giving a presentation, managing a project, etc. Our behavior in these situations is often predictable and tied to our preferred behavioral traits. Knowing your behavioral trait patterns will help you identify your blind spots. Use a behavioral assessment you trust and work with a trusted advisor to help you understand the implications of your behavior traits.

  3. Be vulnerable:

    Give others permission to give you feedback on what you may be missing. In order to see what we are missing, it is helpful to understand situations where this occurs. This help will come to you when you encourage feedback and avoid being defensive. That takes admitting you may occasionally miss things and it requires a willingness to improve.

The cost of not improving your vision is great. When you are so focused on the task, much is missed. We can miss changes in competitive landscape. Changes in market conditions. We can miss changes in our employee’s engagement. We miss opportunities to strengthen and improve important relationships with our team, clients, family, and friends. We miss areas in our behavior, which may be holding us back from being as successful and happy as we want to be.

Related Topics: Cure For The CEO Disease, How To Defeat The Fog of War in Business, One Reason We Struggle With Emotional Intelligence, Is The Fundamental Attribution Error Destroying Your Team?

The author, Spencer Horn is the President of Spencer Horn Solutions, LLC

One Reason a Healthy Culture is Essential

Are you having a hard time attracting the best talent? Here is one reason and one thing that will help.