The most important game may be the one you aren’t even seeing.
I’ll share a critical secret for success. The primary problem lies in what you are (or are not) paying attention to. When it comes to working with smart people in shared-responsibility situations, all too often I catch myself getting caught up in the wrong game — a pointless game. I bet you do, too. When I start paying attention to the truly important game, my ability skyrockets. And yes, you can solve this problem for yourself as well.
Anyone Can Learn to Build Any Team Any Time
It’s not magic. It does require some thinking, some work, and often some rework. But you can do it. It’s mostly common sense, or uncommon sense, depending on how you look at it. Where is the real problem? When you consider the problem of smart people with big egos not working well together on your team, how do you explain that? Here are the two most frequent answers I have heard over the last 20+ years as a business consultant and international speaker on teamwork, leadership, and responsibility:
They are the problem. They aren’t good team players. They never learned interpersonal skills because they are engineers (scientists, coders, etc.). They’re introverted. They’re judgmental. They’re dominating, critical, insensitive. They just want to be left alone in their cubical with their computer. They‘re wrong. Before anything can change, they must change.
That’s just the way it is. The problem is the hyper-competitive working situation and the controlling management environment. Everyone is so matrixed, and no one is in charge. There are way too many management priorities, not enough clear direction, too many changes, cultural issues, or morale issues. The teams are geographically dispersed and have to operate virtually. Before anything can change, the situation must change.
Do you identify with one or both of these sentiments? Have you heard yourself think them or say them many times? And have you also joined in conversations with others complaining about these problems over and over again, sharing your own examples of how he, she, they, or it is the real problem and won’t ever change? You keep wishing something would change. And you’ve had little success with that wish. Other smart people with big egos keep showing up in your teams or the unsupportive context keeps asserting its dominion.
If you do identify with the two sentiments above, and if your mind remains occupied with solving the problem by changing either them or it, then consider this: How you define the problem frames the set of solutions.
And you may need to redefine this problem of getting smart people with big egos to work together before you can effectively solve it.
As long as you see them as the problem, they must change for things to get better.
And as long as you see the situation as the problem, you are going to be waiting for it to change for things to get better. As long as you define the problem in either of these ways, you get to keep the problem, because there is little you can do to change others or to change the circumstances.
So with this focus you get status quo.
You get to wait, complain, and be frustrated — but that’s actually not the worst by-product. The worst by-product is this: You are letting yourself off the hook for doing anything about helping smart people with big egos to work together.
Because from your point of view it’s about them. Certainly it’s not you.
What to do? Refuse to define the problem as them or it. As tempting and cathartic as it is in the moment, just don’t go there. Instead, tell yourself this: they and it are perfect just as they are. Smart people with big egos can work together amazingly well even under less than optimal conditions. The real problem is that you haven’t yet figured out how to organize the work and working relationships so that people work well together.
When you start defining the problem as internal to you rather than external, then the solution is also internal. And you can change you, if you want to, if it’s important enough to you.
How about this example: A committee comprised of five board members from short-term lenders (small town agriculture banks making operating loans to farms and ranches) and five board members from long-term lenders (small town agriculture banks making mortgage loans to farms and ranches) asked me to lead their committee. All of them were successful business owners who were member-owners in their local lenders.
The issue was that the big bank, which is owned by all of these smaller lenders and more, was operating with two sets of books because the long-term lending business and the short-term lending business experienced different business cycles, different economics — and different politics. This added expensive administrative overhead and in-fighting for the big bank. The result was that the big bank was becoming less and less competitive in the region.
This was the president’s number one strategic issue. He asked this committee to investigate and make recommendations to the stockholders at the next annual meeting. We had ten months — ten monthly one-day meetings. At the first meeting, the blood was so bad between these two groups they did not speak to each other in the hotel lobby and restaurant. Ten months later, these ten individuals operated as a high-performance team, excitedly taking their unanimous recommendations to the stockholder meeting. They stood as a team for a short presentation of their recommendations. Then they divided the large stock-holder meeting into five breakout sessions for question and answer. Each session was led by one team member from the short-term side paired with one team member from the long-term side. They had come to have great respect for one another. They figured if they stood side-by-side in front of their constituents and explained their recommendations, the stockholders would accept the recommendations. And that’s just what happened.
What happened in ten months? First, someone took ownership.
I made a private decision, one I did not share with the others, that I would rather work in a team than on a committee. I recommend you too make this decision. The difference is simple: in a team the members integrate interests for the good of the whole, but on a committee the members defend parochial interests at each other’s expense. I’ve never served long on a committee that I couldn’t turn into a team.
The traditional committee wastes time, money, and energy. The team delivers.
This is the precondition to collaboration, team building, and team leadership: you must be willing to take 100 percent responsibility for the productivity of the group, regardless of your role in the group.
Why? If not you, then who will ensure that you are on a great team? (see these related posts) This decision alone allowed me to face the smart people with big egos who didn’t like each other and have confidence we would deliver.
Then, we followed a proven framework
Second, get in the same boat together
I successfully got the team to feel like they were in the same boat together. We did this by agreeing the top priority was that we first gain shared clarity around what we were a task force to do (yes, I started calling the committee a task force). I was looking for a single team task that was larger then each of the members, required all of them, and none of them could claim individual victory until it was done. They agreed their most important task as a team was to not fail the stockholders — that they must show up at the stockholder meeting with recommendations the stockholders will support.
Third, make the win/win/win real and personal
I asked them to each stand before the group and share what was in it for them personally to invest themselves in the work of this task force. I call this surfacing motivation, an often-missed, critical step of team building.
Forth, develop supportive norms with operating agreements
I encouraged us to make a few simple and important operating agreements around which we could begin to build trust and respect. Our most important operating agreements were about how we would make decisions. The group decided to make agenda decisions by consensus (i.e., total support) so that everyone was invested in our process. And they decided to make decisions about recommendations by super-majority (7 of 10, I did not vote) so that no one or two members could block the initiative. Along with this, they agreed to stand as one united body regardless of their vote on a recommendation. No one would say “I didn’t support that.”
You Can Get Smart People With Big Egos to Work Together
Most people don’t realize there is a proven and repeatable mindset and framework for building any team any time with anyone — even with smart people with big egos. For you to acquire this proven mindset, start by realizing your beliefs and focus may be the real problem. Only then can you be the cure. Don’t wait for people or circumstances to change — change your approach and attitude so great things can fall into place.
Get Christopher’s best team building and leadership strategies collected over two-plus decades of solving teamwork problems for smart people. Attend the acclaimed Creating Results-Based Teams workshop, or get this free executive report while it lasts: The Five Flawless Steps to Building a Strong Executive Leadership Team.
Christopher Avery, PhD, is a recognized authority on how individual and shared responsibility works in the mind and an advisor to leaders worldwide.
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