Great Leadership Teams Move Beyond Assumptions
This article will appear in Chief Executive Magazine in late-September 2019
The Challenges of Leadership Team Diversity
Great leadership teams are comprised of talented individuals who come to their teams with a basket of technical skills, a depth of life and work experiences, and a diverse set of motivations and styles. These executives manage success and approach stress and conflict with great variety. Some move from one win to the next with little celebration or acknowledgement. Many enjoy a good fight and are able to move on with no hurt feelings. Others struggle with the pressures of running a business and managing lots of people and deal with stress by withdrawing or lashing out. Diversity can be magical but given the natural variety of skills and styles it is not surprising that leadership teams often face relational challenges that chip away at trust and diminish the team’s ability to engage in productive dialogue.
The Problem with Assumptions
Executives often struggle to make sense of their colleagues’ behaviors; especially ones that are foreign to them – “Why can’t she slow down for a minute and let us celebrate when we win?” or “I know we have a lot on our plate but he’s got to calm down.” In an attempt to make sense they often make assumptions about these behaviors which are often wrong – “All she cares about is her sales goal and doesn’t care if everyone burns out.” or “He’s an unfeeling jerk. I know I made a mistake but why does he have to talk down to me.” Unfortunately, unchecked assumptions often lead to ineffective reciprocal behavior – “I will make underhanded comments in public about her lack of care of others.” or “If he’s going to treat me with no respect then I am going to avoid speaking to him and when I do I will give short, no expression responses.” These types of reactions lead to a tacit escalation of conflict which is most often expressed passive aggressively and with behind the scenes lobbying.
So, what can leadership teams do to counter this assumption – reaction – assumption cycle? Below are three actions that leadership teams and team members can take to strengthen the team’s ability to engage in productive dialogue and move its most important issues forward.
(1) Be Proactive
This is much easier said than done but leadership teams that recognize the power and challenges that diversity bring get out in front of the challenges. Simply put great leadership teams step back and get to know each other. They inquire about each other’s technical approaches and experience and the philosophies that have emerged from these. They work to appreciate the things that motivate each individual at work and beyond. They dig deep to understand the behavioral adaptations each individual must make to be the best team member for this leadership team at this time in its journey. Finally, they agree to a set of practical principles for operating the team effectively such as: ‘teammates will hear from each other first rather than from behind the back discussions’; ‘teammates will assume good intent and work hard to listen to each other.’
“…assumptions that are unchecked can be dangerous and lead to unintended consequences.”
(2) Check the Assumptions
Don’t get me wrong – we all make assumptions to fill in gaps in what we think and perceive and to make sense of a complex world. But assumptions that are unchecked can be dangerous and lead to unintended consequences. As captured an article entitled “The Problem with Assumption and the Power of Inquiry,”the anecdote to unchecked assumptions is inquiry. When team members become curious about a behavior that seems odd, annoying or disturbing and pause to reflect on other potential realities beyond our first reactions, new realities often emerge. Edgar Schein calls this humble inquiryor asking questions to which you don’t already have the answer. He suggests that this builds relationships based on curiosity and interest in the other person.
“Sometimes individuals get in their own way; they are unaware of how their behavior is impacting others or they simply have bad days.”
(3) Be the Adult in the Room
Sometimes individuals get in their own way; they are unaware of how their behavior is impacting others (e.g., “I am not cold and abrupt.”) or they simply have bad days (e.g., “This is the third time this issue has come up in the last week.”). On great leadership teams these types of behaviors aren’t allowed to fester or get in the way of what’s most important. When a teammate is down or unaware, their colleagues step up and help them out; they become the adult in the room this time (maybe next time they will need this same type of support). Team members react first by assuming good intentions and work diligently to read each tense or difficult situation – “Is it necessary to address this right now?” or “He must be having a bad day.” When they do engage, they do so with empathy and curiosity – “I understand why you are frustrated but we all make mistakes. I am sure that together we can figure this out.” I am in no way suggesting that being the adult in the room is easy but when teams are laser focused on what’s most important, they tend to rise above the natural relational challenges that exist on the best of leadership teams.
Assumptions play an important role in how great leadership teams operate. They help teams make quick decisions, make things happen and waste less time. But they are also fraught with risk. To guard against this risk great leadership teams proactively understand the power and challenges of their diversity, they are curious when their teammates behavior seems odd, and they are patient and forgiving with their teammates.