If we were to ask you to pick a team or brand that represents ‘world class’ to you, what would be your response? The SAS? The New Zealand All Blacks rugby union? Mercedes’ F1 team? The cardiac unit in the University of Wales hospital? Gucci for fashion? John Lewis for retail?
Whatever your answer to that question, your best-in-class choice can only be considered in hindsight. Necessarily, we need lag indicators to judge one group’s results against another – each, however, had to start somewhere.
If we were to ask where might you start, how would you answer that? Clearly skills matter here. For example, you can’t be a great clinical team if you know nothing about medicine or surgery techniques. But assuming these are in place, where does your mind go next? Perhaps to rules, procedures, processes, systems, organisational hierarchies etc. These, after all, are what drive employees to behave the way they do.
True. Up to a point. But that’s not the whole picture.
Even the most talented teams can underperform, and even the best-laid plans go awry at the implementation stage. And no matter how cleverly crafted the rules and enforcement mechanisms, people will ingeniously find ways around them, whether consciously or unconsciously, if the incentives are wrong.
There’s a jigsaw piece missing in our picture. It’s called culture.
Culture is a word that means different things to different people, we grant you, but we’re inviting you to think about it as an overall feeling you get about the way work gets done in your team. Sure, that vibe or feeling will fluctuate but overall it will either lift your spirits or act like a drag on them. Neither you, nor your colleagues, can escape it! It appears when you think about work first thing in the morning. You’ll also feel it meetings: either when the mood lightens or goes dark and murky.
Culture is the missing piece in world-class performing teams. Studies show how the language these (world-leading) groups use in conversations creates an honest, healthy vibe as much as possible. What, though, is meant by healthy?
It’s not what many people think.
Best-in-class-teams have a crystal-clear purpose. They know what benefits they’re expected to deliver and who’s depending on them to do so. Delivering on their promises matters. Every team member feels psychologically safe. This means there is competition but not at the expense of collaboration: the team is more important than any one individual. The team takes responsibility to include everyone and creates an environment where they can perform to the best of their ability. Finally, in these successful teams, vulnerability is considered a strength, not a weakness. This is most important at those key moments that can cause a drop in mood, when a change of course is needed or investment is reallocated.
Speaking up matters: vulnerability and courage are the flip side of the same coin. The team cannot show the courage it needs to if its members are not upfront about what they think and feel.
Purpose, safety and vulnerability
These three aspects of culture – purpose, safety and vulnerability – reflect a particular mindset about what enables us humans to perform well. Think about it. If our purpose is unclear, we can suffer headless-chicken syndrome. Without safety, we’re permanently in survival mode – looking over our shoulder, on edge, wondering if we’ll be out the door soon. If we can’t be vulnerable we withhold vital information that could lead to much better decisions.
What behaviour might you expect to see in teams operating from this mindset?
- Openness – no topic is taboo. No-one is made to feel silly for speaking up. This will include talking about subjects that might impact someone senior to the person raising it.
- Laser-like listening – teams listen to understand, not reply. We want to get to the bottom of where someone is coming from. Listening isn’t agreeing; listening is respecting and understanding.
- Welcoming differences – differences are welcomed because they’re viewed as a spur to collaboration and innovation – finding solutions that are far superior to what’s currently understood.
- Root-cause problem-solving – the temptation to jump to quick solutions is avoided. The focus is on solving problems so that they stay solved. Explore what people are thinking and feeling so as to generate better options for moving forward.
- Collective decision-making – teams make sure we can buy into and defend the reasons for our decisions, should they be attacked or challenged. Though this is made easier by the four behaviours above, teams discuss the downsides (dis-benefits) as well as the upsides (benefits) to ensure that everyone can back the decision, however it affects them.
What’s worth noting is all of the five key behaviours above come naturally and authentically to people once the mindset on which their culture is built is in play. These are not behaviours we necessarily need training in, they’re natural human qualities that flourish under the right conditions.
World-class culture (and its performance benefits) is already within your grasp. It isn’t created by introducing more rules and procedures. But if you pay attention to the culture and mindset, you’ll accomplish it.
For more forward-thinking analysis and management techniques, read CMI’s Management Transformed research.
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