Name one person on your team who needs to change their attitude to make things better. Is your boss letting team members get away with poor performance? Is one of your coworkers a terrible gossip? Does another hoard information like a dragon gloating over its pile of gold? Don’t hold back–be honest.
OK, here’s the bad news: that was a trick question. The real answer is you. You need to change your behavior to change the way your team operates.
But that’s also the good news: you can change the way your team operates, just by changing your own behavior. Walk into work tomorrow with a new attitude and a few new tricks up your sleeve, and you’ll start the process of strengthening your team, one productive conversation at a time.
Start With A Positive Assumption
First, be honest with yourself about the way you respond to each of your teammates. Are there some you see as allies and some that you believe are out to get you? There’s probably at least one person you’ve clashed with—and at least one that you just don’t like.
Let it go. It’s a vicious cycle. Your conscious or unconscious tension shows up in your body language and tone of voice. Your teammate picks that up (again, consciously or unconsciously) and returns the hostility. It’s all downhill from there.
Instead, start with a positive assumption. Unpack your baggage and assume that everyone on your team is competent, is coming to work every day to get their job done, and is trying to help you do your job, too. When the evidence suggests otherwise, ask questions to understand what’s going on.
Add Your Full Value
Next, think about your participation in the team. Does your harried morning routine mean that just getting to the meeting is the accomplishment? Are you too tired to contribute fully? Do you hold back on saying things that aren’t in your area of expertise?
Your team deserves better. Speak up.
I once worked with an insurance company that had a great HR leader. She was fantastic in her role. Nevertheless, the most important impact she had at that company came from her past professional experience.
Coming from the retail industry, she was horrified to hear her colleagues referring to their customers as “policyholders,” and to see the internal systems treating one person who bought two kinds of insurance as two separate policyholders. By showing up as her whole self, and bringing the value of her past experience to the table, she showed this company how to put their customers first.
You have value to add based on your experience in other industries, your own buying and consumption habits, your role in the community, and so on. Don’t leave all that insight at the door–share it with your colleagues. Add your full value.
Amplify Other Voices
Once you’ve started using your own voice more effectively, try to listen to your teammates’ voices more, too. Healthy teams need to listen to and respect diverse voices–introverts and extroverts, old hands and newbies, big thinkers and fine-tooth-combers. But many teams end up with a majority of one kind of person, and a tendency to drown out minority voices.
There are real risks to shouting down those dissenting voices. The majority tends to represent the status quo and the way the team has always worked in the past, so ignoring the minority can stifle innovation. Teams that agree too much can also slide into groupthink, when excessive cohesiveness blinds the group to possible risks.
At your next team meeting, try using your voice to amplify minority voices. Ask someone who hasn’t spoken up much to share their thoughts. Stand up to someone who’s trying to dismiss a dissenting view. You’ll broaden the scope of the conversation and make the team more productive.
OK, enough with the easy stuff. These last two steps are going to be a little harder.
Know When to Say No
First, you’ve got to learn to say no. We’re all socialized to believe that the best and most productive workers say “yes” to everything. But in reality, trying to do everything only means doing a poor job of most things. When you say yes to something you can’t do on time (or with high quality), you risk letting your team down.
To say “no” effectively, you’ve got to know your priorities. Figure out, with your boss if possible, your primary value to your organization, and a few key areas you should focus on. Your goal will be to–politely and productively–say no to anything outside those key areas.
Then, when a coworker asks you to take on an inessential project, help them think about whether this work really needs to get done at all. What’s the payoff? If there isn’t one, skip it. If there is, tell your coworker what your priorities are and give them a sense of what you’ve been saying yes to, so they understand the reason for your “no.” Then help them figure out who might be better suited to this task. And remember to be respectful when your co-workers say no to you!
Embrace Productive Conflict
Even if you accept all the responsibilities I’ve laid out so far, your team might still disagree about some things. And that’s OK–that’s better than OK. In fact, to improve your team, you’ll need to embrace productive conflict.
Most teams don’t have enough conflict. Some really do agree on everything, which can leave them blind to new opportunities–and risks. If that’s your team, try to broaden the conversation. Other teams do have conflict, but they hide it. Everyone agrees during the meeting, but afterwards, there’s gossip, or a small group reversing decisions the team made, or one person quietly undermining the group by shirking his commitments. If this sounds like your team, focus on getting that dissent out in the open.
One great way to disagree with a colleague without engaging in destructive conflict is to express your opinion as an “and.” Don’t tell that person she’s wrong–acknowledge what she’s saying, and then add your own view. You might say, “I understand it’s important to save room in the budget for a customer event, AND I’m concerned we’re short on money for employee training. What are our options?”
If you can take even one of these steps today, you will start changing the tone of your team. Think about how much time you spend at the office. Isn’t a healthier, more productive environment worth a little extra effort?
Liane Davey, Ph.D. is the author of the upcoming book You First: Inspire your team to grow up, get along, and get stuff done, which will be available September, 2013. Liane is also the host of www.ChangeYourTeam.com, an online community with a mission to end the misery and lost productivity of bad teams. Liane is a Vice President in Leadership Solutions at Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions.
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