The Downward Spiral of Tough Love

I had lunch last week with a friend and colleague who was telling me about a leader in her organization who subscribes to the “tough love” school of leadership. That for her teams to perform she has to be brutally honest about where they are screwing up.

Come on people! It doesn’t work for parents, teachers, spouses… so why do we think that tough love is a viable approach to leadership?

Now I get this woman’s position: she is frustrated because her teams are under-performing. The rest of the organization is counting on them… they are highly visible, and the face of the organization. If I were in her shoes, I’d feel gutted too. And probably annoyed and a bit embarrassed.

So to get the best from her teams, she motivates them by telling them how much they suck. Surprisingly, there is no substantial shift in results from her team. Then what does she do? More tough love. And what does she get? More mediocre results. It’s a downward spiral into blame, judgement and de-motivation.

Einstein was on to something: “Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results”. This applies more than ever to leadership.

While her teams may be faltering… the common denominator in all of this is her leadership. To change a system, starts with changing self.

When I’ve worked with leaders like this before, a common worry I hear is that people don’t want to shift their style in a way that is inauthentic. But the truth around authenticity is that sometimes people are authentically as*holes – and then they wonder why team performance suffers. Authentic leadership, on the other hand, is about showing up as who you are AND being willing to work with the impact you’re having on those around you. Instead of saying “this is me, deal with it,” authentic leaders say “how can I play to my strengths and adapt my style to get the best from my people?”

Because really, results can’t happen without people. To get the most from your team, bring intention to your leadership this week. Try a few new things:

Be a Leader:

  • Start by taking 100% accountability: if your team isn’t getting the results you want, choose accountability rather than blame. What do you need to shift in your leadership to get better results from your people?
  • Facilitate success. Rather than de-motivate through tough love, try giving feedback and coaching. One of the biggest and most important roles a leader plays is helping their people succeed.
  • Listen with curiosity and care. When results are faltering, find out why. Start first with asking questions and listening rather than directing and declaring. Facilitate conversations where learning happens.

The Spider Moves Where the Spider Needs to Go

As a leader, have you ever felt like time stops when you’re not around? That your team can’t make a decision without you? That you’re mediating petty conflicts between team members more often than you’d like? For whatever reason, despite your “A” team you’re getting C/C+ results at best?

Then it’s time to pause and look at how you’re operating. Even though we resent it, there is something seductive and seemingly powerful about being the glue that holds the team together.

But the reality is, this hub and spoke model of leadership is getting old. And yet I still see many leaders operating this way – spending the bulk of their time in one-on-ones, trying to get the best from the individuals on their team, yet not realizing that this approach comes with downfalls when it comes to team performance.

With each person being lead individually, the focus on collective team effectiveness and accountability wanes. Not only does this model contribute to exhaustion on behalf of the leader, it also contributes to an erosion of trust between and among team members. Though you may be leading high performers, you likely aren’t leading a high performance team.

Katzenbach and Smith, in The Wisdom of Teams, talk about the individual vs. team focus: “Deeply engrained biases towards individual accountability and achievement reinforce the executive behavior patterns that run counter to team requirements. Teams at the top, like teams elsewhere, must develop a sense of mutual trust and interdependence.”

In extreme cases, that lack of mutual trust and interdependence can be devastating. Individual executives are reluctant to rely on anyone other than themselves for results. A subtle drive for individual high performance, often supported by one-on-one leadership from “the boss,” can turn to full-blown competition and cutthroat behavior amongst colleagues. Competition without a solid foundation of trust easily breeds contempt and can break a team. Not to mention the example that being set for the rest of the organization…

The good news is a new model has been emerging where the leader is less at the center, but moves freely to where he or she is needed, with the leadership focus shifting from the individual to the individual as team-member. Roll away hub and spoke… Enter “The Web” — a delicate weaving of relationships, results and shared accountability.

This leader is nimble in his approach – going where he is needed most: coaching, setting strategy, facilitating healthy debate, encouraging team dialogue, front-and-center with the customer. You get the picture.  While also seemingly pulled in multiple directions, this leader is intentional in where he spends his time — he knows when and where to get involved, in best service of the organization and the people. He develops the individuals and cultivates the team.

The other day I was talking to the head of an organization about Hub and Spoke vs. Web Leadership… He paused for a moment and offered this nugget of arachnid goodness: “the spider moves where the spider needs to go.” I couldn’t have said it better myself!

e-musings leadership tips:

  • Lead individuals AND the team. Focus on the inter-dependencies and relationships between and among team members.
  • Get out of the way. Enable your team to achieve success. Coach when needed, give feedback often, celebrate milestones and facilitate learning from mistakes.
  • Hold your team capable of solving problems, jump in only when absolutely necessary (this builds trust, increases capacity for problem solving, and gives you more brain space for strategic thought)
  • Be nimble. Lead others the way they need to be lead. Flex your style to get the most from your people, but be consistent in your expectations of the team.
  • Hold the team accountable for shared success.
  • Remember, it’s not what you expect, but what you inspect that counts. Set team incentives as well as individual incentives.

What tips do you have for cultivating team performance?

Teambuilding or Building Team?

Picture this: eight to ten executives huddled around the base of a table, arms extended, half-smirks line their faces as they try to stay focused on the task at hand: catching their colleague as she falls blindfolded from the table-top into their arms. The message: if one of us falls blindly, or fails to deliver, the rest of us are here to break your fall. Great message, but is it applied practically?

Trust in teams isn’t built in one broad stroke. It’s built up over time, and requires the right amount of dedicated collective attention. A big missed opportunity I see with many leaders is investing real time to develop the team – especially the team at the top.

There is a difference between team-building and the concept of building team:

  • Team-building: an event designed to get people moving, in a novel environment, where parallels can be drawn (sometimes easily, and sometimes with effort) to life back at the office.
  • Building Team: A dedicated effort to build alignment, trust, accountability and relationships required for high performance and success – all in the context of the organization’s strategy. Essentially, it’s ensuring the right people are on the bus… in the right seats… driving in one, clear direction.

There are benefits to both, but when we reflect on the concept of deliberate practice, it’s the constant focus and effort put towards building teams that generates high performance. Geoff Colvin says: “Turning groups of individuals into great teams is a discipline in itself… that’s why the best organizations follow one additional rule: Develop teams, not just individuals.”

So as leaders, what can you do?

  • Be clear on your expectations of the team. Don’t focus only on individual coaching and performance;
  • Address team dynamics with the whole team, not just with individuals;
  • Use every opportunity to build trust – when processes or systems fail, talk with the whole team about what happened and use the opportunity for learning rather than punishment;
  • Engage in high impact conversations as a team – ensure collective accountability for results AND interpersonal impact.

Essentially it comes down to building your collective leadership bench strength – where together you can accomplish more than any one could do individually. That’s the sweet spot of high performance teams… and it takes work.

I’d love to hear from you: what’s the best team you’ve ever been a part of? What made it great?