My first job managing others was when I was in grad school.
I cringe when I remember some of the things I did, said, and implemented in my 15-person team. Yikes. I hope they can find it in their heart to forgive me for my lack of awareness and leadership abilities.
In the spirit of improving my leadership abilities, I read books, talked to other leaders, and tried to shore up on the conventional “leadership” skills like decision-making, communication, and vision.
One of my goals in our team was to have no disagreement. I was under the delusion that uniform consensus was a positive, and that open disagreement from anyone was a mark of a dysfunctional team, inept leader, and a misfit of a team member.
I wasn’t obsessed with controlling my team. I just thought that a healthy working environment depended on overall agreement.
It wasn’t long before there was disagreement within the team. It wasn’t acrimonious or awkward. To my surprise, the disagreement was spirited, interactive, and engaging.
And by the end of our 3-hour meeting, we had made incredible progress. (As it turns out, the innovation, energy, and, yes, disagreement during that team meeting was the catalyst for our team’s breaking a sales record.)
Surprise surprise to me! Disagreement isn’t such a bad thing after all.
While I would never dismiss conventional leadership traits, my leadership abilities saw improvement through surprising events, not the “essential marks of a leader” pablum that I read.
Through these experiences and a bit of research, I’ve identified five of these surprising qualities that can shape more effective teams.
1. It’s okay to have open dissent.
A little constructive criticism can go a long way. But sometimes you need to go one step further and invite disagreement.
It might seem counterintuitive at first to encourage dissent among your team, but doing so can create positive results.
If you’re not putting your ideas under the microscope, you’re probably not making them the best they can be. A truly outstanding idea should withstand even the most rigorous scrutiny and numerous iterations.
If you and your team welcome polite disagreement, the ideas presented will inevitably grow stronger. You can work through the weaknesses as a team and turn a rough stone into a polished gem.
At the same time, examining ideas (especially the ideas of others) should not create a negative atmosphere. Disagreements often lead to heated arguments that benefit no one.
To prevent any negativity, make sure there’s always positivity in play. For example, Pixar uses a technique called “plussing” whenever the team is making a film. It’s a simple yet effective idea in that when someone criticizes any aspect of an idea, they must also point out a “plus.” This could be a good aspect of the idea or a suggestion to improve it.
When disagreement is placed within the context of a healthy, welcoming environment, it can help transform ideas and strengthen your team. Everyone should feel comfortable to contribute to the conversation, whether by agreeing or disagreeing.
2. Create focused free time.
Almost every company ensures that its employees receive sufficient breaks throughout the day. But many companies are going one step further and giving employees substantial free time during each workday.
Part of the reason it works so well is that employees generally use this time to work on passion projects. If someone had a crazy idea while doing paperwork, they can pursue that idea.
Employees are no longer walled in by their department or role, and they feel better because they’re innovating and actively contributing.
An excellent example is 3M, whose 15 percent rule allows workers to spend up to 15 percent of their time on any sort of project with the goal of finding new opportunities for product ideas. Anything’s fair game as long as it has the potential to create something new.
Likewise, Intuit gives employees 10% unstructured time to pursue new innovations. This program has produced several successful ideas and new developments for existing software.
Of course, it’s crucial that these employees aren’t spending this free time carelessly. It must be used in a way that will benefit the company. That’s left up to the judgment of the individual, but generally, this policy works.
When we give a little extra breathing room for creativity to flourish, it improves team morale. Employees cease to be workers and become inventors.
3. Develop an atmosphere of risk taking. (And provide a safety net.)
Teams are often told to play it safe and follow certain formulas. And yes, those formulas work to an extent, but there are many instances wherein trailblazing needs to occur.
In the last decade, startup culture has dramatically changed the way we view teamwork. One lesson every business can learn from startups is the importance of taking calculated risks.
In his book The Lean Startup, Eric Ries shared the importance of failing fast and improving fast. That’s the core of the lean startup philosophy––get your ideas out into the world as soon as possible and iterate on your feet. Many times, that involves taking some sort of risk.
We can apply this startup concept to teamwork in general. A study in the Journal of Economic Perspectives found that groups tend to make better decisions than an individual. By extension, groups handle risk taking than individuals do.
As in Ries’s philosophy, taking educated risks to move an idea forward can speed up the production process. Sometimes, the risks can turn out to be more beneficial than any plan. Taking a risk may produce a result that becomes immensely beneficial.
