The Lust For High Performance

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Welcome to part 7 of the series on high-performance teams. A series which strives to make the works of Richard J. Hackman, a or maybe the leading researcher on team performance, more accessible.

We are leaving the realm of the first 5 factors which are more like the physical parameters of the team. And we are entering the realm of the intangible, the spirit of the team. Team spirit won’t be a physical part of the teams’ work, yet without great team spirit the work might never be done and the work itself might be arduous. The team might never fulfill its meaning, without a team spirit that suits its ambitions.

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Condition VI: The Feeling That My Works Does Matter

Let’s take stock. What do we have for our high performing team by now? First, a compelling direction to orient the team. Second, a true team task that makes sense to use a team at all. Third, a small sized team so that people can bond with one another. Fourth, clear boundaries that guide efforts. Also, fifth, a good composition of skills to get the work done. That is all good and fair for the team. However, what is in for me, the individual team member? What is my role in this so carefully staged exercise? Why should the teams’ work be important to me?

Each team member needs something to tie her own motivation to within a team.

What that thing is that amalgamates the individual, and the team effort varies from person to person. It can be an extrinsic motivation, like not being fired, money or sometimes status from just being on a team. The problem with extrinsic factors that tie a person towards a team effort is often that the level of engagement will be limited. It is the nature of complex situations, the types of problems teams need to solve, and of knowledge work in general that the relationship between personal in- and outputs and the performance of the team is hard to observe. To rely on extrinsic motivation exclusively will often result in people just putting in token efforts.

For more profound levels of engagement, intrinsic motivations must be tapped and tied to the team’s efforts. There is a specific model that is describing how intrinsic motivation works in a business setting: Job Characteristics Theory. This theory is a cornerstone of the field of organizational behavior and work design. What this model is basically saying is that intrinsic motivation in a work setting rests on four fundamentals ways how people like to work:

  • Skill variety: People do not like doing boring things all over and again. By doing things that utilize multiple skills, work is less repetitive and more motivating ()
  • Task identity: People want to achieve something visible like a thing produced or service done for a customer
  • Task significance: People love to impact other’s lives positively by doing something that they feel increases a customer or a coworker’s well-being
  • Autonomy: People like to do things the way they want
  • Feedback: People like to know how good they are at work. Detailed information on the way they performed. Not to be controlled, but to improve and to feel good about their efforts more often by doing so

These motivators are deeply ingrained in our cognitive DNA. We long for job variation and dread repetition. We want to do the work on our own terms and not being coerced into behaviors that do not make sense to us. We like to see, touch and in any other way ever feel what we endeavored to create. We love that even more if the results of our work matter to other persons, and we are getting better in the things we are doing all the time. If people experience all those five factors while working they feel that what they are doing has a positive psychological impact on their lives: Work has meaning for them – they feel the impact of their work.

It is the “striving” that is intrinsic to every one of us: The longing for mastery, autonomy, and purpose, that we have explored in the other posts of this blog. By being part of a team people do not put aside these longings. They are as strong as ever.

Non Conformity and Anti-Learning Stances

However, people differ. Some people value connectedness to others less, some more. Some people revel in autonomy others are frightened by too much of it. The disposition towards Feedback, to get to know “how good one is ones work” varies strongly, too. Some people like to get feedback to learn and improve, while others revel in groupthink, hubris and a state of failure denial. Systematic anti-learning stances are not uncommon in individuals, groups or organizations. Furthermore, autonomy, “doing things the way they want” might help intrinsic motivation but might hurt performance, as results might be more varied or less than optimal.

But the existence of anti-learning stances or the non-conforming autonomous individual going ways that lead astray from team performance do not invalidate the model. The five pillars of the job characteristics model still provide the critical ingredients to intrinsic performance and therefore give the highest chance of job- or team performance. Indeed, the risks of things going astray for the team can be mitigated. A great way to do this is to set norms.

Condition VII: Social Norming that Fosters Performance

Certain behaviors of teams and team members are more beneficial for performance than others. Norms specify those coveted behaviors. Regulating behaviors is, more often than not, a deeply unpopular or even impossible act. If people can, they will ignore any inconvenient norm. The trouble is: Norming of behaviors is unavoidable. Every team will inexorably end up with a set of norms that regulate acceptable and non-acceptable behavior as there is a natural tendency of people to adapt their behaviors to fit themselves into a group.

Instead of ending up with some random behavior, i.e., norms that just so “happened” to the group, it is better to establish norms inside the team that has proven to be beneficial to performance. Norming may be unnatural, but it certainly is useful.

There are three reasons why performance norms are important. They encourage the team to engage with the outside, they embed the team safely inside the organization, and they foster mutual dependability.

1. Outward Looking Norms: Engaging With The World

These norms are meant to encourage the team to engage with the outside. They regulate how the team is engaging with the world (i.e., the customer, the organization or anyone else not in the team). Typical questions are

  • How does the team get feedback from customers? In what form and frequency
  • How are the stakeholders involved in the project? Who is on the steering board
  • How does the team engage outside experts? In what roles and intensity?

Left to its own devices, without any conscious norming, teams are likely to under-engage with the outside world. Engaging with the outside world is stressful. It means customers are giving inconvenient or non-conclusive feedback, stakeholders hedging their bets in the game of organizational politics, experts providing advice that hard to understand or to adapt to the local situation. But it is needed for success. More than that, the team’s very reason for existence is the deliver results to the outside world. Therefore, norms that encourage the team to engage with the outside world are right front and center of effective teams. These norms describe the performance ethics of the team: The lust for high achievement.

