The majority of the work that I’ve done professionally over the last, almost 30 years, has been in one of two categories. It’s either been coaching leaders or working with teams. And most effectively when they are both combined in tandem. One of the most curious observations and indeed conundrums that I’ve discovered during the time is that practically everybody can explain and describe what it’s like and what the characteristics of, because they’ve had the experience of it sometime, working in a highly effective, highly functional, high-performing team. They can equally, with equal clarity and distinction, describe what it’s like to work in a dysfunctional underperforming and ineffective team.
But here’s the rub. Whilst practically everybody can describe, and know what it’s like to work in a very high-performing team, very, very few people I’ve met are capable of building one. It’s a little like me in the kitchen. I know what great food tastes like when I taste it, but I have no idea how to create the taste.
Equally, leaders find it very easy to articulate what it is that is currently or presently wrong with the team and what isn’t working, and what’s getting in the way. And if I asked you to take a moment and pause, to reflect on the things that aren’t working well within your own team, what are the top one, or two, or three things that you would identify. They are probably pretty much front of mind.
If you Google this, you’ll find a huge range of things that cause teams to fail or not work effectively. Anything ranging from unresolved differences, conflict, lack of clarity, lack of resources. The list is endless. And it’s the very fact that this list seems endless and uncontrollable, that it makes it overwhelming for leaders, and causes people to wonder where to start or if it’s possible to start at all.
So here’s the first point of comfort. Whatever it is, that’s ailing your team, wherever the breakdown is that you see, all things that cause teams to be ineffective are traceable back to the two founding fathers, of the ailment, which are, either an absence of clarity or an absence of commitment. If you’re able to diagnose the element back to one of those two sources, then it’s a starting point at being able to deal with the problem. So the way in which to go about building or rebuilding your team is to start off by addressing the clarity question.
And the clarity question is designed to be addressed through creating five principal agreements. Understanding what those agreements are, is the first step towards high performance, high effectiveness in your team. And these agreements we’ve already discussed during the last three episodes in this mini season about building teams.
We need to, first of all, have an agreement around where we’re going. So what are we going to achieve or setting out to achieve, what’s our destination as a team. Secondly, why are we doing it? What’s our purpose. And what’s the purpose of doing this? Thirdly, who’s in the team, what’s the individual role and what’s the responsibility that we have. Fourthly, what are our priorities, in terms of getting from where we are now to where we want to get to, our destination. And finally, what are the terms of engagement, ways of working, expectations that we have from one another in terms of how we behave and how we interact.
In order to get to agreement in all five cases, it’s impossible to do without having a conversation, but at least if you’re having these conversations, be reassured that you’re having the right conversations. The question is how do you have the right conversations, in the right way? So where to get started, is you can’t have all five conversations simultaneously.
So my strong suggestion is, given that I’ve already asked the question of the thing that’s getting in the way the most with the team, that’s top of mind, or front of mind, the greatest breakdown or obstacle or ailment that you’ve got, well, which one of those conversations or agreements is the one that is the highest priority. And it may be that top of your list is that there’s a confusion around what the priorities are, which wouldn’t be unusual during, or because of the state of chassis that we have found ourselves in, in the last number of months. So let’s say we’ve decided to have the What conversation to agree what our priorities are.
Here’s the challenge in getting to agreement. The first challenge is that, however many team members there are, that’s how many versions of, the answer to that question that you’re dealing with. In my experience, many teams walk around spending their entire tenure holding on to their own version of that question. By holding onto our own version of it, we never get to a point of agreement, which makes us at best ineffective as a team, because we’re all going in different directions, with a different version of the question or the answer. And in worst cases, it leads to high levels of toxicity.
In order to get to agreement and to get commitment to those agreements, we need to be able to go from my version, to our version. And in my experience, one of three things happens. The first I’ve already mentioned where there’s no conversation, it never happens. People bask in the comfort of their own version and nothing ever gets reconciled and you either get ineffectiveness or toxicity or both. The second thing that happens, alternatively, is that there’s an attempt to have an agreement or get to an agreement and it’s the right conversation, but it’s conducted in the wrong way, meaning unskillfully. With the result that you might get to a point of clarity, but the clarity is not accompanied by commitment.
Any highly effective team that I’ve ever worked with, has found a way to engage in the right conversations and find agreements, where individual versions become a common version, but they do it in a way which is the right way and builds and breeds commitment. So, how do you have the right conversation, in the right way, with the team that gets to a point of agreement, clarity, but not only that, that there’s a commitment to whatever that agreement is.
While I want you to imagine that the conversation is a box and let’s call it the conversation box. Into the box we need to be able to have contribution from me and my version, but also it needs to include the contributions and the versions of any other member of the team. As a leader, obviously your mandate is to make decisions and make judgements and make a call and set the direction, so therefore you occupy a very special place. But if the conversation box, as happens in many autocratic or highly directive leaders, only includes your suggestions, your solutions and your version, then people will tolerate that because they have to, you’re the boss after all. But they will not act upon it unless, or until, it includes their version. So the box needs to include my version and the elements of other people’s versions, to arrive at a point where it becomes our version and there is commitment to it.
Let’s say that that conversation box is the What conversation, and we’re having a conversation to agree what our priorities are, as a team. We have this exact situation with two clients currently, and the issue with getting all versions into the conversation box to get to a point of commitment, is hamstrung by two very, very different challenges.
In one case, the challenge is, that people are afraid to speak up and share and say what they really think. In the other case, it’s the exact opposite problem. People are so focused on pushing through their version at the expense of others, that they’re not listening or caring for other people’s sides. In both situations, as it stands, we are never going to get to a point of common agreement that we can all commit to as a team that’s going to enable us to be as fully effective as it’s possible to be.
So how do you address that? Well you address that by having a set of ways of working, that we commonly commit to, as we discuss and try to come to our agreement around what the priorities are for us as a team, moving forward.
Imagine these ways of working as being four cards that you all have, that you play, we call them the four Commitment Cards. And the four cards that everybody signs up to using are Straight Talk, we speak our truth. Inquire, we ask open questions without judgment. Hear, we commit to listening, to understanding other people’s sides, again, without judging. And fourthly that we Acknowledge the good intentions or the concerns or what’s right on their side of the bridge, without necessarily having to agree.
The great thing about the model of having the right conversations, to get to clarity and agreement, whilst using the four Commitment Cards to enable that conversation to happen skillfully, where there’s commitment at the end of it, instead of just compliance, is that it can be done very successfully, even when you’re remote, as we mostly are, as we’re trying to figure out what the return to office really looks like.
I’m going to sign off now because I don’t know the extent to which you believe in serendipity, but at this very moment, as I’m recording this episode, I’ve just had a request in, from a client, that’s come in via LinkedIn. It’s a group head of operations asking me, hi, Ian. I hope you’re well, it’s been a long time. I’m wondering if you facilitate team strategy workshops. Question Mark. Thanks.
So serendipity being what it is, I better go off and attend to the work at hand. If you’d like more information on the Commitment Cards and the creation of Clarity, go to Greenline conversations.com, where there’s far more information there on how it’s done.
And in the meantime, I hope that you stay safe, stay sane and stay connected. Until next time.
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