As the weather turns cold here in the Rocky Mountains and snow dusts the peaks of the Wasatch, join me by the fire as I sip an espresso and recount the tale of a team leader’s first encounter with the silent killers of team performance and people’s energy and engagement. The story holds lessons for every aspiring leader.
A while back I was working with a group of first-level team leaders, and we started discussing blind spots that can undermine a team’s performance and a team leaders’ career. One young woman, I’ll call her Devan, described an experience she had the previous year. It resonated with many of her colleagues, most of whom were also relatively new in their team leader role. Devan was an exceptional team player, worked hard, was well respected, and the executives in her company felt she had great potential as a leader — so she was chosen to head a new cross-division project. Her boss and several other directors launched the initiative and Devan’s role as a team leader at a kick-off meeting. With much fanfare and a carefully worded announcement laying out the new team’s goals, the senior managers and project sponsors emphasized the importance of the initiative, described the KPIs they’d measure by, and pledged their allegiance to the team. High-fives all around.
Like an incoming stealth missile, leaders often can’t see relationships deteriorating and people disengaging until it’s too late.
As the glare of the spotlight dimmed, the challenges of leading a cross-division and cross-functional team began to sink in. Most of the team members also had other responsibilities, so the pressures of balancing day-to-day taskwork and teamwork began to mount. With bandwidth low and emotions high, friction within the team arose. Within a couple of months, what previously seemed like minor differences among Devan’s team members, became more severe and began affecting the way people treated each other. Team meetings became an exercise in managing competing factions or dealing with disrespectful or even bullying behavior. And gossip was further deteriorating the relationships on the team. As team performance began to suffer, Devan found herself “resetting expectations” around the project deliverables and their timing with her boss, stating the challenges of conflicting projects and priorities or missing skills as the culprit.
As the project ended, the results were mediocre at best. Much to Devan’s frustration, her boss said that he was surprised and disappointed. Fortunately, he treated it as a learning opportunity and Devan believed there was no lasting damage to her career. As can be typical in large organizations, after some cross-division finger pointing and calls for a ‘post-mortem’ that never happened, the initiative was forgotten. For Devan, the lingering question that continued to haunt her thoughts was, “why didn’t I see those issues coming?”
Measuring What Matters
After Devan finished her story, I asked the other team leaders for their view of what went wrong. After a few minutes of discussion, they came up with three themes:
- A lack of appropriate support from Devan’s manager and other project sponsors.
- Choosing the wrong people for the team.
- Devan’s training was insufficient.
While acknowledging that all of those may have been a factor, I pointed out that their diagnosis only identified causes external to the day-to-day functioning of the team. I challenged the group to dig deeper by asking themselves what could have prevented the unfortunate outcome. We got on a whiteboard and listed all the factors that led to the results. Within about 20 minutes, a pattern emerged – the behavior of the people on the team over time had the most significant impact on the results. I then asked Devan to list the KPI’s by which she and her team were measured. You could hear the simultaneous “aha!” of the whole group.
…relationships on the team degraded to the point where no one could work together effectively, and the project was doomed to mediocrity.
Peter Drucker observed that, in business, it’s difficult to improve things you don’t measure. I would add that if you don’t measure one of the most critical determinants of team success – relationship strength – you’re asking your team leaders to fly blind. With team leaders focused on project milestones, coordinating meetings, and action-items, they may sense that there is something amiss with the team but, like an incoming stealth missile, they won’t see the relationships deteriorating and people disengaging until it’s too late. As Devan and her colleagues realized, the problem she faced was clear – relationships on the team degraded to the point where no one could work together effectively, and the project was doomed to mediocrity. Which leaves us to answer the question, “How do you measure what really matters?”
Lessons from the Best
Exceptional teams who operate in very high stakes environments – e.g., ER teams, Navy SEAL teams, fighter pilot squadrons, and others – spend years ingraining the habits that develop and sustain strong, trusting relationships. They excel at closing any relationship gaps that might get in the way of team performance, engagement, and wellbeing. Well enough for the best-of-the-best, but what about the tens of thousands of first-level team leaders in everyday companies?
Three behaviors significantly hinder a team and team leader’s ability to identify behavioral issues early enough to correct them before they do real damage:
- The first has its origins in a common cognitive bias – a superiority bias that causes people to believe that they are already experienced, capable team leaders, so “this can’t happen to them.”
- Second is the practice of relying on rear-view mirror KPIs. Typical measures of performance – such as project milestones, action item completion, or employee engagement – are all lagging indicators and tell you nothing about real-time team dynamics.
- The third is that most leaders don’t focus on the health of team relationships because they don’t know how to measure the strength of relationships. Without measurement, it’s difficult to have a fact-based, data-driven conversation around improvement.
The single most crucial dynamic on a team is the strength of the relationships among the team members and with the team leader.
Understanding the behaviors that put teams on a path to mediocrity is critical to making changes that lead to better performance. The single most crucial dynamic on a team is the strength of the relationships among the team members and with the team leader. Adding a forward-looking KPI that measures team relationship strength gives team leaders a radar to identify behavioral issues before they damage the team’s performance and diminish people’s energy and engagement. Measuring relationship strength also identifies gaps in a team leader’s ability to anticipate and manage relationship issues, enabling the right conversation to happen at the right time.
Devan and her fellow team leaders made the connection between identifying and managing relationship issues with team performance, energy, and engagement – and, they better understood why Devan didn’t see the issues coming. The question they couldn’t answer was how to get their managers to see that same connection and provide the tools and metrics to uncover issues before they derail projects and perhaps careers. That’s a topic for another evening by the fire.