How’s Your Team?
Marcia glanced at her watch. The last ten minutes had progressed at a snail’s pace. The conference room was half empty. As usual, Marcia had arrived on time and waited. A few team members were hovering just outside the door while they finished up a conversation about the recent departure of a departmental manager. For Marcia, this was just another meeting that sucked the life out of her. She gave a quick glance at the team motto on the wall and rolled her eyes. It was her weekly dose of inconsequential reporting and a dull exchange of information.
Marcia had sense enough to realize that she was not alone in her disgust. The lack of energy in the room provided sufficient evidence that the other team members were suffering alongside her. Shortly after the first report, Marcia’s mind began to drift. Inside her head a series of pithy messages bounced around in rapid succession. This is not a productive meeting. This is a waste of time. I’m miserable. Why am I here? This is not a good team.
Marcia wanted to draw attention to the obvious. She wanted to release the messages from her mind and put them on the table. She wanted to help create a better team. But, the last time a team member asked a respectful question about the purpose of the meeting, he was shut down in short order with a quick defensive response. Marcia didn’t feel safe. So, she kept her musings to herself.
Barren meetings are duplicated every day. Choose your flavor: Meetings without a clear purpose; Meetings with low engagement; Meetings that end with no decision; Meetings that drag on and on; Meetings that exist simply because they are on the calendar. It’s not just that the conference room has become a wasteland; poor meetings are a symptom of poor team performance.
What accounts for the prevalence of underperforming teams? Do team members fail to recognize when meetings are unproductive? Not likely. It’s hard to camouflage a lame meeting. Is it a lack of desire? Of course not. Today’s team members want to succeed and leaders want to unlock capacity. Belonging to a successful team is extraordinarily rewarding. What about efforts to improve? Frequently, teams try to sprint toward quick solutions without addressing the root cause. So why does an underperforming team rock along in mediocrity? There is a reason that decision making stalls and problems are stacked up like traffic at rush hour. The most important factor in team success is safety. If team members do not feel safe, team success will suffer.
Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of human needs illustrates a powerful leadership principle. One of the basic lessons from Maslow is that people will not engage if personal needs are not met. In Maslow’s hierarchy, the need for safety follows the need for food and water. Creating an effective culture is a leader’s first priority. If you expect trust and collaboration, safety is essential. A safe environment is one where team members feel heard and respected. This is the first step toward repairing a team that has lost its edge. Teams will not thrive without a safe environment. In the absence of safety, teams will struggle with decision-making and problem solving. Valuable contributions will remain locked up in cocoons of defensiveness.
Building a consensus for decisions is no longer a luxury. People entering the workplace expect to participate in making organizations great. They hunger for relevant information, demand immediately to join in thoughtful decision making, and derive significant fulfillment from their contributions.
Fred Johnson & Paul Metler
Positive accountability thrives in organizations that create a safe environment. Without a safe environment, problems remain hidden and the level of safety becomes the limiting factor in whether they are resolved or left to worsen under the surface. An unsafe environment becomes fertile ground for passive-aggressive behavior. If concerns are not expressed in a direct and healthy manner, they tend to emerge in unhealthy sabotage methods. These produce passive resistance in the middle of the organization. Passive resistance siphons productivity by requiring more time and energy in order to overcome the lack of buy-in. Attempting to enforce accountability without safety leads to a punitive approach that does little to improve team performance.
Movement toward team success will begin when team members create a safe culture together. Although safety begins with a courageous leader who will initiate the process, safety is not a decree or edict that comes from above. It cannot be another plaque on the wall. It is an ongoing shared responsibility. When team members feel safe they will invest in the behaviors that build trust. Healthy trust and safety are closely related. Each will deepen over time and contribute to a strong sense of belonging.
Ask your team a simple question, “What is required for our team to feel safe?” Listen and learn. Follow up with a challenge “Are we willing to commit to behaviors that heal fragmentation and restore health?” Begin the process of creating a team culture that is open rather than closed, courageous rather than fearful and trusting rather than suspicious. Safety is THE most important factor for team success.