A team is more than a collection of people. It is a process of give and take. ~ Barbara Glacel & Emile Robert
I worked with an executive team that gathered together each month to review performance, strategy, milestones and sometimes ridiculous things like the allocation of reserved parking spaces. A meeting agenda was always meticulously prepared and distributed. Each agenda item was led by a champion, followed by questions and answers, and finally opinions from the team. At some point the leader of the group, the Executive VP, would interject and start by saying, “I need to be brutally honest here.” I would always snicker when I heard this because this particular executive was never lacking in honesty or intensity when it came to matters of business. For him to pre-warn the team, meant that the next words out of his mouth might be a little blunt – and usually were. Most times the comments were spot-on, nerves would be struck, and a re-energized debate would ensue. In the end, the issue on the table would be probed, dissected, challenged, and alternatives and next steps were finalized. Whew….item two please!
The tactic being used here is fairly simple – to solve a problem you have to dig, explore, and dissect it until all the facts are known. You need to see the entire picture, warts and all. To do this as a team each member must feel free to ask questions, debate assumptions, and challenge facts. The team sometimes has to go to an uncomfortable place – where feelings and even careers can be hurt. It can be brutal!
Why does this have to be so difficult? Why can’t you just bring problems to your team, give a good situational analysis, state the options, and then ask for help and ideas? Getting support from others is the foundation of high performing teams – right?
Well, not all teams are created equal. In the case of this and many other teams, the pressure to perform was high, competition amongst the team members was extreme, trust levels were low, and the change management approach being used left many uncertain of their status in the pack. In this environment, it was hard to admit to your peers and superiors when there was a problem, or that you were not in total control. Instead, you might dress up the issue with charts, graphs, overly optimistic forecasts – and hope that nobody asked the tough questions.
As a leader I see the importance in having teams that are open and feel free to say exactly how they see things. So how do we get teams members to be brutally honest with each other in a positive way?
It Starts with Trust. Leaders use team building and coaching techniques that allow team members to become comfortable and supportive of each other. This takes time – trust has to earned. It cannot be fast-tracked or rushed. Once established, team members will open up to their issues and invite debate about options.
It is never personal. As a leader you cannot let a debate turn personal. Personal issues and feelings have no place in an open forum. In fact, they take the focus away from the task at hand – running the business. As a leader, if you see this type of behavior, then you have to resolve it immediately or consider removing both team members.
Cultural Differences Must Be Understood. How much one can openly question a colleague or state an opinion can vary by culture. Saving face is important in some cultures, but not in others. As a leader, you must encourage those whose were taught to lay back to speak up and contribute to a debate. Others you have to muzzle. In the end, everyone must be part of the process.
Share / Buy-in to a Common Vision. Teams that understand and believe in a common goal tend to be more focused in their approach and more likely to ask the tough questions. Team members might disagree and debate on the tactics used to reach the goal, but the guiding principle brings a team together under a common banner.
Management Sets the Tone: You and leadership team must lead by example. A leadership team that does not reflect the values of honesty, trust and openness will often lead others in their charge to follow the same path. It starts at the top – you and your peers must set the example.
The Executive VP that I talked about earlier was a good leader. He challenged his team and always looked to question the status quo. He thought that for an organization to succeed it had to be willing to ask the tough questions and face business challenges head-on. If feelings got hurt, then so be it – you either toughened-up, or you were gone. In the end, the team “normalized,” a few changes were made, and the organization settled into a profitable position at the head of its industry.
How do you feel about asking the tough questions? Do you know people who are brutally honest and respected for their candor, or not? How can team be coached to open up so that honest and free discussions can occur? I would like to hear your views.