Is Your Team A Winner Or An Also-ran?

You’ve seen most of the teamwork clichés:

  – Together Everyone Achieves More

  – Great things never come from comfort zones

  – Teamwork makes the dream work

  – Individually we’re a drop, together we’re an ocean

But of course posters in the employee cafeteria don’t transform glib slogans into reality. Effective teamwork requires a deep understanding of human behaviors and a disciplined approach to execution.

Both of those ingredients are abundantly present in The Best Team Wins: The New Science of High Performance by Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton.

Undergirded by 850,000 employee engagement surveys and volumes of other research, Gostick and Elton offer a clear roadmap to the kind of teamwork that most leaders only dream about.

Their previous books—The Carrot Principles and All In—were #1 New York Times, USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestsellers. The Best Team Wins has earned the same accolades.

I visited with Adrian Gostick about teamwork issues that matter to leaders everywhere.

Rodger Dean Duncan: Your research shows that many of today’s younger employees—having grown up as recognition junkies—seem to be more strongly motivated by recognition for their good work than do workers from previous generations. How can leaders best accommodate Millennials’ desire for recognition without turning off older workers who are motivated by other things?

Adrian Gostick: True. What our new research shows—as we’ve done in-depth interviews with more than 25,000 Millennials—is that younger workers’ need for extrinsic recognition from their bosses is three times greater than for older workers.

However, we find that they aren’t looking for meaningless pats on the back. What they are looking for is reinforcement that their work matters and that it’s on track with the needs of the organization.

In other words, they’re looking for more feedback—of the positive and constructive types. The benefit of offering more and better recognition is a leader is providing more feedback to her people—younger or older—and few workers are going to be turned off by receiving more of that.

Duncan: What are the keys to effective recognition?

Adrian Gostick

Gostick: When it’s offered, smart recognition is tied to the organization or team’s core values, it’s given soon after the achievement, and it’s frequent in a team. Most importantly, the recognition is tied to what motivates a person.

Smart leaders use a knowledge of a worker’s individual motivators to tailor expressions of gratitude to each team member.

For instance, someone driven by concepts such as autonomy and excelling might feel best recognized when given a chance to work independently on an important project, while someone who is more motivated by concepts such as teamwork and friendship would likely feel more valued when thrown a party with work friends in celebration of a big win. It all depends on the individual.

Duncan: The philosopher Frederick Nietzsche famously said that “He who has a why to live for can endure almost any how.” What are some good ways for a leader to help workers connect the dots between their work and their values?

Gostick: We’ve found believing in a noble cause rises all ships in the harbor. For instance, a strong why makes older employees more willing to spend time mentoring younger team members and be more open to sharing with them.

For Millennials (whom we often call the Why Generation), clarity about the cause helps them believe that, even as entry-level players, they are making a significant contribution to a mission that matters.

To connect the dots between work and values, we encourage leaders to get input on a purpose statement from their team members. In other words: Don’t do this alone. With that said, we do not recommend asking your team the question: “What’s our purpose?” Instead, make it more human by asking, “Why do we exist as a team?” or “What job do we do for customers?” or “What gets you excited to come here every day?”

Duncan: In many organizations, the performance review is poorly regarded by givers are well as by receivers. Because good coaching is important to a person’s development, what approach do you recommend regarding the appraisal process?

Gostick: Instead of relying on the once- or twice-a-year formal review, many of the best leaders we’ve interviewed hold one-on-one performance review sessions every week or two with each member of their team—even though many of their people are remote and around the globe. “’What do you want to talk about?’ is a great first question.

Many prominent firms have decided to either substantially alter the annual performance review or to abandon the practice entirely—replacing it with other processes for evaluating and developing employees that are more timely, frequent, and in the control of the immediate supervisor. We call this the continuous review. The biggest reason for the change: In today’s fast-moving business environment, a yearly (or half-yearly, for that matter) appraisal is simply not responsive enough to address changes that teams are facing and help people respond.

People need much more regular feedback and guidance—especially younger workers who are unwilling to wait an entire year to learn about their strengths or needed-improvement areas.

