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My TEAM is no longer a GROUP

One of the most common characteristic of a ‘team’ is that they function most commonly as ‘groups’. As a manager, if this is your struggle, you are not alone. Whether you are a new manager/leader for the team or whether you’ve been leading them for a while, the sooner you begin making changes, the sooner you will inspire teamwork.

Communication can be one of the most powerful tools in building teams. As a leader, your style of communication with members of the team WILL impact the style in which other members interact with each other. If you are overly-dramatic, conflict driven or indifferent to others, your team will reflect that attitude. Exemplify the behavior you want your team to display. I used the word behavior because usually even if a person is not naturally team-oriented, behaving in the right way can cause sustainable change in attitude.

In terms of team interaction, the first step is to provide regular opportunities for focused and meaningful conversation within the team. For example, have the team meet briefly once a day or as often as possible during the week to share work goals and progress from the week. You can call these priorities and accomplishments or something else more relevant. This helps teams work more cohesively. They know what their teammates are doing, everyone stays updated about the team’s progress which creates a sense of belonging. Keep these brief meetings under ten minutes, if possible and set the right expectations about the time each one has to speak. Even though this meeting is set to be task oriented, encourage casual conversation once in a while.

Any sign of favoritism from the manager towards one team member can ruin teamwork. Even if you have a friend in the team, treat the entire team favorably. You will notice a remarkable difference in teamwork and entrepreneurship when your team believes that you actually like them.

Feedback is another important tool that can impact team-spirit. Pour positive feedback on team members publicly. This is usually the easy part. The part that becomes a little tricky is when the feedback is not positive. In cases when the feedback involves a confidential matter, it’s best to address it with the individual team member. However, I have noticed that minor performance issues, namely punctuality, email response time, failure to meet deadlines – issues that the team is impacted by and is aware of – could be discussed as a team issue. This definitely requires a strong yet friendly leadership style and trust between team members. From personal experience, this sort of open accountability can also inspire trust.

When dealing with team conflicts, encourage the resolution to be based on honest facts because feelings can be baseless. Even in a cohesive team, conflict resolution between two members should not be advertised to other team members. This definitely helps in easier resolution.

Even if you are not a fan of ‘hanging-out’ with your team after work, it does help build relationships when people engage in non-work activities once in a while. Potlucks, team-days, coffee/tea breaks, sports, book clubs, other team interests can be effective tools to build your team.

As a manager, be part of your team. Teams don’t build themselves and it takes regular and consistent effort to inspire change. It will take a while for you to see results. Maybe a few months or perhaps a whole year, but don’t give up. The outcome will be worth the time.

The Ideal Employee

Who is the ideal employee‘ is a classic question during hiring processes. Employers ask it in order to hire the right person and potential employees ask it in order to market their suitability more strongly.

I believe the ideal employee differs for different positions and different industries but there are some traits that are sought and associated with the term in most workplaces.

They work hard and smart. They are strong in prioritizing their tasks and finish them well. They don’t let conflicting priorities and deadlines serve as an excuse for poor outcomes. They take ownership of their projects and deliver them with or without the team’s cooperation.

When they need to delegate a task or request an extension, they do that well in advance so that deadlines are not missed. They take breaks without feeling guilty because not only are they productive, they also know how to take care of themselves. They utilize their paid time off wisely. 

They demonstrate integrity: They can be trusted to do the right thing. They give their honest best even without being held accountable.

They exploit opportunities instead of sulking over problems and are in fact effective problem solvers. They innovate and are determined to deal with challenges that hinder productivity.

They challenge bad decisions and are ready to take the lead in recommending and working on more effective solutions. This is another sign of taking ownership of their roles in the company. They also demonstrate maturity in accepting alternate recommendations when their own decisions are challenged. They are ready to get to work to make the best solution work. Additionally, they know which battles to pick and are able to discern which ideas don’t need to be challenged.

They are team players. They are strong team players and work well with their peers and their supervisors. Even when they work on independent projects, they maintain healthy relationships with their colleagues. Being a team player has a lot to do with managing relationships effectively than simply sharing the workload. They are able to resolve work place conflicts, move on and not hold grudges.

They are able to maintain a consistent positive attitude and don’t surrender to personal mood-swings. This does not mean that they smile all the time and don’t experience bad days. It does mean that they maintain a sensible attitude towards their successes and problems.

They are emotionally intelligent. They can manage their personal feelings and are sensitive towards others. No matter how much we stress on the leave your personal emotions at home line, people bring their emotions to the workplace (and take their workplace emotions outside the workplace).

Emotionally intelligent people can control their emotions instead of letting their emotions control them. and they are able to empathize with others.

