Monday, June 27, 2011

TRUST is more than a buzzword - Learn from The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team

I wanted to give a brief overview of one of my favorite management books.  Although I have read hundreds of these types of books there are only about 10 that truly stand out as “Must reads” and “Must keep for reference”; one of these is The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni.  While Lencioni has written many books none are as good as this one. Why do I consider this book one of the best?  Because the author has kept it short and to the point and has made the reading interesting by explaining some rather complex team building concepts in an interesting story format (similar to The Goal, another one of my top 10). 

The story is about a new CEO who refuses to get bogged down as a referee in the many battles between her staff and instead, chooses to spend a great deal of her time building a team.  Even though the organization she leads is faced with some serious financial issues she realizes that without an engaged and cohesive executive team everything she does to “fix” problems will just be a stop-gap measure and fall apart at some point.  Just as in true life, her executive staff can’t believe that she is wasting so much precious decision making time on team building – “Why can’t we just get to work and fix our problems” is the common lament. 

In the story we follow the actions of CEO Kathryn Petersen as she makes the courageous decision to deal with the root cause of the organizations problems – a completely dysfunctional executive team.  We learn that there are 5 team dysfunctions that must be addressed before a TEAM can be created.  The 5 dysfunctions in order of hierarchy are: Absence of Trust (Invulnerability), Fear of conflict (Artificial Harmony), Lack of Commitment (Ambiguity), Avoidance of Accountability (Low Standards), and Inattention to Detail (My Status and Ego take precedence over team needs). 

While I could detail all five dysfunctions let me briefly talk about the first dysfunction referred to as Absence of Trust because it is the foundational base of a great team. I doubt that you will find many executive teams who are willing to admit that the organization lacks trust however you would be lucky to find more than 20% of all organizations that have made a serious commitment to build trust and even fewer that have declared such a competency a core organizational need (beyond lip service) and in-turn have dedicated the time and resources to achieve a high level of Trust.  Saying you have “Trust”  is not the same as having it and when you are a process improvement expert you can spot whether an organization has a culture of “Trust” within the first few days of executive and staff interviews. While there are many organizations that have good margins and “succeed in spite of themselves” there are only a few that consistently stay at the top of their game in terms of financial and quality results. It is a guarantee that those firms at the top of their game admit there is work to be done regarding the 5 dysfunctions and they work at improving core team-work capabilities every single day. 

My experience is that the most difficult barriers to overcome are the first two; Absence of Trust and Fear of Conflict.  Both require a significant and committed effort by the CEO because without his/her involvement politics will win out. I’m sure many of you have heard the phrase “Culture trumps Strategy” and it is very true. An organization with “Team Trust” and the ability to handle “Constructive Conflict” requires certain behaviors (which in turn become culture) that the CEO needs to make a priority.  If you have an organization that wants to become “world class” I suggest you find a way to make this book required executive reading.            

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Preventing self-deception is about playing hard ball versus soft ball

In various studies scientist have found that all of us practice self-deception.  When asked to rank how well we do our job versus how others do their job, most of the time, we rank our performance as superior to our peers. This known bias is what gave birth to the 360 degree performance feedback system that is used by many organizations.  By using 360 degree feedback (subordinates assessing the positive or negative characteristics of their bosses) the theory is that bosses will often get feedback that tempers their assessment of their own performance and gives them a realistic assessment of their own performance. 

In practice, getting honest feedback and assessing our performance is tricky business.  Even though we have an awareness of our own self-deception, over time it can act as a drug that we are addicted to. We know this drug is bad for us but “it feels so good” it becomes easier and easier feed the beast within; this is especially true as you rise in position and influence. We convince ourselves that everything is great; our department is great, we are great, we control all problems, and we never need help.  We discourage any thoughts or discussions to the contrary and it is not long before our staff learns to suppress bad, and/or controversial news, not offer new ideas, and overall, be less than honest regarding feedback.  “Trouble-free” days become the norm.  This type of management behavior is more common than we would like to believe and it often leads to hiding or ignoring problems. The constant congressional and celebrity indiscretions and subsequent incessant denials and lies that follow are great examples of self-deception.

I wish I had a dollar for every time when I discussed a potential improvement project with a department-head I heard these comments: “The problem was already fixed”, “Our new process will soon take care of that”, and “This issue is a problem caused by another department, not us” Of course, I started the conversation because everyone else in the organization agreed that there was a problem (except those closest to it). 

How do we avoid such self-deception?  Ask the hard questions, not only to your staff but to your peers.  For example: When was the last time you went out of your way to ask the departments you support: “What can I do to help you?”  “What does my department do well and what can we do better – be 100% honest with me”   How about asking your employees a direct question like “What do I do well and not so well?” Do you encourage or stifle employee push-back. I’m talking about constructive push-back versus whining.  For example when an employee indicates that your idea needs more resources or more refinement and they are making thoughtful and valid points that’s constructive push-back versus whining at random with s comment like: “We tried that before and we could not get it to work”.  Don’t make this a “soft-ball” exercise. For example, asking such questions in a by-the-way manner as you pass someone in the hallway – That is rarely the forum to get an honest or thoughtful answer. You need to set some time up and discuss specific metrics and expectations. 

I have worked or consulted in many organizations and I have noticed a strong negative correlation between the practice self-deception and organizational excellence; the greater the self-deception the lower the performance and the greater the hidden cost of inefficiency.  If your organization is going to get to the next performance level maybe it’s time to ask some hard questions.