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Weekly Thought Volume - 98 - Teamwork and Communications

From Al Switzer on Teamwork and Communications: I think there is a lesson here that everyone can benefit from.  It’s been a periodic problem at our locations, and I’m sure it’s shared by many.

“I'm going to share a few words about issues that affect job satisfaction. My comments here are not based on a scientific study, but on more than thirty years of consulting with organizations and teams.

It's important to make a distinction between a "friend" and an "accomplice." A friend is someone who helps you; an accomplice is someone who helps you get in trouble. It is often hard to tell the difference. In the moment, when someone encourages you to do something or engages you in a conversation, it is difficult to foresee the consequences. So, what seems to be a friendly gesture can become the act of an accomplice. Over the years, in hundreds of organizations, I've seen numerous ways in which colleagues become accomplices. Two categories are clearly at the top of the list.

First, colleagues go to silence. There is an epidemic of silence in organizations all around the world, and the consequences are severe. Problems aren't addressed, standards are lowered, wasteful practices are continued, and so on.

When people don't speak up about crucial issues, they become accomplices. Being silent can be a private, individual act because each person has to weigh his or her options and decide if speaking up is the best option. More often than not, the person chooses caution over candor and so problems persist or fester. Peer pressure is also involved in a person's decision to remain silent. Colleagues become accomplices when they make suggestions like, "We don't bring things like that up." Or, "You do that and it will limit your career." Or, "Upper management doesn't listen, ever!" Beware of similar comments.

The second way colleagues become accomplices is by gossiping. Gossip can be identified when you or someone you see talks about a person but not to the person. Almost everyone identifies gossip when they see it or hear it, and yet sometimes this gossip is labeled as something more positive like, "I was just venting." Or, "I was just talking with a friend." Gossip clearly comes with many negative consequences. Trust and respect are diminished—this is true of the team and it is ultimately true of the gossiper. In addition, the time people spend gossiping is non-value-added time. Work isn't getting done.

And with weaker relationships, future work will be harder to do.

My point is that you are right to concern yourself with these issues. Silence can be deadly. Gossip is hurtful. So what do you do when you face these immediate, costly issues?

I'll start with a common indirect strategy people use particularly when they don't feel personally capable to hold a direct conversation or they don't think they have a strong enough relationship to hold a direct conversation. This strategy is known as the "ground rule" strategy. Ground rules are specific commitments a team agrees to work on that will help them function more effectively. This is done in a small group by brainstorming and it ends with a couple of commitments.

Ground rules help clarify needed behaviors and define boundaries. For example, I've seen the following ground rules:

  1. If we have an issue with a team member, we will talk to that person directly, privately, and in a professional way.
  2. In our conversations about our colleagues, we will be positive and supportive.
  3. If someone talks to us about a colleague in a way that is not positive, we will encourage him or her to enact rule #1.

These ground rules are not a panacea. They need to be modified when necessary. You should address these rules in team meetings by asking two questions—"How are we doing?" and "What could we do better?" Ground rules create clear expectations that can positively influence behavior and can make holding others accountable more likely. One of the benefits of this strategy is that it engages the boss and the whole team. You don't have to hold a dozen conversations over time. You might want to see if your boss will lead this conversation. If you can, you are more likely to deal with the issue "once and for all."

Finally, I would like to offer some advice for a more direct conversation. I talked about silence and gossip at the beginning because, when you talk to your boss or your colleagues, you will need to explain what you are trying to achieve. What are the benefits, and what are the costs you are trying to avoid? I hope my descriptions will help.”

When I have the opportunity to speak with other school leaders and managers, the problems we have are shared by all close knit organizations…it’s what keeps us all awake at night and provides a menu of intractable issues or opportunities that disturb our sense of confidence.

And whether it’s a big organization or a small one, there’s ONE problem common to each of them….and they all know it, but only a few ever talk openly about it. Ignorance.

The REALITY is that no leader is fully informed of what is happening on his or her watch.

Contrary to the popular phrase, Ignorance is NOT Bliss.

Now, in theory it shouldn’t be happening. We have a chain of command that should ensure that all the information reaches up to the top. Daily reports should flag the critical issues, balance sheets should show you the trends, sales reports should give you forecasts. And they all do….up to a point.

The problem is that none of these processes work quite well enough. Out here in the West a prime example of that is Pacific Gas and Electric who is still taken by surprise when communities blow up! Lehman Brothers, Enron, Citibank and Merrill Lynch come to mind too. They had no REAL idea how much money they had.

It can happen to you too.

The most tempting thing in the world to say is “well it happened to them, but not to us. That can’t happen here.” They just had bad leaders…a few bad apples.

But the minute you say that is the minute you realize it COULD happen. It might already be too late.

It’s called “Willful Blindness”, the human propensity to ignore the obvious. It’s not just a business problem either. People do it constantly in their personal lives when we turn a blind eye to relationships that aren’t working, credit bills ignored on the desk, pretending that tanning booths don’t really hurt us…..

There are numerous social, economical, physical and psychological roadblocks that create willful blindness. The key, as Switzer outlines above is open lines of communication with a mind to come to a productive, honest and agreeable decision that benefits the team.

Thanks for reading…