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

Is The Fundamental Attribution Error Destroying Your Team?

Learn How You May Be Destroying Trust on Your Team and Five Steps To Strengthen Your Team.

Often, we judge ourselves and our actions by our intentions, rather than our impact. However, we judge others by what we believe their intentions to be and their impact. This double standard for judgment is a problem. As a leader you certainly have good intentions. You no doubt have the company’s best interest in mind when you make decisions. You probably care about your employee’s welfare and well-being, at least for the benefit of the company if not for them. To your employees however, your intentions do not matter. What matters is how you impact them. The best leaders understand how their actions, behaviors and attitude impact others on the team. They adjust their behavior to get the most out of their team members.

Problems arise when employees don’t meet leaders expectations and they are judged by the leaders perception of their intentions rather than their impact. For example, I am currently advising a board of directors and helping them work more effectively together. One board member, Anita, was complaining about another member, Jessica, who committed to complete several tasks and failed to meet her deadline. The impact of this failure impacted Anita’s commitments and timelines. Both board members are committed to the cause, however, Anita judged that Jessica was not committed or dedicated to her responsibilities. This judgment was then expressed to other board members. Anita’s judgment of Jessica’s intentions caused her to be less likely to help Jessica. After all, why should she put effort into a board member who she thinks doesn’t really care? The behavior which destroys trust is this; attributing Jessica’s impact or behavior to a lack of commitment.

In reality, Jessica did care and is committed. The problem was; she over committed and did not accurately assess her ability to complete the task given her significant other commitments. She was also reluctant to shift the burden to other board members by asking for help. She completed the task a few days later and apologized to the rest of the board. Anita understood the situation and recognized that her own high level of commitment and passion for the mission caused her to inaccurately judge her team member’s intentions. People on our teams will let us down from time to time. However, it is not usually because of willful rebellion, character flaw, or wanting to make our lives miserable.

What happened here is known as the fundamental attribution error and it can destroy trust and cohesion on a team if it is not understood and addressed. It is defined by assuming your own actions and behaviors are caused by external factors; and character flaws or behavior defects determine other people’s actions. For example, you discipline your child by grounding them because they didn’t get a good grade on a test or they didn’t come home on time. You did this because circumstance caused you to take action. However, when you see another parent discipline their child you may attribute their behavior to their need to exercise control, or because the they are ignorant of good parenting skills, etc. The fundamental attribution error means you have a positive bias toward your own behavior. You give yourself the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand you are biased against other people’s behavior attributing the behavior to deficiencies of personality. When you do this, you destroy trust and reduce the commitment and engagement of your team.

Here are some things you can do to avoid the fundamental attribution error and strengthen your team:

  1. Understand their motivation

    If you want to really understand why someone took an action, didn’t act or behaved a certain way, ask them. Asking effective questions is powerful tool to help build trust on your team. When you ask the right questions you will arrive at the heart of the issue. When you know it, You may adjust your expectations or you will have an opportunity to coach and mentor a team member. Learn to ask effective open-ended questions. Review this brief video on the benefit of questions. Open-ended questions help us get more information than yes or no questions. They usually start with how, what, when, who, and where. Avoid using why for your initial question because it can sound accusatory. A great way to frame a question is to use, “help me understand….” or “please explain your thought process….” These are great ways to get the needed information.

  2. Assume the best

    Assume your team members have good intentions just like you. Our impact is not always what we intend. Give others the same consideration you give yourself when your impact does not match your intentions. Understand that your team members do not set out to fail at a task or to make your life miserable. I hear executives complain their employees sometimes make them crazy. That is giving those employees too much credit. Your employees are not intentionally doing things to you; they are usually doing things for themselves or acting in their own best interest. They may not be fully aware that their impact does not match their intentions. Give them the benefit of the doubt.

  3. Seek an outside perspective

    Working with a trusted colleague or an effective coach can help you develop the perspective you need. Often when we are frustrated or emotional in our judgment, our subsequent actions may not be appropriate for the situation. We may not have the proper perspective to understand what is really happening around us, or understand why we may be feeling frustrated and upset. A coach or mentor can help you quickly gain a different perspective often by asking questions. They also add a level of accountability that can be very helpful. If you know you have to report to someone about your behavior and interactions with direct reports or peers, it may cause you to check your own behavior more carefully.

  4. Self-assess

    Hold yourself accountable. If you are not working with a coach, create a list of questions you can regularly ask yourself. For example: Did I do my best to give _____ the benefit of the doubt? Did I do my best to be engaged and open in my conversation? Did I do my best to understand their perspective? Did I do my best to treat _____ fairly? Best selling author and organizational expert Marshall Goldsmith discusses this concept in his book Triggers.

  5. Learn more about your team members

    A great way to understand what motivates someone is to learn more about their personal life and background. Take the time to get to know about their interests, challenges, desires and goals. Use a behavioral assessment to dig even deeper. An effective behavioral assessment will help you understand the strengths and opportunities of a person’s personality. It can also help you understand their motivators and what kind of stress they are currently experiencing. I have used many assessments over the years and I prefer a tool called ProScan Professional Development Profile. It has one of the highest correlation co-efficiencies in the industry. It only takes about 5-10 minutes to complete, which is key for busy executives, and you do not have to be a psychologist to understand the results. Greater understanding of behavior preferences and motivation will help you adjust your approach.

Judging by a double standard is giving you the benefit of the doubt and assuming the worst of other people’s intentions. This behavior is very damaging to the trust and cohesiveness of your team. It can cause you to complain about potentially incorrect behaviors to others spreading discord and it can cause you to withhold support and perhaps needed feedback from a colleague or direct report. Take action today to change your behavior and strengthen trust and cohesion on your teams.

The Author Spencer Horn is the President of Spencer Horn Solutions. For more related topics read: Silence Your SaboteurHow To Defeat The Fog of War in Businessand Cure For The CEO Disease.