Duncan: The culture manifesto at Netflix is often referred to by people wanting to build a high-performing organization. One section of that manifesto says this—“On a dream team, there are no ‘brilliant jerks.’ The cost to teamwork is just too high. Our view is that brilliant people are also capable of decent human interactions, and we insist upon that.” What can leaders do to operationalize that philosophy when forming and managing their teams?

Gostick: Terrific question. One CEO we interviewed told us his company’s number one salesperson had just been let go because he had been found to be sexually harassing female staff members. As the CEO told us, “While you may pay top performers differently and reward them differently, the rules have to apply to everyone exactly the same.” Many organizations might try to sweep his actions under the rug because he was such a high performer, but the CEO said: “How long would that have taken to get out? A few days at most. And it would have given our company a black eye. There are no secrets in an organization.”

Duncan: One of the disciplines you recommend for leaders is “manage the one.” What does that look like in actual practice?

Gostick: Managing to the one means focusing on one-on-one career development. The good news is this is a relatively low-cost way to keep employees and keep them engaged, and it’s something well within the control of each manager. We found considerable payoffs in increased commitment, creativity, and productivity when leaders take even a small amount of time to personalize responsibilities based on team members’ individual drivers.

In most high-engagement teams, we discovered variations on a practice we call job sculpting, in which managers give each employee some work to do that is especially motivating to him/her, while altering or transferring other work that might be demotivating (if at all possible).

Duncan: Can you share a specific example?

Gostick: One vice president at a large bank had an employee who had been there for 30 years. Over time he had developed a passion for public speaking, but his job didn’t involve that.

The VP said, “He and I built that into his job in a way that his colleagues doing the same job don’t have.” That includes going to community colleges to deliver presentations on career planning. She added, “It’s important to him, in terms of getting a sense of satisfaction and feeling good at what he does, that the job has elements of what he loves to do.” His smart manager found a way to sculpt in just one new activity that meets so many of his needs. It’s a small adjustment that has kept him engaged in all aspects of his work, and all because he sat down and told his manager what motivated him.

And she listened! That’s how it all starts.

Duncan: You suggest that harmony is overrated and that team members should be encouraged to engage in civil disagreement. What’s the advantage of such interaction and what are some good ground rules for facilitating it?

Gostick: Feeling able to express your views, take smart risks, and being given roughly equal time to speak up in a team on a given day are the hallmarks of psychological safety. Research shows that fostering this is vital for effective problem-solving and innovative thinking within a fast-moving team. We also found a remarkable payoff of having at least one team member who regularly challenges assumptions and the approach on a team—having a radical.

Keeping debate from escalating into dissension and backstabbing, while assuring that all team members get a roughly equal hearing, can be tricky. Therefore, just about every team leader we interviewed had established ground rules for debate within their teams. We recommend considering these:

  • Treat each other with respect (challenge the position not the person; don’t make it personal)
  • Listen to one another carefully before responding, and ask for clarification if needed (seek to gather facts; do not jump to conclusions)
  • Come to the debate ready to present facts and data (not supposition)
  • Remember you are not in a competition to win (debates are opportunities to find the best ideas, be enlightened, and learn—not score points or ram home your position)
  • After the team makes a decision collaboratively, we are going to support it (even if it wasn’t our idea or we might have reservations)

Duncan: “Define wow” is among the 101 ideas you offer for inspiring a team. Can you give us an example of how that works?

Gostick: While we found breakthrough teams always include competent people, most are not Dream Teams. In fact, in our research we met breakout groups composed of people who up to that point in their careers had been more supporting players than stars. We began to realize that world-class results come only partly from who makes up these teams, but more importantly what these teams do. They were extremely focused on wowing each other and their customers. That begins with a simple question: Does every employee on a team have a clear focus and understanding of what wowing your customers really means? And, as a leader, how can you better help them define that?

Rodger Dean Duncan

Rodger Dean Duncan is bestselling author of CHANGE-friendly LEADERSHIP and a regular contributor to Forbes and Fast Company magazines. He is widely known for his expertise in the strategic management of change, for organizations and for individuals. In 1972 he founded Duncan Worldwide to train and develop leaders. His clients have included some of the top companies in the world, as well as cabinet officers in two White House administrations.
Rodger Dean Duncan

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