A mong the many leadership styles researched and written about in the milieu of articles and books every year, one that receives little attention is “high-say-low-do” leadership. While not a style that many aspire to emulate, it is nonetheless one of the most pervasive. One particularly significant example is what gets said about team development versus what gets done. Virtually every leader touts a deep belief in teams and teamwork and preaches the importance of it. The research that supports their enthusiasm is incontrovertible. Yet, most organizations do little to train their team leaders, especially first-level leaders, in how to develop and maintain high-performance teams. This high-say-low-do approach to team development results in an all too common pattern of team performance:
- Leadership launches a new team initiative with much fanfare, a carefully worded organizational announcement, and a kick-off meeting. At the meeting, leaders emphasize the importance of the initiative and pledge their allegiance to the team. High-fives all around.
- Within a month or two, as the glare of the kick-off spotlight dims and the pressures of day-to-day task work and teamwork take precedence, differences within the team arise. The most common culprits are issues with team norms like equal voice or psychological safety, or poor communications.
- As the team leader and team members haven’t been trained to anticipate or deal with the relationship issues, they are ignored or only addressed at a surface level. Team leaders report progress as “all’s good!”
- Over time, the differences devolve into dysfunction and relationships between those affected deteriorate. Team performance begins to suffer, and the team leader begins to “reset expectations” with management.
- Deterioration leads to varying degrees of disgruntled accommodation and disengagement among the team members, which results in a mediocre-at-best outcome.
- Management feigns surprise, proceeds with a round of hand-wringing and perhaps finger-pointing. There are demands for a ‘post-mortem’ – and then silence, after which they rinse and repeat.
What is somewhat mystifying about the preceding scenario is not the outcome. A team leader and team that isn’t trained to recognize the issues that lead to deterioration and disengagement on the team is unlikely to deliver expected, let alone exceptional, results. The mystery is, given the importance of team effectiveness to organizational results and individual well-being, why don’t more senior leaders give their team leaders the training and tools they need to predict performance issues and address them?
A team leader who isn’t trained to recognize the issues that lead to deterioration and disengagement on a team is unlikely to deliver expected, let alone exceptional, results.
Look at the Habits
There is no lack of advice on developing high-performance teams. A Google search of the term produces 1.3 million hits. Much of this literature reminds me of the economic theory and econometric model discussions I endured as an undergraduate before the advent of behavioral economics – it is occasionally intellectually interesting, but almost always devoid of a solid connection to the reality of what goes on in the workplace. I’ve observed three ‘real-world’ habits of mostly corporate middle managers that significantly impede the ability of their teams to predict team performance issues early enough to correct them:
- The first has its origins in a common cognitive bias. Specifically, a superiority bias that causes managers, and their subordinates, to believe that they are all experienced, accomplished team leaders with little need for training or coaching. This fosters a habit of forming teams with little thought given to important team fundamentals or relationship dynamics. It is a particularly difficult habit to change because it is often subconscious and almost always closely tied to the manager’s ego and tendency to rationalize mediocre results.
- Second, is the habit of relying on rear-view mirror key performance indicators (KPI’s). Typical measures of performance such as project milestones, sell-out, inventory turns, or even employee engagement, are all lagging indicators of performance and tell a team leader little about real-time dynamics within the team. While setting particular KPI’s aren’t usually a deeply embedded habit, they often reflect habits driven by broader cultural factors such as a focus on short-term results over longer-term development.
- Third, and perhaps the most significant because it should be the easiest habit to change, is senior leaders simply don’t ask team leaders about team dynamics and the health of team relationships. Unfortunately, this third habit is closely tied to the first – if you believe that you and your teams are already superior, and rationalize any reality to the contrary, then you’re unlikely to change the questions you ask.
Understanding the habits that put teams on a path to mediocrity is critical to making changes that lead to better performance. Only with that understanding and commitment to change can organizational leaders focus on developing the few, key habits that will help their team leaders better predict their performance and take early actions to improve.
Predicting Team Performance – Keep It simple
Only with understanding and commitment to change can leaders focus on developing the few, key habits that will help better predict their performance and take early actions to improve.
Team performance is critical to organizational success and is becoming ever more important as more organizations become reliant upon knowledge workers, global teams, and shared leadership to drive results. With the stakes being so high, there is no lack of cutting-edge tech solutions promising better predictions of team performance. A few examples include:
- Big data – attempting to predict people interactions through automated data collection and content analysis via e-mail, text messaging, social network exchanges, search records, etc.
- Sociometric badges – using electronic tags to track team member locations and infer relationship health based on proximity and interaction duration and frequency.
- Physiological metrics – these include eye gaze, bodily gestures, and brainwave data analyzed with algorithms adapted from linguistic style matching. A little ‘Minority Report’ like creepy.
The practical implementation challenges and ethical implications aside, the tech solutions above all contain an implicit assumption – that people need to be monitored to figure out the state of the important team relationships that predict team performance. That is a fundamentally flawed assumption. Decades of research on work motivation shows that people want to find purpose and meaning in their work and work relationships. Most people also want to quickly close any gaps that get in the way of the health of those relationships and achieve the common team goals around which those relationships are built. For team leaders, to better predict performance, address issues early, and keep your team on the path to high-performance actively manage your team’s relationships by:
- Consistently discussing team dynamics and the state of team relationships during check-ins and reviews.
- Including a measure of team relationship strength in your KPI’s.
- Investing in team development training and relationship management tools.
When it comes to team development, high-say-low-do leadership that results in team leaders flying blind is a recipe for mediocrity (or worse). Predicting team performance is not only crucial for determining the likelihood of delivering on specific task goals, but improving the strength of team relationships also fosters higher levels of physical and mental health and overall greater employee well-being.