Recognition as social lubricant

Photo by Shandi-Lee

The title of this post is taken from a post by Paul Hebert. Here is the gist:

… recognition is the lubricant for social interaction.  Making sure your employees have ways and methods of connecting and recognizing each other within and between organizational silos lubricates the interactions that must happen in order for innovation, engagement, and collaboration to occur.  It is very difficult to refuse a meeting or a conversation with someone who just recognized your work or highlighted how great you are in the company program or on the company intranet.  You can’t refuse a meeting if the person requesting it just gave you a big thumbs up in the Peer-2-Peer recognition program.

I have spending a major part of the last year reading, studying, thinking and writing about teamwork and collaboration. The more time I spend doing this, the more I realize that long-term successful team facilitation (read: great teamwork) is a journey into the path of most resistance. Teamwork is about interaction and relationships. Interaction and relationship causes friction. We are social beings and putting us with other people affects us and causes us to react. Emotions. Feelings. Thoughts. Urges.

Some of these reactions are positive. Joy. Meaning. Sense of progress. Some of them are negative. Tensions. Discomfort. Fear. Facilitating an effective team is about dealing with all of these issues and putting them on the table. This sounds simple, but it is usually the opposite of what we tend do, which is ignore, tip-toe around and hold back.

When done properly, going against the resistance, facilitating teamwork enables negative reactions to be dealt with in a safe environment and for positive reactions to be magnified in order to improve and sustain future interaction. While the fact that issues are suppressed and unattended will be familiar to many of us (even though they might not agree on the consequences of this habit), like in many other facets of life, taking deliberate time to deal with the positive is even more scarce, even though it has the potential to transform entire systems.

And this is where the quote above comes in. One of the most effective ways to use the positive not only as a leverage to more positive habits and interactions but also as a way to discuss the negative in a safe constructive environment, is recognition. Adopting mutual recognition habits can do wonders to the level of actual interaction between team members. As Hebert says, it might prove difficult for anyone who has just been recognized by a team member not to open up and expose himself to a more intense and difficult interaction.

Of course, I am not talking about a onetime event. Recognition has to be part of the habits and culture of team for it to truly work. What will happen if we take time each day (or each week) to recognize others in our team that for their unique contributions? What will happen if we start every meeting by recognizing what and more importantly who allowed us to reach this phase? What will happen if we recognize any mutual learning that occurs in our team or a regular basis? I suggest you try this magical lubricant and see its social effects yourself.

Elad

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A different approach to collaboration

Photo by D’Arcy Norman

In a post on HBR.org Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer investigate the relationship between collaboration and performance. They claim that not only does collaboration allows performance, but performance allows for collaboration. When people are feeling a sense of achievement and progress, they are more open to collaborate. That is why Amabile and Kramer advocate celebrating small wins, as this is a way to keep people in the team or organization energized to collaborate:

So, not only is collaboration critical to high performance, but maintaining high performance can be important to keeping collaboration going. Previously, we have talked about the importance of small wins — modest but meaningful successes along the pathway to achieving a major goal — in maintaining high performance and subjective well-being. They can also help workers maintain effective collaboration. When organizations support and celebrate small wins, employees feel like winners; the mistrust and conflict that can accompany losing will be avoided. Without those interpersonal problems, it will be much easier to achieve consistent and effective collaboration. [Emphasis added]

While I appreciate the approach of small wins and the importance of the feeling of progress for motivation and individual performance I think a focus on the effects of performance on collaboration might prove detrimental to effective collaboration.

In most business settings today, especially in knowledge work, performance is an emerging synergistic property. That means it cannot be directly predicted. It cannot be taken apart into specific check-list steps. It is uncertain and ambiguous. Innovation for example, emerges out of the interaction between team members and does not originate from the actions of one individual.

