Accelerating Your Team's Productivity
Laura Stack (Author)
Publication date: 01/23/2018
Relationships at work are defined by the way in which two or more people or organizations regard and behave toward each other.
The overarching mindset here is that everyone gets along. That doesn’t mean you all must be best friends and go to happy hour together after work. But you should be polite to and respectful of everyone with whom you have a daily working relationship.
By policing yourself, treating others well, maintaining positive approaches toward getting work done, jumping in to help others, and even taking charge when things go wrong or your manager is unavailable, you can strengthen your relationships with others on your team.
Let’s take a closer look at four potential Speed Bumps associated with relationship-building on your team.
Have you ever attended a meeting as a guest, but couldn’t tell who the leader was, because multiple people asked their team members tough questions? I’ve attended a handful of meetings as a consultant where if I hadn’t already known the leader, I wouldn’t have been able to guess who was in charge. Why? Because those meetings were attended by high-performing teams where relationships were so tight, everyone felt comfortable speaking up. They all expected the best of their team members and weren’t afraid to call others on the carpet when they failed to produce. These teams were self-policing.
Self-policing teams are an effective way to both strengthen relationships and ensure that everyone is treated fairly and with the same standards—thereby flattening this damaging Speed Bump.
Some leaders see self-policing as a challenge to their authority, or a situation just begging for team members to tear each other down; here’s where the potential for this Speed Bump rises from the asphalt. When a team uses self-policing properly, however, it supports high performance and efficiency. Everyone saves time, since everyone is authorized to speak up.
For the team to be able to police itself and strengthen its relationships, the leader should step aside to some extent. This comes from a position of both strength and trust, based on knowledge of the abilities, strengths, and weaknesses of the team members. The goal is to strengthen the team from within without the leader interfering (unless something gets out of hand) and letting the team sort out what needs fixing as they, too, have learned to trust each other based on knowledge of their coworkers and their track records. If the leader truly wants balanced fairness, he or she should not be immune to this process. A leader may act as “first among equals,” but in the best workplace teams, the team leader is still accountable to the team for not following through.
This does raise some interesting new issues, however. Things can become difficult when the leader of the group is treated as a team member. How do members confront their manager or supervisor when that person has a conflict with another member? This is especially hard if the team members report to the manager and it’s not a project team. Many work cultures or companies don’t practice this or even support the concept. One that does is the online shoe retailer Zappos, which is often cited for the unusual but effective work processes of the CEO, Tony Hsieh.
But Hsieh’s ideas may not resonate with your leadership. If that’s the case, then when you implement this process, either set some specific ground rules for such situations (I’ll talk about ground rules in more detail in Speed Bump #7), or simply realize there will be some situations where this egalitarian setup can’t work. Another instance where self-policing might not work well is with a virtual team, where everyone works at a distance from the central hub and can’t necessarily get to know each other or use peer pressure to force change. You can still get the process rolling, but realize it will have to be looser than in a team that works together in one location.
One positive aspect of self-policing is that when the team controls itself, the leader doesn’t have to oversee his or her people as tightly. The leader’s time is freed up to handle other crucial matters—like finding more and better work for the team, coaching team members, liaising with senior leadership, and completing high-value tasks only the leader can perform.
As a result, team members ask each other about deliverables, rather than depending on the manager to do so. They establish in-team standards for high performance, refusing to let others shirk their duties or be lazy. This sort of team also tends to guard against complacency. Through meetings, they regularly check up on each other to ensure everyone meets the standards. Team standards must be consistent with organizational guidelines and HR procedures, naturally.
If one of your team members isn’t pulling his weight, that’s not fair to the others, and a strong self-policing relationship will allow you to feel like you can say something. If you’re seeing performance issues, talk with that person, communicate your expectations, and wait to receive the results without constant reminders. That said, performance requires good communication, so that everyone knows what good performance looks like and how it’s measured.
Remember that performance breeds autonomy, though this may vary according to leadership, the company, and other factors. If you do a good job, people are less likely to nag you. The better you work and meet your deadlines, the less people must bug you, freeing up everyone’s time to focus on high-value tasks. Everyone is producing fairly and treated fairly.
In most cases, a person who isn’t doing their job properly will attempt to improve when you approach them in a respectful and positive manner, rather than growling at and intimidating him or her. But still—when multiple people grumble at you because you’ve failed to do your job properly, aren’t you more likely to improve immediately, as opposed to when only one person comes down on you—even if they hold the purse strings or could fire you? Those who don’t care what others think tend to get weeded out early on in this process. A bit of peer pressure can go a long way, because you don’t want to let others down.
