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A Good Company Got it Wrong

Tapping into your team’s creativity requires trust and empowerment. But how?

Recently, we saw a well-known company in the leadership industry state that leading teams in our current times of remote workers and zoom calls requires three steps: 1) Identify the end-state, 2) Create clear simple rules, and 3) Courageously let your team do the job.

At GlenHaven International, we disagree. Why?

To begin with, if you tell your team what to do and give them rules to follow, there really is no courage needed to let them do the job. You’ve told them what to do and how to do it - you’re micromanaging - the classic refuge of leaders who harbor mistrust and doubt.

Is there a better way? We think so.

And it begins long before the crucial assignment where you might be tempted to follow this sort of command-and-control approach. It starts with how you interact with the individuals who make up your team and how you integrate those individuals into one unified high-performance operational unit.

Over 40 years of leading high-performance teams in consequential environments, we’ve discovered the two foundational components of high-performance teambuilding are 1) gratitude for effort, and 2) acknowledgement of skill.

It starts with gratitude because gratitude empowers. When you’ve done well, you’re driven to do well again. But when a leader expresses gratitude, something deeper happens which heightens its impact. When a leader expresses gratitude for effort, it communicates the leader’s recognition of need. The leader can’t do everything required to accomplish her goals, not because the leader is incapable, but because there’s more to be done than one person can do. Expressing gratitude recognizes the leader’s need for the contributions of the followers. Gratitude empowers. Individuals often choose to join the team when leaders value the work they do.

Second is acknowledging skill. And this begins at hiring. At a minimum hiring must be based on the candidate’s potential. At best, the candidate already has the skills required and the willingness to use them to achieve the leader’s goals. But the existence of skill is only the start. Great leaders always acknowledge skill. It ingrains a sense of self-worth in the individual and in the team. And it’s much easier to trust a team when you know they have both the skill to do what needs to be done and the confidence to execute.

A wonderful example comes from NASA. In December 1968 Apollo 8 made humanity’s first ever departure from Earth’s gravity and they were due to be in Lunar orbit on Christmas Eve. A broadcast was planned for the astronauts and when they were told it would be the largest audience ever to hear one human voice, they asked what they should say. NASA’s reply? “Something appropriate.” That’s trust; that’s freeing the team. How did they get there? NASA had built an empowered team with high-performance skills. Consequently, trust was natural and freeing the team was easy. And it allowed Jim Lovell, Frank Borman, and Bill Anders to share their unique personalities with the entire world during a remarkable experience.

NASA did not “identify an end-state and set clear rules”. They had done the work to build a high-performance team, so they freed the team to perform.

The immutable reality is if you’re setting rules it takes no courage to let your team “do as they want”, because they’re not really doing what they want. The environment created by your rules causes them to do what you want. You’re not opening up their creativity and you’re not performing an act of courageous trust. You’re either insulting them by prohibiting obviously objectionable behavior, or you’re setting parameters which suit your sense of creativity, not theirs. But there’s no courage because there’s no trust, there’s only “command-and-control”, an outdated military paradigm which is properly relegated to the dustbin of ineffective leadership.

We are not suggesting teams should be set adrift with no guidance at all. Quite the contrary. Every enterprise has a set of goals which the team leader is responsible for executing, and the team needs to have deep understanding of their role in achieving those goals. Indeed, we believe most of leading high-performance teams centers around understanding and fostering the team’s collective intent. If the leader focuses on ensuring the team has deep understanding of the enterprise goals, it’s easy for the leader to free the team to be creative in achieving those goals. NASA got it right: high-performance leading means fostering shared intention.

When a leader understands shared intention, she will begin to see “setting limitations” or “setting expectations” as damaging because they’re merely analogs for lack of trust. The message the team hears is: “I have to tell you not to make this mistake because I think you can’t figure it out”. And if the leader feels this message is necessary it’s because she either hasn’t integrated her team correctly or she doesn’t trust them. And trust is an interesting thing, because it’s not about the team, it’s really about the team leader.

In the context of business, trust has its deepest roots in notions of predicting behavior. It’s the concept of believing a person will reliably do (or refrain from doing) a certain action. It also includes whether you believe someone is truthful (or deceitful). In teams and teamwork, and more specifically in the leadership context, there’s an additional component… ability.

Consequently, your willingness to trust your team depends on the combination of whether you think they will do as they have promised (Veracity) and whether you believe they can do what they promise (Ability).

And there’s more. Your willingness to trust your team also depends on your confidence in your own ability to fix any damage they might cause. If your team is certain they’ll meet the deadline, and you’re pretty sure they won’t, think about what bad thing happens if they miss. Can you fix it? Can they? If there’s nothing so bad that it can’t be fixed, then what you have is an opportunity to let them fail forward. Maybe they meet the deadline and show an ability you didn’t think they had. And if they miss the deadline, they learn. Setting end-states and guardrails crushes the learning which comes from failing forward. Fostering shared intention not only empowers, it also causes learning.

In the words of Nelson Mandela, I never lose. I either win or I learn.

Here’s the key: The team’s learning comes from you believing in yourself, and whether you think you have ability to clean up their attempts to stretch and grow. This is trust in a teamwork sense. And trust becomes simple when there’s nothing so bad it can’t be fixed.

If you’ve built your team through expressing gratitude, acknowledging skill, and developing confidence in your own ability to solve problems, then all any specific assignment requires is to ensure the team understands the mission goals. To draw again from the military, some modern systems call this “commander’s intent”.

The model we disagree with very nearly smacks of an old movie where the Lieutenant says: “1) I want a tower built, 2) these are the dimensions, 3) Sergeant, build that tower.” It gets the tower built, but it’s not leadership. We think the time for this model is long past and should not be seriously considered by those aspiring to high-performance leadership regardless of how it’s restated using modern language. If the military models resonate with you, use “commander’s intent” and build your high-performance team on this foundation by expressing gratitude for effort, acknowledging skill, and trusting in yourself enough to let the team fail forward.

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