Thought it might not be realistic to expect an employee to be an exceptional performer all of the time,  these traits can be developed with some determined practice.

The ideal employee question is asked during a hiring process but the personality traits can be observed only after the person is hired. In most cases, work histories can reveal a lot about how ideal a person has been at their previous performance and is important step before bringing someone new on board.

Can you think of an ideal employee? Which traits do you consider important in the workplace? 

Employee Retention

Long long ago, in mostly every part of the world, people would start and end their careers with the same company. In other words, when a person joined a company, they would work there until they retired. Loyalty to an employer wasn’t necessarily the reason. Staying with a company for a lifetime was the culture. That culture changed.

Employees need a reason to continue working with a company and when the reasons are not compelling, there’s nothing holding them back. Companies end up spending a lot of resources when they need to hire new talent. Companies also face significant loses when talented people leave. Yet many companies don’t try hard enough to make strong employees stay. Different companies have different reasons for weak retention strategies but the common one is the belief that it is not tough to find a replacement.

I support strategic change. Letting go of employees when you need to progress beyond them is wise but giving strong performing employees reasons to stay is equally wise. These reasons are not hard to guess.

Life balance: Workaholics are no longer considered cool. People are beginning to take pride in their work-life balance. And companies that offer that balance are more attractive even to workaholics. Work-life balance could include paid time off which employees can actually use, flexible work hours, work from home options for new mothers, break rooms and opportunities to refresh at work. The culture of the workplace can be used to judge how much employees are valued. Feeling valued makes the work load and demands of the job seem worth the effort.

Compensation: Have you reviewed a company’s careers section recently? Most of them list their salaries as ‘competitive with benefits’. And most of them keep that promise. But mostly to new hires. When an employee is part of a company for a few years already, it’s cheaper to retain them because companies don’t need to pay them as much. Or so employers think and employees know this for a fact. Unless they are lazy or loyal, they are not going to let their skills remain overused and underpaid. Even when companies do not pay the higher amount they would to a new hire, it’s wise to continue being ‘competitive with benefits’ with competent existing employees.

Additional incentives for excellent performance is also a key reason for competent people to stay longer with a company. This is not necessarily the same as encouraging competition but it does help employees who perform better to stick around.

Growth: Opportunities for learning and development is a big retention tool in addition to all the other benefits it offers to the company and employees. A college degree is no longer the upper limit for learning. The opportunities that the company provides for learning and development play a big role in an employee’s decision to stay with the company. The saying “if you can’t pay them, promote them”, is more common now and sometimes it works. Companies that cannot support the growth and development of competent employees will lose them sooner than companies that have growth trajectories in place.

Team: Surprisingly team bonding has retained more employees than we care to admit. If an employee feels a sense of belonging and has colleagues whom they can call friends at the workplace, leaving becomes harder.

Supervisor: Immediate supervisors can be the deal-breaker or deal-maker when it comes to the decision to stay with a company. Leadership style can build trust and create reasons for employees to stay with a company. Clear and transparent communication from leaders is also key to a healthy work culture. It stifles rumors and doubts and encourages trust towards the company. There’s truth in the statement that employees don’t quit companies, they quit managers.

Other reasons included pride in the company’s brand; belief company’s mission/vision; and no better options.

As an employer, it is wise to value employees and give them reasons to stay. After all without them, no work can be accomplished. As an employee it is good for you to evaluate your reasons to stay with a company and find motivation in that. And if you don’t, well, you don’t.

Managing Conflicts like Fireworks

In a team of competent people with strong personalities, conflicts are common. But even if the team was laid back and lazy, conflicts would still be quite common. As long as we continue working with humans, conflicts will be part of work. Maybe someday we will have the privilege of witnessing the types of conflicts that robots can cause.

Conflict is defined by any disagreement that is perceived as a threat by either or both parties. It’s more common among peers but it is also seen among team leaders and team members. You might discover new characteristics in a person by the way they handle conflicts. I have noticed the following types:

  • Those who enjoy “clearing the air” even when there is no air to clear;
  • Those who act “awkward” throughout the conflict but do nothing about it;
  • Those who act awkward throughout the conflict, do nothing about it but make sure that everyone knows about how they are being victimized;
  • Those who depend on someone else to resolve it and pretend that everything is alright till that happens;
  • Those who manage it effectively.

If you have a conflict with someone:

For most people, conflicts are never enjoyable and we try our best to avoid them. But if you find yourself in a conflict with someone, it’s better to resolve it than to dwell in it and watch it ruin performance and productivity. Before any resolution strategies let your emotions stabilize. We say and reveal a lot more than necessary when our emotions take charge of our conversations. Think about the situation objectively.

