Here is some ADVICE...or not...

From time to time I receive questions from readers asking for advice on how to handle certain leadership situations.

One thing you have to know is that I am not big on giving advice. To be able to advise, I think you need a lot of details on the situation the person finds themselves in. There are usually so many details that would sway something one way or another.

Douglas Stone and Sheila Henn in Thanks for the Feedback say that the problem with advice is that it is not specific enough. We tend to give some sage quip without enough detail to implement. Or, we are such experts in something we assume everyone knows our jargon. “When you deliver your presentation make sure it stands out.” Interesting, but what does “stand out” even mean?

The other thing that makes advice hard is that when I give it I now own the result. Since it was my idea, it is in some way on me if it doesn’t work. It doesn’t matter if the person didn’t follow my advice the way I laid it out, or they took some of it, but not all of it. The advice didn’t work and I am in some way responsible.

That is usually why I prefer to coach and to help people find options that seem reasonable and doable for them to try.

One thing I had to learn as I was growing as an executive coach, mostly the hard way, is that while coaching is in some respects about helping people solve problems, it is far from telling them what to do. It is more about what Parker Palmer calls “pulling out their inner teacher.” Helping them see options and then supporting the options they choose is, to me, more of what coaching is about.

So, when I get a question from a reader seeking advice, I usually will read it and ponder it for a week or more. I am not thinking about what the person should do in the situation described, or what I would do if I were them. Instead, my thoughts usually turn more to trying to understand the context of the situation they might be in and then coming up with some general guidelines or options they could choose.

With that in mind, I did receive a fantastic question from someone who has read this blog for years.


The Question

“How do leaders know when to intervene to promote better collaboration (aka stop all the group in-fighting) verses just reorganize the department? Is there a tipping point where a simple intervention can help to resolve the issue rather than incur an expensive reorganization?”

My Thoughts

As I have been pondering this question I am really seeing two very distinct ideas emerging. The first is organizational and the second has to do with how teams function.

The organizational aspect has to do with the needs of the organization and strategically how the group is put together to meet the needs of the organization, while the team function is more about the relationships amongst the members of the group. I want to tackle these areas independently, then bring it together at the end.

The Organization

Teams are formed to meet some specific need the organization has realized. Teams of people come together in an organized fashion to accomplish a specific set of goals or tasks. They can also come together as change agents moving the organization from an old set of objectives to new goals that move the organization closer to completing its mission and making the vision a reality.

As I step back and think about the question above, if I am going to reorganize a department then there needs to be a strategic reason. There will likely have been some change, either internally, like a new or redefined mission, or externally, like a shift in customer demands. This type of change to reorganize will be driven by forces external to the team. Something has happened somewhere that causes what the team is doing to not be as valuable to the organization. Rather than dismantle the team completely (reorganize), the team is given a new set of goals and objectives that match the external reality.

Reorganizations are chaotic, emotional, and expensive. The external pressures being experienced need to be greater than the emotional and financial cost to reorganize.

Reorganizing dysfunctional people on a team only sends the dysfunction to another part of the organization. The analogy I hear most often for dysfunctional people in an organization is that they are a cancer. The attitudes and behaviors are destructive and left to their own devices will have a very bad effect on the organization. So, if the analogy works, why would you take a cancer in one part of the body and move it to another part to infect it there? Just because an organization can afford to do it doesn’t mean that is the right thing to do.

The Relationships of the Team

If teams are not functioning well, a leader or coach has to be able to step into this moment. It takes both personal courage and a mindset that the needs of the organization outweigh any personal agendas that might exist. The leader must have the courage to call out behaviors that are not conducive to good team functioning.

General Stanley McChrystal, in his book Team of Teams writes that “superteams” are able to construct a strong lattice of trusting relationships. He makes the point that in a true team environment the leader needs to be less concerned with hierarchy and command; what their position is and telling individuals what to do, and more concerned with ensuring trusting relationships are forming so there is a supportive network to perform.

Trust amongst team member is ensuring people are comfortable being vulnerable about weakness, mistakes, fears, and behaviors without fear of reprisal. So that if someone doesn’t know something, they are not judged for the lack of knowledge, but supported in getting the knowledge they need. A teammate should feel a sense of confidence to admit a weakness and have someone on the team come alongside them and say “Here, let me help you with that.”

There are three things I find vital for a team to be able to trust each other:

  1. Cultural integrity - That as a group, we are always going to do the right thing. If someone on the team is being mean, as a team we go to the person and let them know that is not how this team behaves. We want to have them on the team, but the culture here is one of kindness and respect. Integrity matters. Always!

  2. Comfort with Vulnerability - Teammates have to be willing to admit weakness and mistakes and can never be penalized or punished when they do. If you are a person who avoids conflict, you should be able to admit this to your team and they need to come alongside and help you get better at this. The team has to believe in you and that you can improve. It all starts with a culture of realizing we are all human and we all fall short somewhere.

  3. Confidence in the members - Not one of us holds all the answers. Teams have to believe in the mission and have confidence in each other to tackle whatever is put before them. As individual humans we crave safety and security. Taking risks is not always a safe feeling. This is the value of the team. As an individual, my need is for safety. The team is there to support each other to take risks and achieve much more than an individual ever could. High performing teams have confidence in each other.

Now, back to the question at hand. I would argue one of the main purposes of the leader of a team is to foster a culture of collaboration that leads to results.

Not collaboration so that every person touches every thing, but trusting each other enough to know I don’t have to touch something if you were running with it.

The leader is the person accountable if someone is not living up to the team charter of expectations. The leader ought to rally the team to their responsibility of pulling the person back in line. If the team won’t do it, then the leader has two jobs. One with the team to create the culture of team discipline, and another with the person who is not living up to team standards by coaching them individually.

My position is that if there is group infighting, then the leader is accountable. Maybe if there has to be a reorganization because of this very non-strategic reason, it should come out of the leader’s bonus.

What about you? What advice would you share in response to this very interesting question? I would love your input.

Thank you, Jenny, for helping us all think.