| 5 min read

How Can You Design & Lead Better Teams?

Better Teams

(Part 1 of 3)

It's the meeting you had to have.
Team members dial in and assemble. You called the meeting. And it’s not because things are going well.
The conversation goes something like this.

"Can you tell me what happened?"
“We couldn’t solve the problem, and we left it hoping you’d follow up”.
“I thought you guys were following up?”
“We couldn't come to a decision on it."
"It's now going to put us months behind."

Conversations like this happen. But why?
Blame culture, point at incompetent employees or poor team dynamics. What else could it be?

Leif Babin and Jocko Willnett former Navy Seals, now New York Times best-selling authors, observed how the behavior of leaders directly determines if a team performs or not, as written by Business Insider.

During an exercise, SEAL candidates were grouped by height into boat crews. The most senior-ranking sailor became the boat crew leader responsible for receiving, transmitting, and overseeing the execution of the lead instructor’s orders. They were to go through a grueling string of races that involved running with the boat and then paddling it in the ocean.

After several rounds, one particular team came in first and the other, last nearly every time. The instructors decided to switch the leaders of the best and worst teams, and the results were remarkable. Under new leadership, the formerly great team did relatively well but was a shadow of its past self, and the formerly terrible team placed first.

Share your screw ups if you want to lead effective teams

You don't have to use 'advanced search' to uncover what makes a team more effective. Google did a little project of their own, and it was code-named Aristotle. They studied over 180 separate teams for two years and they identified psychological safety is by far the most crucial element to create high performing teams. What this means is people will freely share their work and ideas, admit when they stuff up, regularly give and receive feedback, take part in tough conversations, but they’ll only do this when they feel safe enough to be vulnerable.

Being openly vulnerable at work sounds counterintuitive to everything we have been taught. Truth is we’re not great at talking about being vulnerable. Communicating doubts, fears, or failures at work is uncomfortable. It’s not part of our cultural or social norms of the professional world of work. From our first introduction to the workplace, we are groomed not to share shortcomings or hesitation. We are expected to always have answers to problems. The belief is that vulnerability is a sign of weakness and it’s better to hide it.

When we talk about vulnerability, it doesn’t mean oversharing every problem or thought that comes into our head or burdening others. Talking about tough moments is a lot like salt - too much and it spoils everything. Sharing your deficiencies should come from a place of selflessness, authenticity and where you think it adds value and meaning to others.

The typical behavior for most leaders and work culture is to only present the best version of yourself, always robust, sure of your decisions and rarely speak of mistakes. The thinking has always been that there is no place for vulnerability at work.  At least until now. It turns out that sharing your faults can be a force for good by drawing teams and people together. It’s called the vulnerability loop and professor of organizational behavior at Harvard, Jeff Polzer discovered how it works.

What are vulnerability loops?

They are simple interactions between people. They open the doors to cooperation and trust. These loops send the signal that says, “I’m trying but I’m struggling, and you are part of my team, and I need you”. In their purest form, they are subtle, authentic interactions, and they often follow these steps:

Jo communicates a message of vulnerability.
Amy recognizes the signal and responds with her vulnerability or displays empathy, which could take the form of a nod or smile.
Jo picks up on this signal.
With this one act, it sets the pattern where trust and rapport can grow.

They can take the form of one-on-one conversations, ‘Hey I’m stuck, and I don’t think I can solve this one alone.' To conversations that address a team or company, like this example from the now CEO of Uber when he left Expedia in his parting memo which Recode posted. This type of memo to staff comes from someone who seems untouchable and bulletproof. He sets a model of behavior from the top that within Expedia that it’s ok to be real, it’s ok to be unsure but always be courageous.

“I have to tell you I am scared. I've been here at Expedia for so long that I've forgotten what life is like outside this place. However, the times of greatest learning for me have been when I've been through big changes, or taken on new roles--you have to move out of your comfort zone and develop muscles that you didn't know you had”.

On a larger scale, you can use a ‘break room’ as Dun and Bradstreet did to bare their soul. People were encouraged to write down their biggest mistakes and share them openly. It’s noteworthy that the Vice Chairman started with himself first.

If you set the right environment, teams can have honest conversations, speak truths, be frank about their mistakes or their shortcomings. That breeds a safe place for trust to thrive.  Without vulnerability, there is no trust.

While vulnerability and trust are a big deal, you’ll also want to design these elements into your team playbook as well.

Dependability  -  people in the team can rely on others to follow through and get work done or pitch in to find a solution to a problem.

Structure and Clarity -  Everyone's role is clear; team and individuals expectations are spelled out.

Meaning - Recognition and positive feedback is the fuel that gets teams through those tough days at work. Alternatively, lending a hand when someone is struggling.

Impact - "Hey, Your work matters" - Teams reflect and are aware of how they contribute to achieving organizational goals and improving the lives of customers and the broader community.

You know the benefits of improved teamwork but how do you get there?

So you know what you need to help teams become effective but how do you get there.

In the next article, we’ll share the steps and tools to help you design and grow the team experience you want.

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