One way to encourage this self-policing is for the leader to hold the whole team accountable to its collective responsibilities. An outside observer often can’t tell who did what or who’s responsible for a specific task or result. The team, however, has a better idea of both. When they apply focus, influence, and consequences appropriately, people don’t have to “pick up the slack” for those not pulling their weight, and work tends to get divided more fairly.
Sometimes the embarrassment of others holding them accountable causes people to improve their performance, if they care at all about how others perceive them. Peer pressure can achieve what no company policy, leader, or initiative ever could—it may inspire members to do their best for the benefit of their team, because they don’t want to let others down. When unproductive team members become invested in the team’s success, rather than just their own, they become more fully engaged, and more willing to invest discretionary time in ways that help everyone.
This results in a kind of behavioral contract—whether openly acknowledged or not—where team members willingly and fairly support each other. This powerful performance driver can spark a synergy that pushes team performance ever higher. It doesn’t always work, but it’s always worth trying—because when it does work, it produces quality performance like an artesian spring produces water: steadily, consistently, and cleanly.
Do you have a team member who says “no” to your ideas before he or she has given them a decent listen? For whatever reason, some individuals always say “no” before they can see clear to even considering something new. These “no people” are more annoying and useless, at least in the short term, than “yes people”—and that’s really saying something. I call them “autonegatives.” These people love to criticize and tear down ideas before they’ve given them any real thought.
Autonegatives are everywhere in life. Some may be masquerading as your friends or family. Sometimes you run into them in stores, as clerks (though a smart manager doesn’t leave them in place for long). At work, information hoarders tend to be autonegatives, some because they like the tiny thrill of power it gives them. Others misinterpret their directives or job descriptions. Some are simply lazy and have taken the “just say no” approach a little too far.
Sometimes, the only way to distinguish an autonegative from someone genuinely trying to help is to work with them over time. Helpful people won’t always say “no” first. Autonegatives usually will. Another way of identifying an autonegative is that they’re simply negative or unpleasant about everything. They do themselves no favors by acting this way, especially if their team members and leader fall into the can-do type. Eventually, their behavior may lead to their dismissal, a relatively painless process in the current “at-will” workplace—at least for the organization.
Yes, it’s important to bring up an idea’s problems or shortcomings; perhaps you tried something before and found it didn’t work. Then again, something that didn’t work a few years ago might today, if technology has caught up with it or the environment has changed.
How can you tell if your team members perceive you as an autonegative? One way is to ask. Otherwise, see how they respond to you. Do they bother to ask your permission on anything? Do they tell you flat out that you’re too negative? Do you repeatedly come into unconstructive conflict with others?
Let me give you an illustration. I live in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, about thirty minutes south of Denver. Ten minutes further south is an open space area called Daniels Park. A dirt road, which was a stagecoach line in 1865, winds along there. You can walk along the ruts, visit the two log cabins that are still there, and envision the stagecoach passing by. A set of placards along the line give you a mini history lesson. I was surprised to discover how stagecoach fares were charged. There were actually three classes of service: first class, second class, and third class. It seems strange that there could be different classes of service, since a stagecoach was basically a big box, with no shocks and no separate compartments. But frequently on a journey, the road would get rough, rocky, or muddy. The horses would have a difficult time going uphill in some conditions. When the road was rough, the distinctions between classes of service became crystal clear. The first-class passengers got to stay inside the stagecoach. The second-class passengers had to get out and walk to alleviate the strain on the horses. But the third-class passengers had to get out and push.
In a productive team, the first-class team members have a third-class attitude. They’re the ones who get out and push when the going gets tough. They don’t sit back, say negative things, watch everyone else struggle, laugh at them, and tell them exactly why it can’t be done. They personally take action and jump in to help.
The business road can be rocky, and you can encounter obstacles on your journey, but when the going gets tough, the tough get going. So how can you help your team go faster? Get out of the stagecoach and push. Don’t be the autonegative who always moans and groans about how terrible everything is, while everyone else is straining to get to the top of the hill.
Stop and think before you say “no” next time. If the word “no” seems to pop out automatically, listen carefully. If a team member’s request or idea deserves criticism or refusal, wait until they’re done. Then explain why—and offer a solution. But if you know no reason why something won’t work, hold your tongue. Otherwise, you’ll just damage the relationships you’re trying to build with your team.
