How great leaders create smart teams

December 20, 2016

Sometimes, you get to work with a great leader. They’ve got a great vision and the ability to get people to rally around it. They’re also empathic enough to listen, learn, and adjust. Team members all feel like they’re contributing to something great. Ideas get considered, debated on their merits, and everyone is able to do their best work.  

What is that great leaders do to create this kind of smart team?

I had a chance to work with Jean Tabaka for about nine years, and one of the things that she taught me is that safety is what drives a group’s intelligence. It’s kind of an odd thing to say - safety seems important in factories but much less so in offices.   

But you can always tell an unsafe office. Everyone is cautious; there’s lots of hushed chatter. People aren’t taking risks. The company moves forward in a bumbling way, making some progress towards dubious goals, with everyone avoiding the obvious problems.  

Jean taught me that great leaders and facilitators make creating safety an everyday priority. If you can do this, your company will actually get smarter.

Let’s face it - in the US, the workplace is inherently dangerous for the worker. You can get fired at any time, without cause, and the power is in the hands of your boss. Most of us depend on our jobs to feed our families. Changing jobs isn’t easy. So we try our best to start out by following the boss’s directions. We test out disagreement gently. If it’s welcomed, we increase our vulnerability through more open conversations. The honesty benefits everyone.  

When we get together in groups, and engage in open dialogue, we can have good, productive discussions if the environment is safe. But it only takes one leader attacking one subordinate for everyone else to realize things aren’t safe.

Here’s an example. A couple of years ago, I was in a large, all-day quarterly planning meeting.  it was the mid-afternoon, and people were getting tired. A middle manager stood up and brought up an issue that was an elephant in the room. An executive who was convinced the issue was unimportant stood up and shot down the idea. As a yelling match between the two developed, the air was sucked out of the room the room. After what seemed like hours but was probably less than a minute, the facilitator called a 10-minute break.

Jean pulled the facilitator into the hallway outside of the main room. “You’ve just lost all of the safety in the room,” she said. “How are we going to get it back?”  

When the group got back together, the facilitator split us into groups of 3 to discuss what we’d just seen. The two leaders who had been yelling had a chance to discuss their experience with others. Both were assertive people; neither one had felt heard by the other. But having a conversation in a small group gave them a chance to be properly heard and valued. Meanwhile, other small groups were able to suggest some ways forward on the matter of dispute.

In this situation, a couple of very senior, very assertive people weren’t feeling heard, and the open dialog wasn’t helping. Working in small groups helped unblock the problem.

Of course, people don’t always start yelling when they don’t feel heard.   Some disengage from their jobs, and find other places to put their energy. (I like to find a new hobby to pour my energy into.)

Others get to work indirectly, through passive-aggressive or covert manipulation. If they can’t get what they want through a visible process, they’ll find ways to assert their will. Suddenly, you have smart people putting energy into politics rather than work. If you let this go on too long, they begin to believe that covert manipulation IS their work.

In all three of these cases - explosion, disengagement, and covert manipulation, you’ve got people who are not able to work hard on the business problems at hand.  They’re literally forced to act dumber than they are, because it’s the only way they can survive.

What I internalized from Jean is that groups need to come together regularly, at least quarterly, to work on their problems, and that you can’t rely on open dialog to work everything out. Experienced facilitators can steer the group through techniques like small-group activities to work through challenges and actually increase safety under stress.   

As people feel seen, heard, and valued, their safety increases, and that creates group intelligence. As leaders and facilitators, we need to explicitly take steps to create safety - we can’t just hope it will happen through our good intentions.

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