In such an environment, focusing on performance is futile. It is a classic case of Obliquity. The goal of performance can only be achieved indirectly. While this seems like semantics, it represents a different approach to collaboration. This approach doesn’t see temporal performance as an indicator for success. Instead, this approach sees continued long-term relationships as the basis of excellence. It celebrates small wins, not because they represent performance success, but because it means the process the team is engaging with is effective. In that respect it will celebrate small losses the same way, in the celebrated mythical approach of Thomas Edison – “I did not fail—I just learned 999 ways on how not to make a light bulb”.

When this approach is implemented – and there is no attempt to claim that it is easy to do so – the focus of team leaders is the relationship between people in the team. That means that the tensions produced by failure are constantly revealed and discussed even before failure occurs. Failure is an expected result and part of the process continuing of toward excellence. It is not that good performance hides tensions and allows for collaboration while everything is working. Instead, true collaboration actively and consistently attends to the undercurrents that facilitate the emergence of performance.

Reading the comments to Amabile and Kramer post suggest that their approach is resonating with many people. What does it say about organizations’ approach to collaboration? Is the dominating approach pushing us to draw the wrong conclusions and prescriptions about how to manage collaboration? I think it does.

What do you think?

Elad

Next action: ask why?

Photo by blakeburris

In the last few weeks to different perspectives have mashed up into one coherent thought in my head. I guess it is s continuation of my latest focus on the issue of balance. On one side, I find the idea of outcome focus as discussed by Anita Woolley to be very compelling. Here is a quick reminder from one of my posts on this subject:

Put simply when a team, early in its life cycle, deliberately engages in thinking about outcomes (higher-level – “the what”) and not about process (lower lever – “the how”), it creates a norm of talking about the higher level. This in turn creates flexibility and an ability to adapt. These abilities allow for better performance on the team final task.

On the other hand, in the last few weeks I have been listening to Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen. One of the main concepts Allen introduces in his book is the question: “what is the next action?” Allen advocates for a focus on the concrete tangible doable action. Here is a short description of this concept:

… Next Actions concept says that if you have an abstract item on your to-do list (replace tires on car), you’ll never do it because every time you look at it, you’ll glaze the in-between steps. But you do have to think about what to do in order to do it. So why not think about it now? By thinking about it now and writing it down as a Next Action (the Next Action I can take to bring this project to completion), I can do that Next Action automatically the next time I see it instead of glazing over some nebulous far-in-the-future to-do. (Call tire shop for prices.) With a to-do list you have to make a decision on the next action for each item each time you look at it. With a Next Actions list, you have that decision made and you just have to choose which Next Action to do now.

While on a first glance these two concepts seem like opposites they are actually complementary. The relationship between them is quite fascinating when you think about it. You can’t actually properly think about how (or next action) until you understand that what (outcome focus). If what Woolley claims is correct, in teams, a preliminary focus on the process (the how) can be detrimental for future performance. At the same time, in order to be free to really contemplate the big whys in you projects, goals and life, you need to free your mind by focusing only on what you can do. What is great is that I actually found myself creating next actions that read: Think about why X…  at beginning of projects. A doable action that is focused on the desired outcome.

I love the balance between these two concepts and I try to incorporate habits based on them into my routine. So, when do you focus on next action and when do you focus on the desired outcome or purpose?

Elad

The categories of happiness

Photo by Pink Sherbet Photography

Yesterday, I read an article that was sitting in my “to read” folder for a while. It is called: “Positive Psychology Progress – Empirical Validation of Interventions” by Martin E. P. Seligman, Tracy A. Steen, Nansook Park and Christopher Peterson. Most of the article is highly technical but I encountered two interesting paragraphs that I want to share. Today I want to talk about this paragraph from the article:

We work under the assumption that happiness is a scientifically unwieldy term and that its serious study involves dissolving the term into at least three distinct and better-defined routes to “happiness”… : (a) positive emotion and pleasure (the pleasant life); (b) engagement (the engaged life); and (c) meaning (the meaningful life). Our recent research suggests that people reliably differ according to the type of life that they pursue and, further, that the most satisfied people are those who orient their pursuits toward all three, with the greatest weight carried by engagement and meaning… We continue to use the word happiness, but only in the atheoretical sense of labeling the overall aim of the positive psychology endeavor and referring jointly to positive emotion, engagement, and meaning.

