Risk is something we all face every day. We take actions and make decisions that could have bad consequences. Many of these consequences might affect other people, and most of us don’t like to feel responsible for another’s grief (or for a project’s failure). It is especially difficult to make decisions and take action in a culture where people are quick to shine the spotlight of blame. Though no one likes blame, the act of blaming often arises from a fear of being blamed. High performance teams have a blame-free culture. That is not to say that people fail to take responsibility. On the contrary, people are willing to take responsibility for their role in any failure, look at it objectively, and take steps to draw learning from it so it’s not repeated. Team mates remain supportive of each other and refrain from personal attacks. Think what a team can do when there is no blame. Charles Pellerin identifies ‘complaints’ as a related issue. Complaints are not the same as feedback. They are not productive. A complaint often starts out as an angry or negative voice in our head that eventually finds its way out to a variety of people who are usually powerless to address the issue. When we complain, we are usually blaming others rather than looking for ways that we can contribute to a solution. We assume the role of victim. The opposite, of course, is to take responsibility and do what we can to rectify a situation that concerns us. Responsibility is a key individual ability for all team members. Each member acknowledges and accepts his or her role in the workings of the team. Each one exercises initiative and leadership to ensure it happens. In your team, to what extent do people fear blame? Do they play the role of victim, or do they feel empowered to address issues that concern them? To what extent does each person take responsibility for their tasks and for the overall success of the team?
At the end of the day, and after the tough discussions are complete, high performance teams commit to a course of action. Every single person walks out of the room supporting the plan and is prepared to do their best to achieve success for the team.
Commitment is about knowing what to do, accepting responsibility for one’s role in a project and actually caring deeply about the outcomes.
Commitment also frees us up to be creative. We no longer need to waste energy thinking about whether or not we should ‘go for the prize’. That’s already settled. We can concentrate on being creative about how we’ll achieve success. In the process we inevitably set all kinds of events in motion and recruit others to our cause, all helping to make it a reality.
One of the best ways to gain commitment in a team setting is through consensus-based decision making. (Consensus means that everyone feels heard and supports the decision, not necessarily that everyone is complete agreement.) When people feel heard, they generally feel the decision is theirs too.
Ask your team: Do they feel they have a genuine say in decisions? To what extent do they care about and feel committed to the work of the team?
Let’s face it: without optimism, energy ebbs and life is a chore. A team without optimism can hardly be high-performing. Yet, misplaced optimism can be just as damaging. It can blind the team to the degree of challenge ahead; otherwise minor issues catch them sleeping. As a simple example, consider a recreational day hike in a rugged natural park. An optimist, looking at the sunny, warm morning weather trundles off in shorts and t-shirt carrying only a water bottle and lunch. A pessimist looks at the weather report with a 10% chance of rain, and stays home. A reality-based optimist looks at the weather report, thinks it will likely be a great day but packs rain gear just in case. To follow up on the scenario, if it does rain, the optimist gets soaked, risks hypothermia and spends a miserable day. The pessimist misses a great hike on a mostly sunny day and a reality-based optimist deals easily with a temporary shower and has a great excursion.
Reality-based optimism means that you believe you can meet the challenge and are willing to face the sometimes unpleasant realties that it entails. Perhaps it means that people have to put in extra work to succeed. Perhaps the chance of success is small but the rewards will be great. Reality-based optimism also means allowing people to be negative and critical at certain times in order to get all those feelings, fears and ideas out on the table. Then, you make your plan, commit and move forward with the sincere belief that you can succeed.
Does your team have a ‘can do’ attitude that is well grounded in reality? Are they open to confronting and examining the possible downsides of a situation and then resolve to go forward?
First off, let me tell you that I am not an elite athlete. I am a regular person who works hard to accomplish what I do. I do not have the luxury of being able to train all day with a personal trainer like most professional athletes. I need to fit my training into my lifestyle which can be a challenge at the best of times.
Obviously to climb in Antarctica or to climb Everest you need to be in great shape. The better shape you are in the greater your chance of success and safety.But fitness also increases your enjoyment. It’s hard to enjoy any experience if you are constantly winded and struggling for each step. I want to be able to enjoy the environment I am in and to have the energy I need to make the most of the experience.
Physical fitness is a baseline requirement for participation in mountaineering but, once that has been met, I believe that mental and emotional fitness are next on the list. Our minds are extremely powerful tools and they can work with us or against us. Our attitude can help us soar or it can break us. I have seen it countless times in the mountains, on training runs, and even with my children in sports, homework, and piano.
I find goal setting to be the best way to stay focused on fitness. Without a clear goal I find my time is easily filled with other things. At the start of August, just after I returned from Kilimanjaro, I had minor knee surgery. I knew that exercise would be important for my recovery. I also knew that I have a big hill to climb in November so I need to build up my strength and endurance. Running was not an option for 6 weeks so I figured cycling would be a good way to go. I registered for a 50 mile road race in Collingwood on September 18. This ride would climb the Niagara Escarpment three times. My time was slow and the ride was tough, but it kept me focused and gave me a goal. I have registered for another 50 mile ride in Niagara in October and am going out for a run today to test my knee.
The key steps in motivation are: 1) Have a Vision, 2) Develop an Action Plan, 3) Do it with a friend, 4) Reflect on progress. More on this next time …
In How NASA Builds Teams, Charles Pellerin addresses the team behaviour of keeping agreements. At Summit Group, we often describe trust as the foundation of a team; without it, you cannot build a solid, high performing team. Stephen R. Covey has written and lectured extensively on trust and has even developed a model likening trust to a bank account. Certain behaviours are like deposits to our trust account with another person, others are like withdrawals. High performing teams have team members who keep a healthy balance in all of their trust accounts.
It is important to specify that team trust is based on much more that intent and effort. The quality of the outcomes is also important.
There are specific behaviours that we recognize contribute to trust. Keeping our promises is one of the most important. This includes ‘inferred’ promises such as meeting project/reporting deadlines, being prepared and prompt for meetings, following up on actions we’ve committed to and, basically fulfilling the responsibilities of our own jobs in order that our colleagues can do theirs. In a high trust environment, people also spend fewer wasted hours second-guessing and generally fretting that others may not come through for them.
Sometimes, breaking a promise is unavoidable and understandable. Serious family matters, weather events and technology failures can contribute to missed deadlines or late appearances. Here is where a timely ‘heads up’ and a sincere apology come in. Your ‘trust account’ may take a small hit but, if the balance is healthy, trust will remain high, particularly if you take steps to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
Trust is also about loyalty. Leaders and team members that go to bat for one another create loyalty. Those who act or gossip behind the backs of their colleagues create suspicion and mistrust.
So, do your team members enjoy a climate of high trust? Do they keep promises with each other, with partners and with clients? Do they feel strong loyalty to the team, the leader and their partners?