Activating high-performing teams

David Carboni
Technology Director

Top-down models of industrial command and control are no longer fit for purpose. They alienate frontline staff and generate endless processes which aim to workaround a fundamental disconnect between the vision and those who are supposed to be realising it. Leadership models based on entitlement and ownership must be overhauled in favour of those which emphasise freedom, responsibility and human connection.

Originally published on Medium.

You’ll be familiar with the story. Leadership direction has been stated. No one’s going to argue with it. For better or worse, documents are written and PowerPoint decks proclaim the vision. Objectives are cascaded, teams are mobilised and, before you know it, you’ve got conflict.

Progress is grinding. Something’s not working. Ideas that shone like pristine snow in the boardroom just aren’t sticking where it matters. The envisaged winter wonderland isn’t materialising. It feels like every initiative, crystal clear at inception, melts in the harsh light of reality. Pretty soon it’s a muddy slog that’s delivering too little, too late.

Frustration and the curse of leadership

I’ve seen this play out again and again. It’s too easy to ask: is the team not capable of executing on the vision? Unlikely. Smart people who know what’s good for their careers will keep quiet and astutely toe the line. They know better than to argue, but can see the writing on the wall, and will work around it with studied positivity. The curse of leadership is that people say yes until they feel safe enough to say no.

Somewhere just beyond the mandarin smiles and assurances of middle management, frontline talent gets frustrated and politely (or vocally) exits your business, or sinks into chronic disengagement. You find yourself struggling to recruit from your local talent pool (good people have a choice where to work) and pretty soon it feels as if you’re down to building what you can out of dead wood.

“The mindset of industrial command-and-control management is to own and control the other”

It’s tempting to try and find more talented people. Perhaps counter-intuitively, in an insightful TED talk, Margaret Heffernan explains that a good team tends to outperform an all-star team. The point is that with a few good people you likely have the raw material of a high performing team. Hiring in external superstars is generally not the answer. It might actually make things worse. The real question is: why are your smarts leaking away? It’s as if the radiators are on full, but your warmth is going straight out of the window.

Perhaps it feels like you’re managing the inept and the malicious. You create new processes to try and compensate for the perceived problems and pace slows to a crawl. Processes designed to control bad behaviour (rather than to support work) carry an unspoken judgement that your people are bad people. That message gets heard. There has to be a better way. Perhaps process isn’t the answer to people?

The toxic beliefs which deactivate your people

Gallup reports that Dismal Employee Engagement Is a Sign of Global Mismanagement: 85% of employees are not engaged or actively disengaged at work. The report goes on to say: “The economic consequences of this global norm are approximately $7 trillion in lost productivity”. It turns out our received wisdom on management and leadership is massively damaging to our organisations.

More than business advantage, accessing, engaging and activating the people in your organisation is a humanitarian imperative.

What I’ve found to be most toxic — the most effective way to deactivate and discourage any team — are the clear messages of disregard, disrespect and distrust, coded into our fundamental beliefs about management and leadership. These messages are written into the operating systems on which we try to build and run our organisations. Leaders are taught this is the right thing to do and so it becomes unconscious habit. A habit that damages both people and profits.

Faced with an environment that promotes disconnection by design, the rational response is to reserve intellect, energy and commitment, to follow orders as directed, and start looking for your next job. Mass human value is left on the table. For want of simple but fundamental changes in organisation dynamics, collective potential energy lies fallow.

The challenge: activating collective energy

If you’ve ever seen team potential accessed and amplified, you’ll know that intrinsic energy and talent in a team is a massive boost for performance. If you’ve experienced it, my guess is to this day you’ll name that experience as one of the best of your working life. If you’ve ever worked with a Multiplier, you’ll know how valuable the experience was, both to you and to the organisation.

Activating the collective energy of an organisation brings intellect, experience and situational awareness on-stream, and the results go to both the heart and the bottom line of an organisation.