Like every other goal in life, the first step to achieving it is to break it into smaller, easier to handle, steps. In some way or another, all of us have the goal of “being happy” somewhere in or mental to-do list. However, I think that this breakdown into three distinct categories is a great way to start the long journey towards it.

In addition I like the fact that authors emphasize two important issues:

  1. People differ in the proportion of significance they put on each category.
  2. One category by itself is never enough, it is about a mix. This means that the people who are trying to sell us a silver-bullet solution to happiness are scan artists. It also means that it is not wrong to dwell in a little bit of transient pleasure now and then. Life is not only about meaning and engagement but also about simple hedonistic delight.

In particular, the breakdown into three distinct categories can help managers and leaders create better environments and workplaces. A mix and match of the three categories allows for better planning of a happy workplace. More importantly, the understanding of the preferences of each individual allows for a personalized approach that supports and sustains the individual employee’s motivation and happiness levels.

So, how do you think about happiness in your own personal life and in your work setting? Do you find the three categories to be helpful?

Elad

Full citation: Martin E. P. Seligman, Tracy A. Steen, Nansook Park and Christopher Peterson (2005) “Positive Psychology Progress – Empirical Validation of Interventions” American Psychologist Vol. 60, No. 5, 410–42

Is your team thinking about higher level actions and goals?

Photo by alistair.gollop

In the last year or so, as part of a research project I am working on, I have been reading hundreds of academic articles on different aspects of teamwork. I must say that most articles are very shallow and focus on a very narrow idea. Most of the experiments have very limited implementation potential in the real world. That is mostly fine as this is how academic ideas develop. However, every once in a while I encounter an article that makes me say “Wow! This is deep and has implications”. This was the case when I read Amy Edmondson’s articles about psychological safety which I wrote about in the past. And this is the case with Anita Williams Woolley’s work on outcome and process focus.

In a series of studies Woolley demonstrated that the way a team initially discusses its task has tremendous effects on the way team members’ attitudes and behaviors will develop down the road, significantly affecting their performance. As Woolley puts it:

Thinking about a team’s process [process focus] involves identification of the specific subtasks that need to be completed, the resources available for doing so, and the coordination of each among members. In contrast, outcomes [outcomes focus] refer to the intended final product or results of the team’s work.

This distinction is based partly on earlier work regarding action identification:

[This] work has shown that individuals can identify actions as low-level, specific activities (e.g. ‘‘I am typing a report’’) or in higher-level terms that encompass multiple specific alternative activities for enactment (e.g. ‘‘I am consolidating and communicating my knowledge’’).

Put simply when a team, early in its life cycle, deliberately engages in thinking about outcomes (higher-level – “the what”) and not about process (lower lever – “the how”), it creates a norm of talking about the higher level. This in turn creates flexibility and an ability to adapt. These abilities allow for better performance on the team final task.

While this sounds simple enough, when you think about it, it really isn’t. Think about the last time you were on a team. I am willing to bet that there is high chance that the first thing that you did was to think about how to divide the work and how to distribute responsibilities. It not only comes naturally, it seems common sense to us to do that. I can’t count the times I heard (or said) the phrase, let’s each start working on it and it will come to us. Many times in these kinds of situations people feel it is a waste of time to talk about the ambiguous goals that we want to achieve. At least according to Woolley’s work that is exactly what they should do, because it creates an understanding of the purpose that later allows people to identify the specific actions with higher level goals.

I wrote a lot about rules in the past and I think this idea correlates with my thoughts about the subject. The problem with rules is that they deprive people from the connection to what actually matters. People forget that rules were put in place to achieve a certain goal. They then follow to rules blindly, even is situations when the best way to achieve the goal is actually ignoring the rule.

In the end, I think it is another interesting look at the idea of purpose and how important is for people – working in team or individually – to understand that purpose of what they are doing and how it relates to higher level goals – personal or organizational.

