Understanding What Makes Your Team Tick

This is an insightful summary from the book Nine Lies About Work by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall.

A great read; very insightful and based on thorough research.  If you have a chance, we encourage you to read it.

A couple of years before Nine Lies About Work was written, the Harvard Business Review asked the authors to write an article about the annual work performance appraisal.

Their conclusion, using Marcus Buckingham’s skill at finding reliable insight from data, and Ashley Goodall’s real-world experience, was that performance appraisals stink and employees don’t find them to be a useful tool.

The article was so popular that HBR asked them to take the same approach to the entire world of work, and turn it into a book.

What they found was that there are many practices we all seem to accept as settled truths about work that simply aren’t true. In fact, the nine they cover in this book are actually counterproductive and unpopular among workers.

What follows are the nine lies we often tell ourselves while on the job, and how we can replace them with new practices that actually work.

But first…

The 8 Things Your Team Actually Cares About

Before we jump into the lies, it will be helpful to understand what your team members actually want out of work and what predicts sustained team performance.

Here’s what an engaged and productive employee would say about their work:

  1. I am really enthusiastic about the mission of my company.
  2. At work, I clearly understand what is expected of me.
  3. In my team, I am surrounded by people who share my values.
  4. I have the chance to use my strengths every day at work.
  5. My teammates have my back.
  6. I know I will be recognized for my excellent work.
  7. I have great confidence in my company’s future.
  8. In my work, I am always challenged to grow.

There are two groupings of ideas here.

The first grouping is the odd-numbered items, and they deal with the person’s experience in their interactions with people at work. The authors call these the “Best of We” items.

The second grouping is the even-numbered items, and they deal with the person’s individual experience at work. The authors call these the “Best of Me” items.

After doing research on the world of work for more than two decades, the authors have concluded that what distinguished great team leaders from everybody else is their ability to meet those two different categories of needs for the people on their teams.

Now that we have that as context, we can move on to how the way we are working actively works against meeting those needs.

Lie #1: People Care Which Company They Work For

You’ve heard the cliché that people join companies but leave their managers. As it turns out, the data suggests that this is true.

In every company the authors studied, they found two things.

  1. The level of engagement (defined by the scores employees give to the eight questions we highlighted in the previous section) varied significantly between teams.
  2. The engagement level of the particular team is what determined whether or not an individual was likely to stay or leave the company.

This leads to the conclusion that when people decide not to work somewhere, it’s because of their team, not the company.

The good news is that as a leader, what you need to do in order to increase the engagement on your team (and thus, their productivity and effectiveness) is fairly straightforward.

First, you should know the answers to the before-mentioned eight questions for all of your team, all of the time. You could use survey technology to do this, but you could also simply sit down with them and ask.

Second, take action on the things that they suggest, when it makes sense. Be careful not to generalize from the individual to the team – what is meaningful for one person might not be meaningful for another.

Lie #2: The Best Plan Wins

Most plans created in companies are overly generalized and obsolete before they are ever put into action.

So, the best plan doesn’t win- the best intelligence does.

When your people are doing their jobs, they need to engage in the world they are actually in, responding to real-world data.

If you’ve hired the right people, you should be able to present them with reliable, accurate and real-time data and trust them to make smart decisions.

Not only will that end up generating better results, but your people will also be far more engaged in the work, leading to even better performance in the future. It’s a virtuous cycle.

There are three things you can do as a leader to make this intelligence system work.

First, drive as much intelligence and information as you can down to the front line. Not your interpretations of the information, but the information itself. It’s much more important to ensure that the data you are giving them is accurate than to overlay it with your interpretation.

Second, pay attention to which data your people find useful. By not pre-filtering it, you’ll quickly find out what information helps and what doesn’t.

Third, trust your people to make sense of the data.

Have a weekly check-in with each of your team members

One of the things you can most effectively do as a team leader is to have a weekly one-on-one check-in with your team members to make sure they are getting what they need to do their jobs.

During that check-in, ask them two simple questions:

  • What are your priorities this week?
  • How can I help?

Why is it so important to do this weekly and not, say, monthly? The data shows those team leaders who check-in weekly see, on average, a 13 percent increase in team engagement, while those who check-in once a month see a 5 percent decrease in engagement.

If you are thinking that you have too many people on your team to do this weekly, the authors suggest that you have too many people on your team.  

Lie #3: The Best Companies Cascade Goals

There are many popular methodologies on the market these days that suggest that goals should cascade from the top of the organization all the way to the front lines.

