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Beyond comparison—Dysfunctional teams

 This column is for leads and managers, but I’ll bet you report to one, so feel free to share.

How often do your employees rant about each other? Do they form “secret” alliances? Is the air thick with tension in your team meetings? That must be tough for you; my teams always get along great.

Does your team have lunch together? Are your morale events strained? My team eats together once a week and messes around at a morale event once a month. We laugh almost the whole time.

When your team is stressed, do they fracture? When one of your employees falters, do the others take advantage of the situation? Do they just stand back and enjoy the moment? Or does your team look after each other? My employees always band together and support one another.

If we reported to the same manager, how would you feel about the job you are doing? What would our manager say? Would she tell you to be more like me? Would she throw my team’s survey, retention, and productivity numbers in your face? How would you feel, especially at review time?

Trying to pick a fight

Think I’m picking a fight? Darn right I am. If our manager compared my team to yours and shoved the facts in your face, you’d want me dead, or at least bucked off the high horse the boss handed me. You’d probably try to sabotage my success and make me look like a dimwit.

Sound familiar? If your team is dysfunctional, that’s what is happening. Members of your team are sabotaging each other and pressing their own agendas to improve their relative standing. Teamwork is for people uninterested in mortal combat.

Who or what is the culprit? Are your people too competitive? No way, I’ve got highly competitive people on my team who used to be on yours, only now they get along. Is it the review system that pits people against one another? No, I use the same system. Is it the stress level? No, my people shine brightest when they are challenged.

What’s the difference? Why do my teams function so well? Want to know? Here’s the answer: I never compare my people to each other; I compare them to their own potential and my expectations. That’s it. That’s the secret.

Go ahead, try to deny it. It can’t be that simple, right? Besides, I have to compare them to each other; it’s part of reviews, right? Wrong. It is that simple, and reviews don’t have to be destructive.

Eric AsideI took a dangerous tact of being directly confrontational with my readers and seeming quite conceited for this column. It was deliberate; I wanted my readers to relive that visceral animosity they felt as children against their rivals. Since I. M. Wright is an arrogant son of a female dog anyway, I figured his reputation wouldn’t suffer and trusted people could handle it.

This is not a competition

I wish I could claim to have discovered this secret on my own, but I’m not that smart. I learned it from a parenting book, Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live So That You Can Live Too by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (HarperCollins, 2004). The premise is simple: children want your love and attention, and if you compare them to each other, you’ve declared it a competition. However, it isn’t a competition unless you are a really sick parent. Therefore, don’t compare.

The same goes for employees. They all want the admiration and appreciation of their supervisor. If you compare employees to each other, then you’ve declared it a competition—but it isn’t. Yes, employees compete for rewards division-wide, but at that scale the competition isn’t directly between your team members.

Yes, there are donkeys posing as managers who insist their employees should compete for rewards at the team level. However, that is so far from reasonable, respectful, and rational that I’d like to personally report every case to HR. Donkeys like that shouldn’t be allowed to manage people. They should be relegated to walking in endless circles by adults in clown suits while screaming children pull their hair.

When teammates don’t compete against each other, their best chance to achieve success is to work together. Life is good.

I’ll give you a hint

To maintain a high-functioning team, a key challenge is to avoid making comparisons between team members. Don’t give them any excuses to compete against each other. But how do you avoid comparisons? Use these simple pointers:

  • Describe what you like An employee asks your opinion of some work: “How does this compare to Pat’s?” This is a trap, so don’t mention Pat. Instead, describe what you like: “That’s a great implementation. It’s clear and concise, easy to test, and uses all the right security protections.”
  • Express confidence in your employees An employee complains about a teammate: “I’m blocked until Joe checks in his code, but he doesn’t want to check it in till it’s perfect. Can you get him moving?” This employee, perhaps unwittingly, wants to look good while making a teammate look bad, so don’t fall for it. Instead, express your confidence in your team: “Wow, you are blocked, but Joe’s trying to do a quality job. Sounds like a tough tradeoff. I’m sure you two can talk it through and work out a reasonable compromise.”
  • Focus on fulfilling needs, not on being “fair” You promoted an employee and a peer is jealous: “How did Jane get promoted and I didn’t? It isn’t fair, we both worked hard.” It’s easy to get caught up in fairness on many issues, but life isn’t fair. Instead of comparing the haves and have-nots, reaffirm your employee’s needs and talk about fulfilling them: “I wish everyone could get promotions at once, but the business doesn’t work that way. Let’s talk about what you need to do for a promotion and put a plan in place to get you there.”
  • Talk about behavior instead of people The employee you looked over for a promotion isn’t satisfied and wants details: “But why did Jane get promoted instead of me? How is she better than me?” This is another trap, and one that is well supported by our review system. Focus on behaviors rather than people: “Jane demonstrated leadership of the feature team in designing the solution that was used for a key scenario and then fully implemented by the team. That kind of leadership is something you are still developing. Your design skills are strong, but you haven’t shown the leadership necessary to get consensus on your design and see it through implementation.”

Focusing on behavior also works well in review calibration meetings. Instead of saying, “Jane is better than Pat,” you say, “Jane has reached this skill level as demonstrated in these ways. Pat has not shown those skills.” While there is a comparison, it is not competitive. Pat isn’t trying to be better than Jane; Pat is trying to attain Jane’s skill set. It’s a subtle but important difference.

One for all

Having a cohesive team pays huge dividends. They perform better, are more resilient, and have higher morale. Retention is better, communication is stronger, and the team is easier to manage. Being a good manager means caring about your people and other aspects I wrote about in my article, I can manage—but those don’t guarantee a cohesive team.

You need to keep your team from competing against one another. That comes from seeing your employees as individuals, understanding their potential, and focusing on their specific needs and your specific expectations for them. Care about your employees without judging them against each other.

When you remove individual competition, you only leave team success. Sure, there will still be quarrels and complaints, but your team will see those as inhibiting their shared success, not improving their personal standing. And nothing beats a team working together to make each other great.

By the way, we’ve had kids for ten years and still no signs of rivalry.

Eric AsideIf you like behavioral books, also try Don’t Shoot the Dog (Ringpress Books, 2002) written by Karen Pryor, a former dolphin trainer. She covers everything from quieting your dog to taming your mother-in-law. If you want something even more comprehensive for business, Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance by Thomas F. Gilbert (Pfeiffer, 2007) is the seminal text for broad and narrow organizational change. I talk more about Gilbert’s work later in Culture clash.

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