The most elite teams have it and we’ve all felt it. It’s that tangible energy that surrounds the highest performing teams. Research shows the most innovative teams have it far more than others, and it’s strongest when there’s a reciprocated positive emotional bond between each team member. It’s not too difficult to facilitate, but really easy to shatter.
Bad leaders do lots of obviously harmful things such as pitting employees against each other, playing favorites, and giving unfair advantage, but even good leaders do their share of damage. Here are three common ways I often see leaders kill team spirit in organizations:
1 – Reward Those Who Outshine – I recall working with a really smart guy, Carl, who was very competent at his job but went out of his way to outshine his team-mates. For example, in meetings he had the habit of re-stating his team-mate’s points in a manner that was more eloquent yet didn’t add any new value. These tactics didn’t do anything for his relationship with his team-mates, who would either smirk in irritation or feel inadequate around him. But his bosses were impressed with his displays of intelligence, and they helped him get promoted. Yes, as leaders, we all like to have smart employees, but why reward behavior that is clearly geared towards self-promotion?
2 – Conduct Individual Performance Reviews – It’s considered good practice in most organizations to review performance at the individual level. But by its very nature, it doesn’t help bond a team. I recently worked with an IT development group where we modified the annual performance reviews to be based primarily on team performance, so all the members of a team were rated on how well the overall team met its goals. There were obvious benefits in collaborative behavior, but the real shift was in team relationships. Employees who used to see their team-mates as competitors to be out-done suddenly reconsidered those relationships, and long-standing rivalries between team members began dissolving. Why focus on individual performance when it’s really team performance that we want?
3 – Artificially Limit the Number of Leaders – Once when I was appointed the leader of an IT organization, I found that most job categories had “lead” positions that commanded higher pay and authority, but they were limited in number, so employees competed for them. For example, we had about thirty Project Managers and five of them were Leads. The idea was that the five Leads were the best of the thirty and would be responsible for establishing best practices for the entire group. However, it created a spirit of competition where they were all contenders for the few coveted spots. So we removed the limits on how many people could become a Lead, yet made the criteria to earn a Lead position very challenging. In order to earn one, a person needed to demonstrate a history of establishing best practices that helped the entire organization. For example, if a Project Manager came up with a better method to estimate project timelines, and if they had a history of sharing such improvements across the company, they would earn a Lead title. This model inspired the highest performance, but it put the focus on collaboration rather than competition. Why artificially limit the number of people who can play a leadership role in your organization?
As we learn more from neuroscience about the incredible power of group emotions, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team emotions to increase creativity and performance, including research references, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Incredible Power of Group Energy or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.