I recently completed a series of interviews with members of a production leadership team and was struck by some of their comments. They expressed frustration that the meetings seemed to be dominated by three or four people, while others just stayed in their “silos” contributing only when asked a specific question related to their area of expertise. When I probed deeper, some explained that the team’s decisions seemed to be made “offline” before the meeting and as a result, they felt they didn’t really have anything to contribute. The same held true for what topics ended up on the agenda. Even though the team was formed to deal with the tough issues, such as resource constraints and delayed timelines, the majority of the meeting time was spent updating on production status. Nothing was mentioned about the current production issues, struggles or concerns, or plans for the future. In fact, one individual mentioned that if you just reported status in a vague, general manner you were much less likely to get questioned than if you provided considerable detail and recommendations for changes. Detailed responses seemed to launch the whole team into a debate about whether the recommendations were right or wrong. The unwritten rule of the team was to surface as little controversial information as possible in order to stay out of the critical cross-fire that always ensued.
Ironically, even though this team is a vital part of the organization’s new business model, it has fallen into the trap of complacency, lack of accountability and inattention to results. Its members are becoming experts at “dodgeball” by avoiding the important, deep discussions that the team needs to have in order to address the original concerns that prompted creating the team in the beginning.
So the question becomes how do you stop this downward spiral? How do you turn around a team that is slipping into mediocrity and bring on commitment to priorities, accountability and responsibility?
First it begins with the type of leadership displayed. While organizations want leaders who take charge and lead effectively, this directive is often misunderstood as desiring a ‘command-and-control’ approach. In addition, the emphasis is often on doing more with less and hurrying the process along to increase the speed. You quickly get a picture of a leader who operates behind the scenes in ad hoc conversations in order to make quick decisions and then comes into the meeting that he or she facilitates, with everything completed. It doesn’t take long for others to figure out that the discussion underway is a perfunctory exercise with little or no true impact on the results. Today’s leader must balance the need for results with an eye toward the processes (“how” we get there) and the relationships being built.
As a result of a heavy style of leadership, team members are confused about their roles and responsibilities. Often there is significant difference between the way a team member role is described in the team charter and how it actually operates in real life. For example, when asked to join the team, the team member is encouraged to be open, share ideas, and bring his/her years of experience to the discussion. The invitation is there; it’s the reality that causes confusion. Let’s imagine that the leader begins the meeting talking about the need to change the timeline for a subcontractor on a project. The leader suggests some changes and asks for ideas. That’s when Jim (fictitious name) joins the discussion and suggests a different approach. When the leader pauses, looks at him and replies, “We don’t have time for anything like that,” the message is clear to Jim to keep his mouth shut in the future. However, not only is Jim influenced, but so is the entire team. Our ability to pick up the “unwritten rules of the game” is astounding at times. We can make and read countless body language signals.
When I asked the individual if he had shared his frustration over being shot down by the leader, he replied, “Oh, it’s no big deal. Probably wasn’t a good idea anyway.” In this type of environment, it’s more important to maintain artificial harmony than to surface the conflicts. What people miss is that every time we don’t surface issues and discuss them openly, we pull away a little bit and reduce our commitment to the outcomes. It’s a subtle adjustment of our passion for what we’re doing. And as we adjust our passion, we adjust our standards. We no longer are driven toward excellence. We can attend ineffective, useless meeting and not complain. We accept decisions made in the “back room” and focus more on whether we’re maintaining a non-descript, middle-of-the-road persona than on our attention to results. How do you begin to change this picture? Download our 6 points To Building Prioritization and Accountability in Initiatives.
It’s so much harder to get an existing team to reverse its ways and learn to take accountability, than to set up the accountability system from the beginning (download Accountability: An I Experience). Yet, in the beginning everyone is being so pleasant and cooperative; it feels uncomfortable to talk about expectations and responsibilities. One thing we know: we can always count on the “storming” stage of teaming to highlight what needs fixing. By then, people have relaxed into their comfortable modes of behavior and the problems emerge.