What if activated collective intelligence and performance multipliers were the norm? Work would be no less hard, but the transformation would be astounding. Imagine if all that untrapped enthusiasm could be accessed and focused onto achieving results because of, rather than in spite of, your organisation’s culture.

Addressing the root of the problem

I’ve been fortunate to meet relationship coach Rory Kilmartin. It may sound an odd subject to bring up in the matter of high-performing teams, but work is a fundamentally social, human activity. That means at its core it’s relational. Work is not a family. Nor is it necessarily about friendships or romance. Work relationships are however no less relational.

Rory’s key insight is that most of us operate from a default relationship model historically grounded in attitudes of ownership and control: “If you love something, lock it up and throw away the key”. The challenge is to recognise this mindset and choose to replace it with one characterised by attitudes of freedom and responsibility. Entitlement and ownership lead to making demands, to manipulation and mistrust, whereas a mindset of invitation leads to articulating needs, building shared objectives and inviting the other to participate, seeing their presence as a privilege, not a right.

“A happy workplace is not fluffy nice-nice. It moves the needle on pretty much every indicator”

The mindset of industrial command-and-control management is to own and control the other.

Just as this model is corrosive to fulfilment in long-term relationships, it equally destroys engagement and productivity in an organisation. Command and control carries implicit negative judgements about the motives, competence and, ultimately, the value of people. Whilst we may believe we’re doing the right thing, it turns out to be a highly effective way to replace engagement with disconnection.

If we can stop, recognise and question our beliefs, we have a chance of changing them for the better.

The best cultures encode human connection

One of my favourite people, Esther Perel, goes to the heart of the issue. She works in a different sphere, but expresses the fundamental power of human connection brilliantly:

“I live with one perennial truth: the quality of your relationships is what determines the quality of your life. The bonds and the connections we establish with other people give us a greater sense of meaning, happiness and wellbeing than any other human experience.”

This is what the best cultures encode. Human connection remains non-negotiable, across the spheres of our lives, for meaning. It’s no different for organisation and team health — and for performance.

Once you look at it from this perspective, it’s a short step to realise that a happy workplace is not fluffy nice-nice. It moves the needle on pretty much every indicator. Health goes up, absenteeism goes down, customer service goes up, mood improves, goodwill is created, people look forward to coming to work.

We get to enjoy what we’re doing and who we’re doing it with.

At this point it follows naturally that organisation KPIs turn positive — the stuff of spreadsheets is a healthy symptom of an activated team.

Activating high performance by facilitating psychological safety

The stronger the personality of the leader and the stronger their conviction, the less likely anyone who values their job, let alone their career progression, is likely to raise a head above the parapet. One of my all-time favourite TED talks is Kathryn Schultz’s On Being Wrong. The curse of competence is that being wrong feels exactly like being right. Right up until that devastating moment you realise — maybe you’re not.

Facilitating psychological safety is key. The greater the leader’s power, the more important this becomes. At every level in an organisation, teams are adept at reading the weather and holding back until they find a safe space. To borrow from Sir Ken Robinson, “the real role of leadership is not command and control, it’s climate control”. Working out your underlying beliefs and values to enable you to do that effectively can take years, particularly if you don’t believe it’s important.

I believe the extent to which you can activate a high performing team is determined by the extent to which you have done your “inner work”.

Accepting your imperfections, showing up as a human being, actively demonstrating psychological safety in small things and being clear that we’re all on this journey together. These are ways to demonstrate your capacity for vulnerability and connection, which in turn makes it OK for your team to show up. If those words make you twitchy, you may have some work to do.

The journey of a thousand miles

Ultimately, it’s about your humanity. It’s a truism that you’ll never complete the human journey, but half of the story is knowing that that’s the journey you need to be on. For me, my own humanity, my capacity for connection — imperfect as it is — is my most powerful, most terrifying and most non-negotiable foundation for activating high-performing teams. Starting from that realisation, it’s about daily practice and maintaining direction: the simple, hard things.

David Carboni
Technology Director