Don't Mistake Harmony for Healthy in the Workplace
Beware of the Comfort Zone
Cross-functional teams are vital to the success of many businesses and organizations, and the highest performing teams thrive in a healthy culture. Much has been written about the need for team members to build mutual trust if they want to achieve peak performance. Too often, though, people mistake a lack of conflict for trust and a healthy culture.
Even the highest performing teams can improve, and it is up to the leader to set the tone. Since most teams think they are performing well enough, it takes courage, conviction, a growth mindset and even prodding by the leader. Otherwise, this can lead to complacency and willful blindness to weaknesses and threats that might undermine future team performance.
In my work with leadership teams and boards, the one team trait I most often find lacking is constructive contention. Either because there is a lack of vigorous debate, or the debates are too often unhealthy and unbalanced.
Most of the Chief Executives I work with initially think their leadership team is healthy because they deliver decent results and appear to function, for the most part, harmoniously. When we dig deeper, however, we often find that some leadership team members essentially survive “by going along to get along,” so they can focus the bulk of their energy and time on leading the people they supervise.
This is understandable and human nature given that, in most cases, they selected and built their team they lead; whereas they likely had little say in the makeup of the CEO’s leadership team on which they serve. The team they lead “back on the farm” in their function or division is where their loyalty lies. It’s their comfort zone.
What Success Looks Like
On higher performing teams, team members complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They exude a “we are stronger than me” attitude by breaking down silos, working effectively across territorial boundaries, and working together to bring out the best in other leaders and difference-makers throughout their organization. Team members are fully committed to the team’s success, and are willing to sacrifice their egos for the good of the team. Team leadership is shared, and members hold each other accountable. In fact, they are deeply concerned about delivering on their promises and not letting down their teammates.
All of this can lead to a sense of harmony when the team is firing on all cylinders and achieving good results, but the best leaders realize this is a seductive trap to be avoided. They diligently work to cultivate constructive contention to keep their team on its toes. The toughest challenges are sought out and put on the table for vigorous debate regularly. Team members are all-in and unguarded in search of the optimal solution. When consensus is unachievable, the leader makes the call, and all members lock arms and press forward with unity and resoluteness. Passive-aggressive behavior is not tolerated.
Here are 7 tips to cultivate a healthier team that debates important challenges and opportunities vigorously and constructively, and then takes collective action that delivers stellar results:
1. Set the tone by modeling what is needed to achieve constructive contention. Be attentive to the self-esteem of your teammates by avoiding attacks and passive-aggressive behavior. The following will help you create psychological safety for your team.
Listen for learning, not just responding
Clarify, confirm and validate to ensure you are hearing what others are intending
Catch, highlight and reward healthy debate and even dissention when done respectfully and productively
2. Foster creative and outside-the-box solutions.
Welcome and embrace diversity of style, behavior and thinking
Seek contrarian points of view – stir the pot
Challenge beyond the first satisfactory solution
3. Maximize the sharing of information and learning.
Feed the curious and those with the courage to challenge conventional wisdom
Encourage constructive push-back
Invite dissention by preceding an opinion with, “I could be wrong, but…”.
4. Help your team understand that holding back is an issue of integrity. When team members withhold controversial information in the interest of politics, harmony or compliance, it can undermine team performance. Make sure everyone knows you genuinely value respectful dissent, and that leaning back rather than in will harm the culture you are attempting to cultivate.
5. Don’t waste time on superficial team building exercises. Use real-world planning and work sessions to strategically create actions that make a difference, manage execution, and cultivate collaboration, leading to successful results. That’s how you build trust. It’s earned, not given.
6. Use a market-driven strategic planning process that encourages leaders and difference-makers at all levels to step up. Then use monthly team work sessions to operationalize the plan and hold everyone accountable. Take the extra step to set priorities and allocate resources strategically. This is the heavy lifting of leadership.
Many leaders, especially in larger companies, abdicate this responsibility because it involves difficult choices and conflict. They would rather set lofty objectives, goals and strategies, and leave the dirty work to others in the name of empowerment. The best leadership teams take a more hands-on approach to ensure that the right people are in the right places doing the right things. They also have a much more accurate view of the leadership potential of emerging leaders as a result because they are in it to win it with them. Consequently, they tend to make much better leadership succession decisions.
7. Ask leading questions such as:
I wonder why?
Could we at least?
What matters most?
What do you think?
How can I help?
And my favorite: If our consumers and customers were here, what would they say?
Teams are a lot like living, breathing organisms that respond to many variables the leader should be persistently orchestrating and balancing. Higher performing teams learn to lean on each other’s strengths to synergistically achieve a higher level of performance than could be achieved by operating individually or in silos. They are secure enough to seek different points of view even if it disrupts team harmony because they understand that contention, when orchestrated constructively, can lead to a healthier team culture and better results—for the team, and the organization.