Surprising advice on counteracting mediocrity

January 31, 2016 3coze

I recently debuted a new speech about building high performance teams. My ideas about how to build a high performance team (and whether teams even have the courage that high performance requires) are getting crisper…and edgier. I’ll share some of those ideas on the blog in the near future.

One audience member was undeterred by my stark descriptions of the tough love required to create high performance. He was all in. But he had recently joined a new organization where not everyone had the same standards. He asked how he could inspire high performance in others. Cool question!
Here’s the gist of my answer:

Don’t Judge

The most important idea I can share with you is how NOT to inspire high performance. That’s by saying or doing anything that will come across as judgment or criticism of the ways things are. That would be like arriving a welcome party thrown by new neighbours and saying, “wow, your lawn is a bit of a mess and those hedges could use some trimming!”

Judgment creates defensiveness and defensiveness causes people to retrench (move backward) rather than renew (move forward).

Unless you’re the most deft and diplomatic communicator, that means staying away from talking about the current state of the team completely. Again…
If you see something of concern with the current state of the team, avoid discussing the current state of the team.

Talk External

Huh? There’s something wrong with the team but I can’t talk about the team?! Exactly! So here’s what you do instead.

Rather than talking about the current state of the team, which is likely to be interpreted as a personal attack, start by talking about what’s changing in the external environment. “How is our industry evolving?” “What are customers demanding?” “Who are our competitors and how are they changing?” “What is technology making possible?“

These are easy questions to ask when you’re new to a team because they look like typical naïve, get up to speed questions.

You and your teammates should be able to create a list as long as your arm of ways in which your world is changing. Although this might be an anxiety-provoking conversation, it won’t be a threatening one because there’s no personal accountability to these trends. Feel free to lob in a few ideas here and there, as long as the majority of responses come from within the team.

Make the Connection

Once your team is talking about how the world is changing, you can toss in the next question: “What do you think it’s going to mean for us?” Pick one of the more salient trends and carry it through. For example: “If more and more people are shopping online, how will that play out in our industry?”

As the conversation heats up (which it inevitably will), toggle between posing questions and making gentle predictions “I wonder if that will mean customers expect us to put our products online?”

Plan for Action

As the team comes together around one or two significant shifts that will be required to succeed in the new environment, make the pivot toward the implications for the team. “What new capabilities will we require? How will we need to behave differently to be successful? In what ways will we need to take our performance up a level?”

The magic is to start with a very impersonal and non-threatening conversation about how the world is changing and to slowly bring the issue closer to home. The process creates curiosity, which is the antidote to defensiveness. Suddenly, the team has signed on to make some important changes and you’re seen a person who asks great questions, rather than the know-it-all who came in and started criticizing.

Epilogue

The gentleman who asked the question came by my book signing later to say that he should have been clearer. His real concern was that his boss (along with other members of senior management) was the one who wasn’t stretching. He asked how he could apply this concept upward.

The only tweak I suggested to the strategy was that the idea might need to be seeded even more gently (in the worst case scenario). I recommended that he share a troubling newspaper headline or magazine article about disruption in the environment to start the conversation.

Final Thought

Of course I wish you could just go at mediocrity head on. I wish you didn’t have to use these indirect techniques to rally your team to something better. I wish you didn’t need to protect your boss’ ego if she’s not doing her job in leading the team. But I’m a realist and a pragmatist. If a little skilful questioning keeps the guard down and allows the ideas in…I’ll take it.

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