Are you perceiving the conflict correctly or imagining it? Do you need to get feedback on the situation from someone trusted before you do something about? Why is the resolution important to you? How will you handle the different reactions from the other person so that you keep the situation controlled even if the resolution does not go as planned? What changes are necessary so that you can continue working with the person even if the awkwardness remains? What compromises are necessary for the well being of the project and the relationship? 

Preparing ahead for difficult conversations is a good idea because it could prevent any damage to an already delicate situation and steer you away from an effective resolution.

If the other person initiates a reconciliation, fight the urge to resist the conversation despite the awkwardness and irritation. Be sincerely polite throughout the conversation – someone’s trying to make things right and you are wise if you help them. You style of resolving the conflict will impact the person’s perception of you. They are getting a glimpse into your character just as you are getting a glimpse into theirs. Of course as a professional, your ability to resolve conflicts should also impact your performance evaluation.

When mediating a conflict between others:

When mediating a conflict, the first step for you is to believe that resolving the conflict is not your responsibility. Mediation should be necessary only if individuals have attempted to first resolve the conflict themselves. Even if you are the team leader who is desperate to get your conflict packed team to work, it is not your problem to solve their problem. If you fail to understand this, you are preparing your team for failure by crippling them during learning situations.

Get both sides of the story separately. During this information gathering stage, avoid taking sides even if it is clear that someone is in the right and the other one is messed up. Maintain confidentiality of the details from both parties and other team members. But it is good for both parties to know that you are mediating. It will ensure accuracy in details and it will save you uncomfortable awkwardness. If accounts seem different, lead with clarifying questions without revealing that the other person had provided a different account of the incident or problem.

Once you have gathered the information you need, prepare action steps before meeting them together. Choose a neutral location that is also sound proof and allow them to resolve the conflict on their own. Guide the conversation when needed if they steer away from respectful resolution or compromise attempts. You are fortunate if they can keep their emotions in check. Based on how successful that conversation is, direct action steps for them in case the incident is repeated and hold them accountable.

Don’t expect your team to put it all behind them and move on as though the conflict had never occurred. It’s not impossible for that to happen but it is unlikely. However, help them understand that resolving workplace conflict is a professional necessity and reflected in their performance.

As a manager, encourage disagreements, not necessarily conflicts. But at the same time, don’t be afraid of conflicts. Some of them are called healthy conflicts for a reason. They are like fireworks and can be used to cause damage or light up the sky with better ideas. 


 

Learn to Improve.

Before you read further, can you answer these two basic questions?

  • What are you good at?
  • What do you want to keep getting better at?

We all know that we should keep improving. Yet we fail to do that. In fact sometimes we don’t even know which areas of our life needs improvement till we are looking for a new job. Sadly the truth becomes clear to us – we lack the most basic skills because the company we were working with did not consider it important and neither did we.

It is important that you answer both those questions as honestly and personally as possible. Hopefully your answers will change every once in a while. If they don’t you can be certain you are making no progress.

Why it can be hard to answer those questions honestly:

Avoid answering those questions on a day when you are emotionally unstable or dealing with failure. Even though both of these situations could result in strong truths, it is unlikely that it will this time. Answer these questions with a clear and logical mind. The other tip is to ignore the desire to be overly modest.

 

Learning about yourself first is key to constant improvement. In fact when you answer those questions, don’t limit yourself to thinking about your skills. Think also of behavior and habits.

Now that you have those first two questions answered, let’s consider a few more:

  • What do I want to retire as?
  • What sacrifices/commitments are necessary for this retirement?
  • Which of these sacrifices seem unnecessary/not worth it in case I don’t live long enough to retire? Therefore, what matters more than my life’s goal?

Once these answers become clear, you have a personal goal or mission in life. Ideally this goal should uphold what you are good at or enjoy doing and therefore each step you take to keep getting good at something more will bring you closer to a successful retirement.

So how do you keep improving now that you have some clarity:

Find the resources to help you continue growing. Books are the obvious choice because most progress that has been made in almost every field is documented. Look out for formal courses, further your education, learn a new skill. Every once in a while I like to ask myself what I have learnt in the last few weeks and what I want to learn in the next few. Remember that not everything has to cost a fortune. However, consider investing in the critical things that count.

Learn from people. Be an informal apprentice, “follow” someone on media, learn from others’ mistakes, failures and successes. Seek a mentor, have a role model and plan on overachieving.

Striking a balance so that you know when to stop:

Remember what you answered for the question about unnecessary sacrifices. That answer should keep you on the ground and really help you prioritize. Once you have your answers, focus on improving.