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Five ways to kindle the spirit of high-performance teams

It’s easy to get lost in the mechanics of creating and sustaining high-performance teams. In amongst all the "nuts and bolts" of setting them up, like daily standups, planning poker, burndown charts, understanding the team’s focus factor, and calculating its velocity, one might even begin to imagine that this is some new set of management gadgets aimed at squeezing a few more drops of productivity out of a weary and beleaguered staff.

One might miss the fact that this is actually about creating exhilaration in the workplace, igniting shining eyes and delight, and inspiring people to reinvent themselves. The mechanics, or “nuts and bolts”, are just stepping stones towards the spirit and the magic of a new kind of workplace, a place where people are energized and vibrantly alive. The fact that this way of working also happens to be much more efficient and productive, and able to create delight for clients are happy spinoffs, but ultimately the sine qua non of the approach is the spirit of the team itself.

Why do some teams achieve high-performance?

Why do some self-organizing teams evolve into high-performance teams, while others flounder around for months, even years? Getting the context right is a big part of it. But even when the context is right, it still doesn’t happen. Why?

Ultimately the evolution of self-organizing teams evolve into high-performance teams depends on mutual respect and trust of the members of the team. When people have this kind of respect, they feel they have the support of others, they view the group’s resources, knowledge, perspectives, and identities to some extent as their own, they feel as though they have new capabilities, and begin to include others in their concepts of themselves. They feel a sense of exhilaration as they learn new things from and about their partners. In a sense, their sense of self expands. They become a larger person.

We are beginning to learn some of the neuroscience of the phenomenon. It has much to do with a hormone called oxytocin that is produced naturally in the brain during supportive social interactions. It causes causes deliciously exhilarating floods of feeling in the brain. It curbs fear and increases trust. It is strongly present in young mothers, and in love affairs. It also appears to be an element in the feeling we find in high-performance teams.

The ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle also wrote about the phenomenon in terms of the concept of “philia”. This is usually translated as friendship, but it is more than mere liking or friendship. It connotes the passion associated with love, but without the sexual connotation. (High-performance teams routinely talk about their relationships as a form of love, e.g. when David Axelrod spoke to Sixty Minutes and described the mood within the Obama campaign team on the night of November 4, 2008.) It is also admiration, but it’s not a mutual admiration society: there is a constructive frankness in these relationships, because the participants care enough to say the things that mere acquaintances won’t. The team members discover what is wonderful in the other person, but the quality is not pre-existing: it is mutually created. In effect, it is a deep appreciation for the character of the other person.

How does this trust and respect arise?

Can it be generated? How does this trust and respect arise? Can it be generated?

In order for the team members to reach this level of respect, they have to know each other more deeply than the superficial relations of the modern bureaucracy. They have to get to know who are these people they are working with.

Clearly, conventional management techniques are at best impotent, and more likely, counterproductive when it comes to creating this kind of respect and trust. Leadership storytelling, by contrast, is well adapted to meet the challenge. Here are five ways it can be used:

Five ways to create this level of respect and trust

1. Stimulate the muscle memory of high-performance teams

One way is to have the team members tell each other stories of their own experiences of high-performance teams that they have experienced in the past. The experience might have occurred in the workplace, in the community, at school or in the family. This may enable the team members to start to see each other as people who have had experiences of high-performance teams in the past, and so create the implicit question: if we have all been in high-performance teams some time in the past, why can’t we get into this mode now?

2. Tell springboard stories of other high-performance teams

In addition, to encourage memories of high-performance teams, a leader might tell springboard stories about successful high-performance teams in other, similar organizations, with the object of stimulating the narrative imaginations of the team members with the thought: if people like that, who are very similar to us, could do it, why not us now?

3. Teach the team members how to communicate who they are

One reason why the team members may not know whether they can trust or respect the other team members, is that the other team members themselves don’t really have a clear image themselves of who they are, and so are unable to project a personality that is fit to be trusted. In such a situation, teaching the team members to learn how to craft and perform the story of who they are can enable them to come to terms with what sort of person they see themselves as, and communicate that to the other members of the team.

4. Have the team members construct the team story.

The classic way in which groups have been inspired to work together is a narrative pattern that is as old as the ancient Greek historian, Thuycidides, and as modern as the political campaign of Barack Obama. The pattern involves three stories:

The story of who we were >> The story of who we are >> The story of who we will be.

Having the group craft and perform this combination of stories is a powerful way for them to communicate both to themselves and to others what they have in common and why they might evolve into a high-performance team.

Note that the trick here is the alignment of the stories with the overall goal the group: unless the stories are aligned in this way, they will not be effective.

5. Deep listening to each other’s story

A final technique involves creating a safe space or container within which the team members are encouraged to undergo deep listening of the other person’s story, by learning how to tell each other’s story. By getting inside the other team member’s stories, they become intimately familiar with who they are.

The underlying mechanism

On the surface, these are merely exercises. But beneath the surface, something deeper is going on. When it works well, the participants lower their social guard. They make themselves vulnerable. They learn about each other. With luck, they discover what’s wonderful in each other. They are suddenly looking at themselves through the admiring eyes of others, and vice versa. They can see themselves as more noble and generous and open. As a result, they can begin to act with them in ways that are more noble and generous and open. They become “new people”.

The risks and benefits of undertaking this approach

The approach outlined here is not without risk.

The team members may consider themselves as too clever and sophisticated to run the risk of lowering their social guard.

There is a real possibility that we lower our social guard, we might not like what we find. We may find that we are incompatible. We crawl back into our shell. We decline to become new people.

The organization might decide not to run these risks and might opt dull predictability of standardized mediocrity to exciting, exceptional performance. They may have other priorities than striving for high-performance teams.

But for those organizations that want the full engagement of their staff, the productivity gains that high-performance teams generate and the delight that clients experience in having their needs fully met, these are powerful and useful tools

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