The Team’s the Thing and the People are the Team
“It was a great bunch of folks.”
For a couple of decades, I began my supervisory skills training with an exercise where we asked people to identify a time when it was great to come to work and then work through some descriptions of that time. Two things were always a part of those descriptions.
There was always a mention of a “great boss” which we used to develop a list of things we wanted to learn about how one person should supervise others. But there was also, always, mention of the fact that the people were great. It was all about the people.
The Team’s the Thing
Most of our American business culture is built around the individual. We talk about top performers, stars, A-listers, and how they differ from the rest of us. We have individual performance appraisals. The reality is that most of our work is done in teams. Another reality is that great teams are often what make top producers look good.
We talk a lot about loyalty of the employee to the organization, but we rarely talk about loyalty to the team. For most people, reality is that their team and their boss matter more than the organization or its top leadership. When crunch time comes, people work hard for their teammates more than they do for their boss, the organization, or a higher purpose.
For years, Gallup has been asking people whether they have a best friend at work (BFAW). They ask that question because they find that when they look at productive teams, more people answer that question with a “Yes.”. They’ve experimented with changing it to “good friends” or something similar, but “best friend” is what gets to the heart of the dynamic.
When people have friends at work, they enjoy working with those people and are, therefore, more likely to be productive. What we often miss is the fact that friendships are reciprocal. In the good teams that I’ve witnessed, people help each other and learn from each other.
When MIT researchers looked at what makes highly productive teams, they identified “social support” as one of the key elements. My own experience is that when we’re talking about work teams, it’s the spaghetti pot of relationships that matter more than almost anything. Those relationships rest on a foundation of dependability and trust.
Dependability and Trust
People in a productive team can depend on each other. That’s rarely stated, probably because we take it for granted, but dependability matters a lot. If I know that you’ve got my back, I can try something new. If I can depend on you to do great work, I can concentrate on doing my own great work.
When team members can’t depend on each other for support, they cease to become a team and become a bunch of individuals in a confined space. When there is a member in the team that others can’t depend on or trust, it affects the emotional climate of the entire place. If the boss doesn’t deal with that dependability issue, it triggers thoughts of unfairness because other team members feel like the boss is favoring the slacker. That’s corrosive in the extreme.
The Google Research
Recent Google research into productive teams highlighted the importance of psychological safety. Google defined psychological safety as “Team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.” There’s more than that.
Psychological safety seems to me to include things like the ability to handle conflict in a healthy way. Put any group of people in any situation and there are bound to be differences. There are differences in personality and style and differences of opinion. Managing those differences is hard. You want to have conflict that’s healthy and moves you forward without poisoning the personal dynamics. Easy to say. But very, very hard to do.
The relationships, friendships, and social dynamics of a team are tremendously important. When we get those things right, we can endure almost anything and solve almost any problem. When they’re wrong, it’s almost impossible to do good work. After he retired from his fabulously successful career, Jack Welch put it well.
“In the end, it was all about the people.”