By no means should any team be risk-happy. Taking risks needs to be a thought-out, collaborative effort. At the same time, a team shouldn’t repeatedly fall back into what’s comfortable if there are better alternatives out there.
Above all, successful risk taking requires that your entire team is focused on the company’s goals. In 2001, Elon Musk chose to defer salaries and max out credit cards in order to sustain Pandora. It paid off in 2004 when an investment swooped in to save the day, but the risk was large. But Musk stuck to his guns and chose to see his vision through to the end.
Risk taking doesn’t need to be that dramatic or, well, risky, but all of your employees should be willing to take huge risks if need be. The company’s vision comes first.
4. Welcome introversion.
It may come as a surprise to some, but introversion are a secret weapon in high-functioning work teams. They’re no Tony Robbins impersonators, but they possess many qualities that are beneficial to team cohesion.
If your idea of an introvert is an agoraphobe who never ventures from a basement hideout, it’s time for a change in your thinking. Introverts aren’t all socially anxious, shy souls. Rather, they tend to reflect on matters and prefer quiet time for thinking and work. Many introverts choose solitude over high-energy social situations so they can be alone with their thoughts and work through problems on their own.
Introverts carry a unique blend of thought and determination that is an enhancement to any team. The introvert’s penchant for reflection typically means that if they find a good idea, they’ll follow through with it. Most introverts aren’t constantly distracted by the constant white noise of life because they don’t subject themselves to it.
In fact, introverts can often be excellent leaders because they take more time to listen to a team’s ideas and take them carefully into account. But introverts are also beneficial as team members. Their reflective solitude is likely to create thoroughly constructed ideas, and introverts can often produce these at a faster rate than many can extroverts.
Because introverts don’t rely on social affirmation, they can often confidently approach an idea with the goal of making it better. Many introverts do not depend on consistent feedback from others. Rather, introverts will often finish an idea before presenting it. Having this skill in your team could lead to a more productive ideation process.
Naturally, your team should be made up of introverts, extroverts, and ambiverts alike. Still, it’s important to recognize the power of introverts in a team setting.
5. Cultivate emotional intelligence in yourself and in others.
The last item in this list may not be that surprising. However, it’s a quality that’s too often neglected.
When it comes to teamwork, lots of people understand the “work” part but fail to pay due attention to the “team” part. A successful team operates interdependently on a foundation of understanding and trust. That’s where emotional intelligence.
In his essay “What Makes a Leader?” Dr. Daniel Goleman recounts the story of a Wall Street executive who was feared by his workers. They would go out of their way to hide bad news from him, especially when disagreement occurred.
When this executive was told of his intimidation, he was shocked. He had no idea that his team (and even his family) were afraid of him. This opened the door to a new understanding of empathy and emotional intelligence.
Most of us are just like that Wall Street executive. We’re so blind to our own foibles that we often fail to see them. In other words, our emotional intelligence could use some enhancement. Without this emotional awareness, our performance (and the performance of those around us) suffer.
A 2001 study found that emotional intelligence has a strong correlation with successful teamwork. Again, this may seem obvious, but emotional intelligence is a skill that not enough people develop. When you hone your emotional intelligence, you can better understand your team’s needs and wants and communicate more effectively.
How do you cultivate emotional intelligence? Here are a few workplace suggestions:
- Read up on the subject. A Google search or two on “emotional intelligence” will provide plenty of fodder for your lunch break. If you’re a reader, I recommend Working With Emotional Intelligence (Daniel Goleman), Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (Daniel Goleman again), and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers: The People Skills You Need to Achieve Outstanding Results (Anthony Mersino).
- Label emotions. When you’re in a meeting or a conversation, practice labelling other people’s emotion. If someone is talking animatedly or with a lot of enthusiasm, think to yourself, “Hmm. She seems...excited.” Simple labelling helps you to tune in to the emotional condition of those around you.
- Ask others “how do you feel about it?” Instead of data-driven questions, ask your team members feeling oriented questions. You’re likely to elicit better responses, and learn a lot about how the team’s EQ is contributing to overall progress.
The best lessons that you learn are often some of the most surprising lessons.
It helps to experience a convention-destroying moment, and get your mental equipment unstuck. Experiences like these can happen in the heat of the moment—a busy day, a tense conversation—or in a quiet and reflective moment.
Q: Which of these qualities is most surprising to you, and which one do you think would help your team most?
- It’s okay to have open dissent.
- Create focused free time.
- Develop an atmosphere of risk taking. (And provide a safety net.)
- Welcome introversion.
- Cultivate emotional intelligence in yourself and in others.