Performance norms are at the heart of the Agile Movement, the SCRUM project method or the LEAN Start-up Movement. The customer with all its idiosyncrasies and ever-changing requirements are right in the center of all these hugely successful methods. Take SCRUM: It demands a product owner, arguably the most central role in the whole method, to fully immerse into the needs of the customer. It postulates working at short intervals to keep the feedback from the customer coming in, continually honing the team’s directions and ways of delivering value.

SCRUM enshrines performance ethics in a set of practical, dogmatic rules.

2. Organizational Conformity Norms: Avoiding Attacks By The Immunity System

The second reason why performance norms are crucial is the survival of the team in the organization. Performance norms specify which behaviors are acceptable and which behaviors are unacceptable to the overall organization the team works in. Every organization has its established norms, and a team just can’t pretend that those do not exist. A short list of “Do’s and Don’ts” suffices. The target of such a list is defensive. It is to prevent the immune system of the organization to attack the project. Every project brings change, and the impetus to changes invariably drives resistance. By specifying behaviors that are helpful to get the teams work effort accepted by the organization, much is done to remove the organization from the list of impediments to a team’s success.

3. Mutual Dependability Norms: Learning To Rely On One Another

Every team effort is laden with moral hazards and frustration Slacking-off, free-riding, and a sense of being impotent to influence results are all contributing to project debt. These hazards are immanent to a team, and there is no way to get around them. However, establishing team norms that foster mutual dependability help to pay off the debt.

There are a number of ways to do that:

  • Clarify roles and responsibilities of team members: Role descriptions and discussions about roles in each phase of the team effort help team members to understand what is expected of them and others
  • Feedback culture: Giving each other feedback on behavior or decisions fosters understanding inside the team and creates a bond between each member
  • Drumbeats: Regular meetings, like SCRUM’s daily Stand-up, the sprint review or the retrospective, fosters mutual accountability. This is true for every regular meeting, as long as people are not just called to or incentivized to speak of but have an obligation to speak up. A meeting format that enforces the active participation of everyone is vital.

In general, the strengthening of conscientious behavior of team members is essential. Conscientiousness is being careful and vigilant. It implies a desire to do a task well, and to take obligations to others seriously. In psychology, conscientiousness is viewed as a personality trait and is therefore mostly unchangeable for the individual. However, in a team context, it can be built into the team’s procedures, by adopting, for example, the routines mentioned above. Over time, people implicitly accept conscientiousness as a norm for the team, even if some members are not at all conscientious but the opposite: Laid-back, less goal-oriented and less driven by success.

Mutual accountability has a lot to do with respecting the other team members. Not everyone wants to treat the office as a social club, and not everyone wants to work in an environment that is all about performance. Still, it is generally not a good idea to include only conscientious people in a team, as those people tend to be less creative, less adaptable and more driven by the urge to conform to expectations and rules. Again, the combination of personality types creates the diversity that positively impacts team performance.

Mutual accountability has a lot do to with respecting the other team member – but respect isn’t a privilege: Respect earned by working with one another and delivering results.

Why Other Norms Are NOT as Important

If performance norms are not deliberately set, other norms will form over time, by the norms brought into the team by the history and experiences of its members. These norms are more about the relationship between the team members than about outward focus. Norms will emerge that center on harmony, as harmony is in the direct interest of the group and every member. Furthermore, difficult decisions in the team’s future won’t be anticipated or actively avoided, to keep harmony. This gives rise to norms of reactivity, to just deal with whatever comes the team’s way at the time the challenge arises. The team under-invests and will pay a high price later in the team effort. Typically, these questions that should better be solved at the start of the project, are about

  • which persons with which skills and capacity to include in the team,
  • which elements are in or out of the scope of the project,
  • a projects time frame and budget.

As every experienced project manager knows, to avoid conflicts early means to face much more significant problems later on.

Every team will create additional norms over time, like certain meeting etiquettes, email and responsiveness ethics or office hours. Research has proven that any of these secondary norms, as Richard J. Hackman calls them, are by themselves not significant for the performance of the team. Other norms are inevitable in the forming of the team, but any secondary norm that is acceptable to the team is as good as another – as long as the performance norm remain intact.

Performance norms connect the compelling direction of the team to an ethic of risk-taking and performance. Consultant and Author Jon Katzenbach calls performance norms „the all-important connection between risk-taking and team performance”. 

As boring as the word “norm” is: Norms foster in every team member a lust for performance.

Who would have thought that Norms have something to do with lust?

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I am still busy writing on my book about “Liberated Companies” and I won’t bother you with another post in this year.

Merry Christmas to all of you!

box celebrate celebration christmas
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Sources

  • Hackman, Richard (2002) ‘Leading Teams’
  • Job characteristics theory has been developed by Greg. R. Oldham and J. Richard Hackman in 1975, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Job_characteristic_theory
  • The term “performance norms “or “performance ethics” is a central, recurring, element of Jon Katzenbach’s 1993 classic book, „The Wisdom of Teams“
  • Hackman calls the three norms (Outward Looking norms, Organizational conformity norms, and Mutual Dependability norms) “primary norms”, and all other norms, that have proven to be not very significant to a team’s success “secondary norms”. Actually, Hackman stated just two primary norms, outward looking and “behavioral boundaries within which the team operates”. I took the liberty to split the latter norm into to “organizational conformity” and “mutual dependability” for the sake of greater clarity. This split although aligns well with Googles project Aristotle, where “mutual dependability” has been one of the 5 factor of team success and Jon Katzenbach, “Wisdom of Teams” 1993, for whom Mutual Accountability is key to team’s success.

 

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