Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Resolutions 2012: Working together

In our final set of resolutions for 2012, we look at the foundation of any organisation, the need to work together.  The workplace has always lived or died by the ability of its members to  communicate, collaborate, and navigate tensions. Even oft-maligned areas like middle management make contributions by helping different parts of the organisation make sense of others, translating grand concepts to the practicalities of the shop floor and vice versa.

Get smarter about being creative together.

1. Encourage helping on creative tasks, but avoid that responsibility falling to the same people. Evidence suggests that soliciting and obtaining help can lead individuals to more creative outcomes. The catch is that help-givers show reduced creativity, perhaps because helping behaviours eat into their own time for exploring possibilities, or they become increasingly sure of their own perspective, narrowing their horizons.

2. Bring ideas up-front to a collective brainstorm. This isn't a new idea: there is substantial evidence that ideas can get lost in the mix of a freewheeling conversation driven by social factors. Recent research suggests another issue: early suggestions in the brainstorm can activate related concepts, leading to a domination of one class of suggestion at the expense of others. Ensuring you have surveyed your own mental landscape before exploring those of others' makes it more likely you can cover all the bases.

Responsibility and collaboration

3. Avoid diluting responsibility when setting goals. Research suggests we put in less effort to plan and monitor progress towards goals when we contemplate how others will step in if we fail. In this sense, strong support networks can have counterproductive effects: they let us off the hook. It's a good idea to make it clear that sources of support shouldn't be burdened with keeping things rolling, but are there to provide help with problems or when things are truly stuck.

4. Address lack of trust and bad feelings in teams to prevent things turning toxic. Evidence suggests that a key precursor to teams fracturing into subgroups is a low level of liking or trust. A group in this situation could continue to function as long as members nonetheless understood each other's perspectives; however, the factionalism would still persist, as this comes down to how people feel, rather than think, about each other.

5. Prevent teams going rotten by pairing members with non-team buddies. The dark side of trust: too much within a morally flexible team gives them the freedom to embark on dodgy behaviour. If trust isn't absolute - the team isn't fully "psychologically safe" - then such suggestions are more likely to be suppressed. One way to produce this might be to ensure team members have regular individuals outside the team that they are encouraged to speak to and confide in; peer mentoring or buddy systems would mean that unscrupulous ideas are never safe from some sort of exposure.

Ethics and power

6. Role model better moral perspectives to followers. When your team chuckles over that customer who couldn't get the hire car out of the garage you could join in, or stand apart and draw attention to the responsibility they should be feeling. Standing apart can be risky; being typical of the group helps leaders retain sympathy, especially after failures (external link, abstract only). But it's only by doing so that you are able apply influence to shift people to a new perspective. And the evidence shows that leaders who take this different perspective are accepted as more ethical by their teams.

7. Call out abuses of power to prevent bad seeds rising. It seems that casually breaking rules makes you appear more powerful to others, probably because the converse is true - powerful people can afford to break rules. As positions of power are apt to be given to those who appear ready for them, this attitude can help the wrong people to the top. If organisations encourage employees to challenge personal rudeness, skipping lunch queues, and the like, we can put the bad behaviour back in its box.

Leader support

If you're towards the top of your organisation, there's good you can do within and beyond it.

8. Commit to longer mentoring relationships to give the most to mentees. It can take time for mentoring relationships to yield value to those involved, especially when there are impediments to the relationship quickly forming, such as coming from different backgrounds or being a different gender. A few months isn't enough to get over that hump, so put yourself in the picture for longer.

9. Offer support to other leaders. According to one study, a CEO receives twice as much work-related support from having access to a CEO network as they do from their friends and families. Offering this support, through one to one conversations or informal groups, enables other leaders to engage in more critical leadership behaviours, such as mentoring their own subordinates; the help gets paid forward, so to speak.


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