POOR TEAM MORALE
Wouldn’t it be nice if someone on the team held the title of Morale Leader? Few things are more depressing than working in an environment where the pessimism just grinds you down. I suspect most of us have experienced this, and many still do; otherwise, the percentage of engaged workers2 would be higher. But does unhappiness arise from the job itself, or do the workers bring it with them? If you see work as a penance you must perform to pay the bills, it might be the latter.
Even if you aren’t in your dream job, remember: with few exceptions, you choose where you work. You can also choose to be happy or not. If you can’t find any other reason to be positive, then decide to rise above it anyway and thrive rather than wither on the vine. How? Appoint yourself the Team Morale Leader (TML). A great way to make life happier for yourself is to make life happier for others. Happiness is infectious! Happiness improves team relationships! If that’s not a good reason to take on the TML badge, nothing is.
Happy Happy, Joy Joy
A great way to boost your own attitude is to decide to love your work. This may not be easy, so make a deliberate effort to find things you can get enthusiastic about. Focus on the things that profit you and your team the most: smooth workflow, hitting deadlines, and your critical day-to-day operational activities. Learn to love the ordinary, and be grateful every day for this job you’re privileged to have.
You know where you see a great example of this? Disney. Our family loves Disney. I think we’ve been to Disneyworld and Disneyland around fifteen times. It’s not inexpensive, but we keep going back (the last time our kids were twenty, seventeen, and fifteen) because we have so much fun and create happy memories. All the “cast members” there have one goal: make customers happy. It’s magic, but it’s not rocket science. For example, if we’re on board one of the trains, and we pass some employees mowing the lawn, they wave. And we wave back. This is not an accident. They know people will be happy if they wave to them.
What can you do to make people happy on your team? Happy people enjoy work more, people who enjoy work are more engaged, engaged people contribute their discretionary effort, and discretionary effort makes the whole team go faster. So be more positive to the people on your team. It’s really all about attitude—a mindset oriented toward achieving results. Start with a positive outlook, and add a dash of good cheer and a little self-deprecating humor. Encourage your team members, compliment their strengths, and act as their cheerleader when they accomplish something noteworthy. Nothing breeds success like celebrating success.
Try jazzing up common work areas or break spaces. Cartoons, posters (even those corny pseudo-motivational ones), bright colors, silly challenges, jokes, awards—do whatever you think will help people feel joy. Change out the posters occasionally, so people see different motivational messages. Make sure people really do like all this, make sure everyone appreciates the jokes, and try to get others to contribute. It’s only fair.
Does the company have a recognition system or gift cards for accomplishments you can give to team members? If not, can you arrange incentives? Maybe you can also coordinate milestone celebrations at a local restaurant, like birthdays and company anniversaries, as well as “We Did It!” celebrations when the team finally puts a tough project to bed. Try also to arrange extracurricular social activities, like a billiards or dart tournament at a local club, a bowling team, lunches, or a family visit to the local waterpark.
Hey, someone must take the initiative. Why not you?
FAILURE TO TAKE THE LEAD
Few of us join an organization with the intention of remaining a low-level worker forever. With the proper credentials, a few years of team play under your belt, and the right attitude, you’re almost certain to receive a promotion to a position of greater authority in time. However, there’s no need to wait. You can assume a leadership role on the team any time you’re ready, even when you aren’t the leader.
People have a built-in tendency to watch the formal and informal leaders on a team, and take their cues for action from what they’re doing. Your team members do this with you, too, so you should decide you’ll lead by example from the very beginning in everything you do.
My husband John and I have a tandem bike (a “bicycle built for two”) that we love to ride. When you’re on the same bike, you’re always going in the same direction. It’s easy to tell if one person is out of alignment, because you can swerve and crash if one person throws his or her weight around. When both of us are in sync, however, we have smooth sailing. The person in the front seat of the tandem (John) picks the direction, steers the bike, and applies the brakes. The person in back (that would be me) helps power the bike by pedaling. But the rest of the backseat role is passive, as my handlebars are only for holding on, and I have no brakes (which can be a bit freaky). Sometimes, it’s so beautiful outside, I get distracted by the Colorado scenery. I stop looking at the road ahead of us and just sort of sit back and enjoy the day, my legs turning automatically with the momentum of the wheels but not really pushing. This lackadaisical approach isn’t a problem when we’re coasting along. But if we come to a hill, I’ll hear John start to breathe hard and jolt back to the reality of my job when he yells, “HELLO back there! Can you pedal a bit, please?” Whoops, sorry!