In theory, this makes complete sense and should create alignment within your company, with everybody rowing in the proverbial same direction.

However, the authors suggest, the best companies don’t cascade goals. They cascade meaning.

One of the examples the authors give of a company that gets this right is Chick-fil-A. It’s founder, Truett Cathy, imposes two seemingly profit destroying restrictions on his franchisees – they can’t open on Sunday, and they are only allowed to own one franchise.

Why would he set his company up this way? Because Cathy is a devout Christian who follows the Bible’s instruction to keep Sunday as a day of rest, and he wanted his company to develop leaders in local communities.

The result is that his franchisees are constantly in their single store, staying close to the guests and team members, getting to know the people in the community, leading to understanding their needs and eventually transforming the community itself.

Aside from that coming true, the company is also the fastest growing and most profitable quick-service company in the world.

There are three “levers” that Chick-fil-A and other companies that cascade (meaning throughout their organizations at a high level (like Facebook)) do:

  • First, they have expressed values. Not the cheesy kind that gets boiled down to single words and put on plaques on the wall, but clearly articulated values that people take very seriously.
  • Second, they have rituals that reinforce their values. Chick-fil-A closing on Sundays is a good example of this.
  • Third, they pay a lot of attention to telling stories about their values, endlessly bringing them to life wherever and whenever they can.

Lie #4: The Best People Are Well-Rounded

The authors put this lie to rest previously with their work on strengths. Basically, you get better results from your people not by shoring up their weaknesses, but by helping them further develop their strengths.

This lie works like this.

Somebody in your company creates or adopts a broad set of competencies that a person should possess if they want to progress in their career. As an example, one popular model has 118 competencies that it considers “core”.

People wanting to progress up the ladder will find themselves ranked on each of those competencies.

Then, they’ll find out the areas where they scored lowest, and be told to remedy those shortcomings, or as they’ll likely phrase it, “development areas.”

Why? Because well-rounded people are better.

However, there are two facts that quickly expose the shortcomings with this approach:

  • First, it’s almost impossible to measure a single competency. Quick – how would you rate yourself the competency of “strategic thinking?” It’s a nebulous concept at best, and whatever score you gave yourself is a shot in the dark.
  • Second, all research into high performance shows that each high performer is unique, and they got that way because they understood their strengths and took great pains to develop them.

So, what should we do instead? According to the authors, here are the top three strategies

  • Get into the outcomes business. Be laser-focused on unleashing your people to create results rather than trying to control what they do.
  • Define the outcomes you want, and then encourage your team to use their strengths to achieve them. They’ll naturally rely on their strengths, and you’ll be amazed at how efficiently and creatively the job gets done.
  • Use team “technology.” The best part of working on and through a team is that weaknesses have a tendency to be made irrelevant by the combination of different strengths.

Lie #5: People Need Feedback

People don’t need feedback, they need attention.

The common wisdom, especially now that millennials make up a large portion of the workforce, is that feedback is critical to our success. Especially feedback when things aren’t going according to plan.

However, as the authors point out, we are not very good at giving it, mainly because of something called Fundamental Attribution Error.

Basically, it says that when we observe other people’s behaviour (especially when it is bad or at least not producing the result we want) we have a tendency to explain it by referencing “who they are.” As an example, if you show up to work late, you must be an irresponsible person.

The result of this bias is our tendency to give personal feedback when things aren’t going well with one of our direct reports, rather than looking at the external situation they are facing and addressing that (which is much more likely to address the underlying concern).

This makes the person receiving the feedback feel bad and demotivated, and it’s unlikely to fix the problem. The solution to this no-win situation is to give your people positive attention.

Research has shown that positive attention is thirty times more effective than negative feedback in creating a high performance on a team.

Of course, you still have a problem to solve, so this positive feedback isn’t simple praise for a job well done. Rather, it’s about helping your team members think about their strengths and how they might use them to close the gap in performance.

Here’s how to do it.

  • First, start with the present. Instead of focusing on what’s not working right now, get them to tell you three things that are working.
  • Second, go to the past and ask them how they solved a problem like this in the past.
  • Finally, turn to the future and ask them “What do you already know you need to do?”

These questions tend to create concrete answers and help them formulate a plan for action based on what has already worked for them.

This isn’t a nice way to do it- it’s the way that works.

Lie #6: People Can Reliably Rate Other People

We’ve already touched on this briefly above, but it’s a big enough issue that it warrants its own section.

