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Creating high-performance teams

What’s the saddest statistic in the world?


The saddest statistic in the world? How about the percentage of people who truly love what they are currently doing at work? It's a miserable 6%! That means 94% of people are in various stages of disinterest, disillusion or despair as to how they are spending most of their waking time on this planet. Is this what several thousand years of civilization ought to be about? Almost universal discontent and misery? We are of course much better off financially than we were a hundred years ago, but it doesn’t seem to be making us any happier. All the statistics indicate: the richer we get, the more miserable we become--the so-called Easterlin paradox.

What makes it even more poignant is that everyone I talk to can tell of a time in their life when it wasn’t so. When I push and prod a little, everyone can tell me of a time, perhaps long ago, perhaps not in the workplace, but a time when they were truly engaged in what they were doing. So it’s not that people aren’t at least subliminally aware of what they are missing. They know that there is a massive gap between the quality of their lives now and the quality of what their lives could become.

This is one reason why I’m excited about the issue of high-performance groups. That’s because members of high-performance groups are not only more productive: they also report on finding the work deeply satisfying and meaningful. So if we knew how to create high-performance groups, it would not only be good for the economy: it might provide people with more satisfying lives.

How do you create these high-performance groups?

We know that high performance groups emerge when the members take ownership for the well-being of a whole group. We see various signs of this higher level of engagement. Members consider themselves responsible for assuring the group’s success. They become willing to do whatever is necessary for the group to become exceptionally successful. They do so in a spirit of giving and generosity and a belief in doing something special or intrinsically worthwhile, rather than something done as a result of bargaining or self-interest or calculation or obligation. They accept accountability for the outcome of the group’s activities.

In a high-engagement group, the ownership of the group is not limited to the hierarchical leader or a few people at the top. A group becomes fully engaged when every member becomes an owner with a sense of shared responsibility and accountability for the accomplishment of the mission of the group.

High performance groups emerge when people have the courage to make commitments to co-create a new and different future.

That’s all very well, you might say. But how could we actually generate this sense of ownership and commitment?

In fact, some famous books (such as The Wisdom of Teams or Leading Teams ) argue that it’s not possible to create high performance groups: it’s a matter of “luck” or “chemistry”. I disagree. High-performance groups began with ideas in people’s heads: ideas about what the relations between human beings have been, are and might and should be. If we study how this happened, we can learn how these ideas came to be transformed in pursuit of some goal that radically changed behavior. We can learn how the people involved in such high-performance groups came, even if only for a brief period, to live life in a different way, with different conceptions of what human beings should be and do, and why, later on, they fell back into less exalted ways of behaving.

If you look only at traditional management techniques, it’s pretty easy to see why someone might conclude that it’s not possible to create a high performance group. Clearly, directing people to form such groups isn’t going to work. Nor is giving people reasons why they should do it likely to help much.

An interesting book that focuses on the use of questions to create community is Peter Block’s Community: The Structure of Belonging (Berrett-Kohler, 2008)

I believe that story may be even more important than questions. It has a special role to play in generating high-performance groups:

My work is tending to show that certain kinds of story can “prime” people to view the world in a particular way and enhance the likelihood of their viewing their own group as having a fresh and expanded potential. The group is no longer a fragmented bunch of separate individuals or “them”: it starts to become “us”. As a result, participants perceive themselves, and begin acting as, owners of the group, even though in hierarchical terms, the hierarchical managers may remain legally in charge.

Story can help create the necessary intimate and authentic relatedness of a high-performance group, both to each other and to the group.

Story can help create a dynamic of invitation. Through story, the members of the group can come to see that a mission--their mission--is in some “special” to members of the group. A story can help inspire commitments made in a spirit of being involved in something intrinsically worth doing, not something done under duress or any sense of requirement or compulsion.

Through the exchange of stories, rather than abstract arguments, differences in opinion and experience can be given space to be articulated and listened to with respect. In this way, the different gifts and interests of the members can be acknowledged and given respect.

Story can also provide the release of tension that begins to build up when people disagree. Humor, laughter, the ability to puncture of pomposity and pretension, all seem to be hallmark of these high performance groups. They care deeply about the group's purpose, while not taking themselves too seriously.

Through living a common story, individuals undertake a shared journey with shared responsibility for its success.

Through listening to people’s stories, you can create energy rather than consuming it. By being willing to listen, you create accountability by confronting people with the implications of their freedom to commit or not to commit. You offer people the opportunity make choices. You create the possibility for people to be in charge of their own lives.

Listening to people’s stories also entails the risk that people may say no: they may opt not to get involved. Attempts to eliminate the risk by removing the option of choice and imposing a command-and-control approach to problems may create an illusion of agreement or even consensus: but in reality, there is no ownership, no engagement. Engagement can only be offered: it cannot be bought.

We know that the intensity of engagement of the group’s members is affected by the way people are brought together, the nature of the questions that are raised, the extent to which people opinions are listened to and their gifts are given respect, and the quality of the commitments that are made. Story can play a crucial role in setting the right context. It can establish the right mood music.

If we hope to understand the paradoxical world in which we live (and unless we understand it, we cannot act rationally in it or on it), we cannot limit our attenton to the impersonal forces of economics and finance and the bottom line of corporate performance. The goals and motives that guide individual human action must be looked at in the light of all that we know and understand; their roots and growth, their essence, and above their validity, must be examined at with every intellectual resource that we have. The possibility of combining high productivity with high levels of personal satisfaction and meaning, makes this inquiry one of primary importance.

As Isaiah Berlin once wrote, “Only barbarians are not curious about where they come from, how they came to be where they are, where they appear to be going, whether they wish to go there, and if so, why, and if not, why not.” *

In subsequent issues of my newsletter, and in my forthcoming book, I’ll be giving examples of such high-performance groups, and discussing how they came into being, why they flourished, as well as how and why they died.

If you would like to work with me on generating a high-performance group in your organization, or share your experiences of dealing with high-performance groups, please feel free to contact me at steve@stevedenning.com.

*The Crooked Timber of Humanity , page 2; NY: Vintage, 1992


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