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

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 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

Are you always too available?

photo by Alaskan Dude

I am managing a number of students working on a moot court event. In this capacity I am coaching the students to build their own arguments and develop their legal writing skills. I am constantly there to provide them feedback and ideas and try to stay out of their way and let them do the work and learn from it.

From day one I emphasized how available I am for them. I try to be responsive and reply to every e-mail as promptly as I can. Whenever they call, I usually take a few minutes and make sure I answer their questions.

In the first few months of the project, I was struggling with how to make them use me more. Because what they are doing is so new and different from everything they have done so far, they have many questions and sometimes they did not comfortable “bothering” me all the time. It was hard to convince them that I am here to help them and that it is not only my job but I also enjoy doing it.

This week I learned the other side of this balance. I was preoccupied and was not able to answer a call from one of the students. When I returned to her a few hours later to ask if I can help, she said: “no, it is OK, I had a problem, but I found my own solution”.

It suddenly dawned on me. Sometimes, it is important not to be too available, on purpose.

In a Knowledge@Wharton article titled “The Problem with Financial Incentives — and What to Do About It”, Wharton management professors Adam Grant and Jitendra Singh discuss the importance of autonomy:

For example, in a study at a printing company, Michigan State’s Fred Morgeson and colleagues found that when teams lacked clear feedback and information systems, giving them autonomy led them to expend more effort, use more skills and spend more time solving problems. Numerous other studies have shown that allowing employees to exercise choices about goals, tasks, work schedules and work methods can increase their motivation and performance.

This was another lesson on the importance of balance in the everyday life of any manager working with people. Yes, you should have people’s back and make sure they have the knowledge and resources they need to do their work. At the same time, you need to know when the get out of the way on purpose.

Are you intentionally creating autonomy moments for your employees and team members or are you always too available?

Elad

Interaction waste management systems

Photo by kyz

Waste is a natural part of many processes in life. Our body produces it all the time. Many chemical reactions have a main product for the reaction and waste-like by-product. Philosophies like Lean focus on eliminating non necessary waste and reducing the necessary waste to a minimum in business settings (the classical classification is to seven types of waste: Transportation, Inventory, Motion, Wait, Over-processing, Over-production, Defect).

Relationships and people interactions are also creating waste. Hurt feelings, frustrations, misunderstandings, tensions and negative affect are some waste by-products of any human interactions. Put a group of people to work together and you will no doubt have some of these to different degrees. However, while we have process in place to eliminate actual waste –in our bodies, homes and businesses (hopefully), it is not so common to have systems in place to take care of this interaction waste.

We all know what happens then – the waste accumulates until – in good cases – it blows up in one big explosion. Some people try to rationalize and claim that these things need to build up and that the big explosions are beneficial. “We had a big talk yesterday about all the tensions we had in the last few months and cleared everything up. I feel great!”.

Really?

It is like saying that instead of taking the garbage out regularly from your apartment you will hold all of it until there is no room and then take it all out at once. Yes, in the end the waste will be cleared, but what has this process done to your quality of life?

In a recent Freakonomics podcast called: “The power of poop” the emerging medical process of “fecal transplants” was discussed. Yes, you read it right. Doctors are taking feces from one person and transferring it to another person. It turns out that this process helps cure a wide range of diseases, some of which traditional medicine hasn’t been able to deal with. According to researchers, this works because the sick people waste management system is all screwed-up and by putting back a functional system (some good bacteria) you can re-create balance in the waste system that affects the whole body.

And if it works for our bodies, why wouldn’t it work for our interactions? What kind of interaction waste management system do you have for your team? how frequently is it being activated?

Elad

Norm maintenance cost

Photo by vagawi

I play basketball weekly with a number of groups. It is my favorite sport and I enjoy the physical activity very much. However, I see this activity as a hobby and while it is important for me to compete and win, it is more important to enjoy the process. A few years ago I found myself playing with a group that was too competitive, kept arguing and shouting at each other. I ended up leaving. It was not worth the effort.

About two weeks ago I was attending one of these weekly meetings and enjoying myself. Suddenly, two of the guys started arguing. One of them used profane language and the other person got so mad he attacked him and tried to kick him. The rest of the players stopped him and nothing happened. We continued playing and everything seemed fine. I forgot about it.

About a week later we got an email from the attacker. He said our team leader (the one who organizes the game, collects the money, etc.) asked him to leave the group. He wrote that he accepts the decision and that he wished all of us luck. For a split second I asked myself – “why? Nothing happened”. But it did not take me long to recover. I hit reply and send an email to the team leader. “Well done” I wrote. “That was a brave, unconventional decision”.

It was the easy path to ignore the incident. Everybody gets angry. Nothing really happened. We stopped the person in time. This is the commonplace line of thinking. However, if you are trying to set the culture of an organization or create the norms of a group, these moments are a remarkable test of management and leadership. Sociologist Diane Vaughan calls this the normalization of deviance. When small, seemingly insignificant deviations from the norm, slowly but surely pile up until they change the organization’s culture. These deviations start in the smallest tiniest infractions of the norm and build their way up. It is a slippery slope.

Let’s say you espouse a culture of openness to ideas in your team. The next meeting somebody tells his new crazy idea and another teammate immediately reacts by making a face and saying: “this wouldn’t work”. What do you do? What is your decision at that moment? Do you stop the meeting and talk about the infraction of the norm or do you politely lead the discussion to the possibilities represented by the radical idea? I believe norm creation starts with small (and difficult) things. And it demands constant maintenance. Ignoring the remark might not lead to a disaster right away, but it sets the tone. If you maintaining the norms is not costing you something, it is a sure sign you are probably not doing it.

Are you making the tough decisions and putting your foot down in places that don’t seem to matter? What are the norms you are espousing with your team? What kind of deviance from them do you see every day? What are you doing about it? What is your norm maintenance cost?

Elad