Without getting into the details, the authors concluded that a) human beings can never reliably rate other human beings, b) rating data obtained by human judgment is contaminated because it says more about the rater than the person being rated, and c) you can’t get good data from a combination of bad data.

This means that 360-degree reviews and other performance rating tools do not measure what they suggest they measure. Which, in turn, means that any discussions based on that data do not accurately reflect the truth.

What you can rely on, however, is your experience with the person you are trying to evaluate.

Here’s an example so you can see the difference.

If I ask you to rate Sally’s performance on a scale from 1 – 10, the data I get from your answer is unreliable. Why? Because what I mean by performance and what you understand it to mean could be (and likely is) two different things. And even if we had the same understanding, our scales are probably calibrated much differently.

However, if I ask you to answer the question “do you always turn to Sally when you want extraordinary results?” I can trust your answer completely and I get very reliable information from it.

The approach you should take to tackle this lie is to ask for people’s subjective experience in interacting with the people you are making decisions on.

Here are a few more example questions you could ask if you were interested in accurately assessing whether or not somebody should be promoted:

  • Do you choose to work with this team member as much as possible?
  • Do you think this person has a performance problem that you need to address immediately?
  • Would you promote this person today if you could?

Lie #7: People Have Potential

Now that we’ve covered how to assess and drive performance issues, let’s move on to how to maximize the potential of the people on your team.

Or, more accurately, to dispel the myth that you can classify people into categories of high or low potential.

The first thing to consider is that as soon as you label somebody as high potential or low potential (which, in real-world terms means anybody not labelled as high-potential), you are defining their destiny. It’s a label that is almost impossible to shake, for better or for worse.

The second thing to consider is that potential is not a trait. You don’t have it or not have it. It’s true that some people have the capacity to grow more quickly than others, but even that is something that can change over time.

The better way of thinking about this issue is that everybody has a current level of momentum. It has the elements of power (how strong the momentum is), speed (how quickly it’s progressing) and direction (where it’s pointed).

The power in reframing the discussion about the potential in this way is that it conveys to the person you are assessing that a) there’s something there that’s measurable, b) it’s changeable, and c) that it’s in their control.

Lie #8: Work-Life Balance Matters Most

Instead of striving for a balance between work and life, you should encourage your team to search for love-in-work.

Inherent in the term “work-life balance” is the idea that work is bad and life is good. That somehow work depletes you and that you need life to fill up the tank again. And that if you only paid more attention to it, your life too, could be balanced.

But if you ask anybody you know whether or not they have this elusive work-life balance, they’ll almost certainly tell you they don’t.

As the authors put it, the very moment you find that balance, life happens and throws it all out of whack again anyways.

A better approach to dealing with reality is to find love in your work.

Look at a human being in love and you’ll find somebody at their most productive, creative, generous, resilient, innovative, collaborative, open and powerful. Basically, you’ll find the list of qualities that every CEO wants their people to have.

The authors suggest a practical exercise you can do twice a year to ensure that you are finding the threads of love in your work to keep your tank on full.

  • Choose a regular week at work and take a notepad around with you for the entire week.
  • Draw a line down the middle of the pad and write “Loved It” on the left, and “Loathed It” on the right.
  • Make a note in the corresponding column when you notice yourself doing something you love or something you loathe.
  • Take the items you love and figure out ways to do more of them, more consistently in your work.


Lie #9: Leadership Is A Thing

The last and final lie is that leadership is a thing.

We’ve made the mistake of thinking of leadership as a trait – as something you can acquire.

Rather, the authors point out, leadership is a state – you either people following you (and so you are a leader) or you don’t.

So the question we should be asking ourselves isn’t “what makes a great leader?” it’s “why do we follow?”

To be sure, we don’t follow people who fit the mythical standard of a leader who is a stable blend of the traits more commonly associated with great leaders – visionary, great strategists, excellent communicators, etc.

How do we know this? Because history is littered with examples of great leaders who don’t have all of those traits.

In fact, the best leaders are often missing most of what we could consider being table stakes for great leaders.

Instead, we follow spikes. We follow people who have harnessed singular strengths and developed them to a level of mastery.

We follow them not only because of their ability to excel in that area but in how they change the way we feel about the future. In particular, they make us feel more confident about it.

This relates back to the idea from the first section that, for each member of a team, they “have great confidence in my company’s future.”

How can you apply these new insights to your teams, individuals, and yourself? 

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