In a blog post today, Heidi Grant Halvorson has a very interesting point of view on this issue. Here is what she writes:

In order to experience a sense of autonomy, your employees need to understand why the goal or project they’ve been assigned has value.  Too often, managers tell their employees what they need to do, without taking the time to explain why it’s important, or how it fits into the bigger picture.  No one ever really commits to a goal if they don’t see why it’s desirable for them to do it in the first place.

Allowing your employees the freedom to decide how they will complete an assignment is another way to create the feeling of choice necessary to be intrinsically motivated.  Allowing them to tailor their approach to their preferences and abilities will also give them heightened sense of control over the situation they find themselves in, which can only benefit performance.

The important thing is the Why. The how will come afterwards.

Elad

Here are the academic citations for the Woolley articles:
Anita Williams Woolley (2009) “Putting first things first: Outcome and process focus in knowledge work teams” J. Organiz. Behav. 30, 427–452
Anita Williams Woolley (2009) “Means vs. Ends: Implications of Process and Outcome Focus for Team Adaptation and Performance” Organization Science 20(3), 500–515

What is your team’s creed?

I was watching Stanley McChrystal’s TED talk the other day. He gives an interesting perspective of leadership and learning the deal with the challenges of modern management in a very hierarchical style organization like the army. This is one issue he discusses:

And you have to watch and take care of each other. I probably learned the most about relationships. I learned they are the sinew which hold the force together. I grew up much of my career in the Ranger regiment. And every morning in the Ranger regiment, every Ranger — and there are more than 2,000 of them — says a six-stanza Ranger creed. You may know one line of it, it says, “I’ll never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy.” And it’s not a mindless mantra, and it’s not a poem. It’s a promise. Every Ranger promises every other Ranger no matter what happens, no matter what it costs me, if you need me, I’m coming.

When we talk about culture and the norms of the team that are a part of that culture we always need to consider how these norms are maintained. What is your team’s creed? What do you stand for and do you talk about it every day? What do you actively encourage – not as a blind command coming from above – but by a passionate belief emerging from below?

Elad

What we stand for

Photo by Horia Varlan

I don’t know if what I am going to do is considered plagiarism or copyright infringement. I don’t think this particular author will see it this way anyway. I honestly don’t care, as the following blog post is so powerful I feel an urge to bring it, in full, here. A few days ago, Seth Godin wrote:

The worst voice of the brand *is* the brand

We either ignore your brand or we judge it, usually with too little information. And when we judge it, we judge it based on the actions of the loudest, meanest, most selfish member of your tribe.

When a zealot advocates violence, outsiders see all members of his tribe as advocates of violence.

When a doctor rips off Medicare, all doctors are seen as less trustworthy.

When a fundamentalist advocates destruction of outsiders, all members of that organization are seen as intolerant.

When a soldier commits freelance violence, all citizens of his nation are seen as violent.

When a car rental franchise rips off a customer, all outlets of the franchise suffer.

Seems obvious, no? I wonder, then, why loyal and earnest members of the tribe hesitate to discipline, ostracize or expel the negative outliers.

“You’re hurting us, this is wrong, we are expelling you.”

What do you stand for?

Godin’s writes mainly (although not exclusively) about marketing. This post, however, is not about marketing or branding. It is, as the last line emphasizes, about what we stand for.

How many times have you stood up and said: “You’re hurting us, this is wrong, we are expelling you”. How many times did you say: “this kind of behavior will not do here”. What are you doing everyday to actively maintain the norms that make you proud of who you are and what you are doing?

For me, management and teamwork boils down to this. When and how to put your foot down against behaviors that go against the team. Of course, “behaviors that go against the team”, should not be confused with “ideas that don’t conform to what we are thinking”. Diversity of opinions, styles, approaches and motivations are welcome. Rudeness, disrespect, bullying, fear of failure and discouragement of effort are not. I think most people could agree on that. Can most people do what it takes to make this a reality? Probably not. Surely most managers I know or heard of can’t. So, what are you waiting for? In some respects, being unique has never been easier.

Elad