For the past few years we’ve been studying modern teams—in particular, what makes today’s most effective, innovative teams different than their peers. Our research for The Best Team Wins includes 850,000 interviews with working adults and visits into dozens of organizations and hundreds of teams around the world.
What we found defies much common wisdom about teams; in fact, the best leaders are breaking some of the established rules of running a work group.
What have these leaders discovered?
There is an ‘I’ in Team
Conventional wisdom has long been that all members of a team are equal and everyone should be treated the same because that assures fair management. With all due respect: Bwahaha! That is old school thinking.
You’d be hard pressed today to find a business person who doesn’t recognize that personalization has become the gold standard for consumer products and services. Netflix, as just one example, knows your viewing preferences better than your significant other. Well, it’s time to realize that personalization is fast becoming the gold standard for managing people. Employees want to have an authentic, individual relationship with their manager. They want, and deserve, to be treated as distinct individuals with unique motivators.
As such, we found today’s best team leaders Manage to the One, which especially manifests in the process of career development. The good news is career development is one of the few things a team leader does control. After all, it usually takes years to affect an employee’s compensation in a meaningful way, and you can’t give out better perks or benefits if an employee is rocking it (I’m going to give you a better dental plan, Johnson; I’ve seen your kids and they’re a mess); but every team leader can more closely manage their people on the career side—specifically sculpting jobs to give people a little more of what motivates them and less of what frustrates them.
Harmony is Overrated
When we pose the question to groups of leaders what’s better—a team that’s almost always harmonious or one that has conflicts and arguments—the vast majority vote for a team with no disharmony. It seems most of us believe that great teams always get along. Actually, we found the best teams disagree … a lot. The most effective and innovative teams we’ve studied have regular, intense debates, which was fun for us to observe. The ability to disagree, without causing offense, is essential to robust communication and problem-solving within teams. People want the opportunity to challenge each other. As long as discussions are respectful, and everyone gets the chance to contribute equally, most people thrive on this kind of debate—finding it not only intellectually stimulating but important to getting to the route of problems and working out solutions. And we discovered that teams feel more bonded and more overall more effective when they regularly engage in challenging discussions, when members are encouraged to debate with one another’s ideas and perspectives.
Neil Parikh, one of mattress company Casper’s cofounders, said debate like this drives much of his team’s success: “People will hear us yelling in a room and looking like we’re gonna throw s#@$ at each other, but that’s because it’s a part of our DNA that we debate everything.” Smart.
Failure isn’t Fatal
It’s been long held that a hallmark of a great team is that it wins; but today’s best leaders understand that if their teams aren’t experiencing smart failures along the way, they’re not being creative enough or taking enough risks. This doesn’t mean members are not held accountable for being judicious, but managers are creating latitude when their people are being bold. The key is that they focus risks on making a customer experience better, and the team must rigorously learn from each misstep.
A terrific practice of many of the leaders we interviewed was that they modeled the behavior of failing for their teams. Makes sense: If a leader preaches risk-taking but never fails himself, or never admits it, then consequently the team will take few gambles themselves. Another best practice: Many leaders are publicly rewarding people who take a risk and fail—just as much as they do successes. The CEO of Indian conglomerate Tata has a program in which he awards the year’s best attempts with the Dare to Try Award. It is presented to the company’s most thoughtful and well-executed failures. When he first launched the program, few teams entered. But when everyone saw the winners get congratulated on stage by the CEO, within three years 132 teams had submitted for the prize.
Leaders Make a Difference
There’s been a movement in recent years to flatten organizations. We went through a period where many teams were leaderless, or if they had a leader that person was instructed to be a coach, not a manager—exerting little authority. Unfortunately, getting rid of hierarchy hasn’t worked that well. In the best modern teams, we found leadership alive and well. Teams still need the accountability a manager provides, as well as the direction and guidance. What we have seen help, however, is a reduction in power distance. The less dominating power exerted by a manager, the more inclusiveness she creates, and the more group members are willing to participate and generate ideas.
What we did find is that the best team managers are employing practices that inspire their people to speak up and be bolder in sharing ideas and engaging in more avid debate. One of practices is to actually schedule debates and lead them. In these environments, members feel comfortable offering one another proactive feedback, speaking up even when their advice hasn’t been asked for. One sure sign of a healthy team is that employees offer each other tough-to-hear feedback, instead of offloading all problems to the boss and hoping they trickle down.
Those are just four of the counterintuitive findings from our latest research into modern teams. We’d love to hear from you. Is there a myth of running a team that you think needs to be debunked?