This is the old leadership model: the leader is in the front seat, leading the way, calling the shots, putting on the brakes, and steering. The employees are in the backseat in passive roles, with no say on speed or direction. In charge, the leader does all the work out in front, telling everyone else what to do, pedaling like mad for the entire team—and everyone else is out on a joyride. This is what unfairness feels like. Occasionally, the leaders yell at them to WORK, DARN IT, and they speed up for a time before settling down again.
Maybe it’s that way on your team. Maybe you’re in a rut, letting the leader “lead” and not pulling your own weight. Don’t forget that you must actively pedal to get the Team Car to move faster. Where you can, switch places. Take the lead and decide to ride in the front seat.
Today, we all must act like leaders, even when we don’t have a leadership title. We model what we expect of others. Team members are more likely to be partners with their leaders nowadays, so sometimes we take turns in the front seat. We switch positions now and then, depending upon the situation. One team member makes sure we’re going in the right direction, and if the road goes uphill, you can take the leadership role for a time. When you’re in the front of a tandem, you’re forced to wake up and stay alert. You must take the lead, or you’ll crash. When everything is on course, the formal leader can sit in the back and pedal like mad. They can provide support, encouragement, and coaching, but don’t have to be in front. If you and your team members take the initiative to continue the ride, the leader can take on a mentoring and guiding position. I saw this work well at a Sherwin-Williams plant in Fernley, Arizona, where one team was self-directing and set their own schedules for that line. The manager was there to provide oversight and support with problems.
It’s a very similar journey as a parent. While your kids are at home, they’re on the back of the tandem bike, and you’re in the driver’s seat. I have three children who now have driver’s licenses—so there came a time we had to let go and let them drive. Even now, though, if my children are facing an uphill battle they can’t handle, I’ll temporarily jump in the front seat, navigate our way through the tricky spot, make sure the course is set, and then jump in the back again, pedaling like crazy.
Are you on the front of the bike, or the back? To be fair, you all need to take a turn. This also helps strengthen relationships. Whatever your role on the team, you should consistently communicate where to go and how to get there most quickly, with the least amount of risk.
Instead of keeping your head down and languishing at your job, look for opportunities to jump out front. Pick up your speed while still maximizing quality, get your projects done early, and ask for more work.3 If a team member is struggling, volunteer to help. Never fear getting your hands dirty; there’s no shame in hard work. Adopt the thoughts and actions of a leader. Ask to take the lead in meetings, specific projects, and certain types of tasks. After all, most of us learn best by doing.
How can you assume more of a leadership demeanor? Among other things, good leaders:
Are good followers. They absorb leadership lessons from those they work with. Think about the behavior you respect in a good leader, and remember what they value in a follower. Put what you’ve learned into play on both ends, so you can draw top-notch productivity out of your fellow workers.
Maintain good relationships with their team members. Get to know your team members one-on-one, so you can better understand how to work with each one. The more connected you are, the more likely you’ll find ways to solve your problems. Determine how your skill sets fit with those of your team members, leveraging your talent and experience to achieve your team and organizational goals.
Are unafraid to speak up. Provide the input the organization hired you for, whether the nominal leader asks for it or not. It may change the whole complexion of the situation, or indicate a better solution.
Know when to yield. Sometimes it’s best to step away gracefully, then back someone else’s idea. You can’t always be right, so don’t be afraid to admit when you’re wrong.
Do their jobs well. Fulfill your commitments to the team, and once the team agrees on something, back the decision fully—even if you previously advised against it. The best internal leaders collaborate well with others, making sure they produce the output other people need from them quickly.
Deliver more than the job description requires. Go above and beyond for your team. This gets the job done quicker, and people will take notice.
Genuine leaders are open to their team members’ attempts to guide, and encourage them to continuously improve individually and as a team. They realize that humility is a strength, not a weakness.
If you think doing so benefits the team and organization, take the chance and step up. Offer to take the lead on something new, just to gain experience. Show your willingness and ability to take on that extra responsibility, to reach out to organize, demonstrate, and plan. It’s your responsibility to make yourself ready to lead—no one else’s.
Time has become a precious commodity, so business leaders who can save their customers’ time more effectively than compet...
We know why diversity is important, but how do we drive real change at work? Diversity and inclusion expert Jennifer Brow...
Two distinguished scholars offer eight steps to help organizations discover and embrace an authentic higher purpose—somet...
Former Procter & Gamble Vice President for IT and Shared Services, Tony Saldanha gives you the keys to a successful d...