Monthly Archives: June 2011

Running in the Dark

I am often asked to assess the structure and dynamics of teams I’ve never before met. With no contextual information, I am forced to rely exclusively on the accuracy of the data that arises from the Team Clock team effectiveness survey. Once the analysis is complete, I am introduced to the team for the first time for a debrief session. Sometimes, it feels like running in the dark.

Recently, one of these blind assessments revealed data that was not favorable. If the results could be trusted, the team would need to be informed that there was a rotten apple amidst their bushel. A toxic teammate appeared to be undermining the trust of the team. While they might be capable of overcoming this team poison, it was unlikely that they would be capable of achieving great results in their business metrics.

I had difficulty sleeping on the night before the debrief session. What if my tool had led me astray?  How do you tell a team they have trust issues? What if the problem is with the leader? Despite my apprehension, I forged ahead with the consultation. I shared the data and delivered the news. Unlike most team effectiveness assessment debriefs, this team was unusually quiet. The team leader fidgeted and squirmed in his seat as I detailed the implications of my evaluation. At one point, he scribbled a note and slid it across the table to a colleague. I sensed trouble.

As I awkwardly conveyed my position that the team was not likely capable of greatness under the current structure and dynamics, the team leader took a deep breath and said, “Stop. I need to call a time-out.”  The room fell silent as he prepared to speak.  “How did you know this?” he said. “It’s like you’ve been in our workplace,” he continued. “How did you know we had a trust problem without ever meeting us before?”

He went on to detail the struggles of the past year where a particular teammate made life miserable for everyone else.  He explained that, just the prior week, he had let the dysfunctional employee go.  When he suggested that the rest of the team had wished he had taken action a year ago, they all nodded in unison. “Somehow, he said, you hit a bulls-eye.”

The team breathed a collective sigh of relief and began the task of defining targeted actions for re-establishing trust now that the cancer had been removed. Their data had also indicated that they were anchored in crystal clear norms and that they historically responded to change with nimble adaptability. They quickly committed to taking immediate action and, energized by the evidence that they were attacking the correct problem, predicted measurable improvement in their business performance metrics within six months.

Running in the dark is scary. You never know if you’re going to hit an unexpected wall or sprint toward freedom. Often, one doesn’t happen without the other.

On your mark, get set, GO!

The Bravery to Look in the Mirror

“How are we doing?”   “Fine…why do you ask?”

“How are we doing?”  “Well, since you asked…”

The most difficult stage of self-assessment is the decision to do so.  Some teams abide by the adage, “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” or “never ask a question about which you don’t want the answer.” Brave teams, however, invite the answer even if it contains bad news. Beyond a fleeting glance, looking in the mirror requires bravery.

Adventurousness and risk were ingrained in the culture of the youth services organization that most recently embarked on the introspective diagnostic. Their work was hatched in the most dangerous neighborhoods of Chicago where access to resources is rarely on the Maslow pyramid when safety and sustenance rule the day. So, without even asking, they knew they performed important, life-altering, world-changing work. The question at hand was whether they could engage their mission more effectively.

The retreat was designed to evaluate every element of their culture: organizational vision, open communication, customer focus, sense of community, sustainability, employee development, succession planning, teamwork, commitment to wellness, and stewardship. Strengths and vulnerabilities were identified and the gap analysis revealed targeted action plans. Receptivity to feedback and accountability for change was promised by the leadership team. A follow-up measurement was scheduled. A call to action had resulted in a palpable uptick in organizational energy. Risks were about to be taken.

Although related, insight and action aren’t always partnered. Igniting a new idea only begins a change process. Assuming initiative and sustaining a commitment are different professional competencies. This is what empowers thriving teams to avoid complacency and stagnation: the willingness to take an unsolicited, extended gaze in the mirror rather than waiting for a cultural blemish to require it.

Go ahead, ask the question. How are we doing?