Last week I was having coffee with a friend who manages a team of about 30 individuals. Her team is going through what some organizational behaviour specialists would call the “storming” phase of a team lifecycle. With organizational upheaval impacting the job stability of several of her subordinates, interpersonal relationships creating friction between team members, and natural turnover creating internal competition for new positions, she has her work cut out for her.
As we discussed the challenges and issues, I lamented the fact that it is often difficult to understand organizational objectives during org changes and new People and Culture policy rollouts. Sometimes it seems like there’s a chasm between the people on the ground managing their teams and the people in the office creating policies or suggestions on how to manage those teams.
There were several variables internal to her team, and thus within her control, as well as external variables outside of her control that would dictate how the dynamics of her team would be affected. Taking all of those factors into consideration, my assessment based on my experience was that it could be months, if not an entire year before it felt like the dust had fully settled. When I shared those thoughts with her, we released a collective and resigned sigh of frustration.
Then she asked me a simple but peculiar question, “So what would you say are the three most important things to team success?”. Instantly my mind jumped to frameworks, assessments, personal experiences, and anecdotes. But the answer came easier to me than I thought. I listed three key factors that I believe are prerequisites to high performance teams; psychological safety, a culture of feedback, and understanding motivation.
Defined by Amy Edmondson, the Harvard Business School professor and author of The Fearless Organization team psychological safety is a shared belief held by members of a team that it’s okay to take risks, to express their ideas and concerns, to speak up with questions, and to admit mistakes — all without fear of negative consequences. Psychological safety is the bedrock of a high-performing team.
Studies have shown that teams exhibiting a high degree of psychological safety experience a myriad of positive outcomes, underscoring the need for leaders to engage in supportive leadership behaviors, foster bonds between team members, and leverage supportive organizational practices to build psychological safety at work.
Team members who feel safe and have a voice at work are more likely to share innovative ideas, leverage their experience to identify issues before they emerge, and take measured risks to benefit the team. Think about the last time someone had an outside of the box suggestion that helped a team perform a task, or on the flip side, the impact of an employee who is too fearful of reprimand to point out someone else’s mistake. Any good manager knows that a mistake is better caught earlier rather than later.
To assess your team’s level of psychological safety, Edmondson has provided a simple 7-item framework to assess the perception of psychological safety (if you want to run this survey with your team, there’s an instrument you can sign up to use on Edmondson’s website).
- If you make a mistake on this team, it is not held against you.
- Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
- People on this team sometimes accept others for being different.
- It is safe to take a risk on this team.
- It isn’t difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
- No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
- Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.
A Culture of Feedback
Feedback is a difficult piece of the puzzle to get right. Personally, I am a strong advocate for positive reinforcement and feedback. My philosophy is that if every contributor on my team were doing what they do best 100% of the time, it would be smooth sailing. To use a sports analogy, if every player on the team were shooting, passing, moving, and receiving the way they do in the highlight reel every game and throughout the season, then the score and the standings will figure themselves out. For that environment to prevail, consistent positive reinforcement for desired behaviors is the single most important factor for success.
That being said, there is a time and a place for negative or constructive feedback, and that largely depends on the task or process. For example, some processes demand zero ambiguity, such as a nurse or doctor administering a shot, where the procedure must be followed, and any deviation from the procedure is immediately noticeable.
There is room for healthy debate on how frequently to give positive feedback versus constructive or “negative” feedback. Regardless of where you stand, its important to recognize the value of contributions from your team members and acknowledge positive behaviours frequently and in a timely manner.
I once had a team member who frequently had issues with the team that reported up to her. I found myself frequently addressing complaints from both her and her team members about performance, with each having issues with the other. In a private coaching session, I asked her what she thought a reasonable ratio of positive to negative feedback was. She wasn’t sure and told me it was probably 1:1. Following up, I asked, “Doesn’t that then signal to your team members that they’re underperforming as frequently as they’re overperforming?” Together, we reflected on how that environment would feel versus an environment where a more positive feedback culture was cultivated. The obvious result was recognition that more positive reinforcement generally means a more positive work environment.
So, what does a positive feedback culture sound like? Well, it could be as simple as this: “I saw what you did there today. That was a really good point that you made, and I just wanted to say that I noticed it. Obviously, I’m not always going to catch it, but good job. I really appreciate that.” Even for mundane tasks that are done day in and day out, a few words like these can make a huge difference: “Hey, I know I don’t say this every day, but you always handle those requests without a hitch. That really helps the team out, so thank you.”
What makes your team tick? Ever ask yourself that? There are a number of different theories on motivation in the workplace spanning nearly a century. They all have some commonalities and some are closer to each other than others. What none of them suggest is that your team is motivated solely by money.
Modern theories like Expectancy Theory, Goal Theory, and Work Design Theory posit that intrinsic factors such as challenge, meaning, task significance, feedback, autonomy, recognition, and task clarity are important factors that motivate workers.
Distilling these theories into a few important questions, ask yourself;
- Is success clearly defined for my team?
- When we achieve success, is my team being recognized?
- Do my team members see meaning in the work that they do?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, then its important that you spend some time figuring out why.
One of my favorite TEDTalks is by behavioral economist Dan Ariely. In his talk, Ariely discusses a study he conducted with MIT students to study motivation. He gave each student a sheet of paper with random letters and asked them to find pairs of identical letters. Each round, they were offered less money than the previous round.
Participants were divided into three groups: the first group wrote their names on their sheets, the second group didn’t write down their names, and the third group had their work shredded immediately. The results showed that people whose work was shredded needed twice as much money as those whose work was acknowledged to continue the task. People in the second group, whose work was saved but ignored, needed almost as much money as those whose work was shredded.
Ariely concluded that ignoring people’s performance is just as bad as shredding their effort before their eyes. Adding motivation doesn’t seem to be difficult, but eliminating motivation is incredibly easy.
In summary, it is crucial to acknowledge that a job is more than just a paycheck. There are a few other simple examples of theories of motivation in action here.
While there are numerous frameworks and theories on high-performing teams, psychological safety, feedback, and motivation are three broad and interconnected topics that leaders and managers should consider. Without each of them, teams can quickly become unhinged, but when leaders and teams live into them powerfully, they can thrive.