Organisations are complex networks similar to a beehive, with many individual contributors working together to achieve specific goals. As the company grows, most of the targets are becoming too large to be completed by a single person, so leadership puts people into teams.
After some time, though, everybody gets unhappy because the teams are primarily busy fighting, and delivery is slow and unstable.
So leadership asks some consulting companies, and they tell them that the teams will need some impulses to work together well, and that idea turns into a project. An initial team will run through a session, and whatever worked for them will become a checklist. And this checklist will become a blueprint for every other team-building exercise for this company. Efficient, repeatable, optimised, and thus cheap.
In reality, though, even though most of those exercises are far more elaborate than our little example in the above image, team buildings often fail to achieve the set goals. And the reason for that seems to boil down to one reason:
People are tricky.
More so, they are tricky on two dimensions:
We are self-aware individuals with backgrounds and wants that are important for ourselves, and those things might conflict with the needs of other individuals.
And we are working together in groups, with complex relationships, and the expectation that the capabilities people bring into those groups will help reach specific goals.
Sending people on a two-day workshop can help make people aware; it will not solve any underlying problems that lead to dysfunctional behaviour. As leadership, I will have to involve myself a little more to resolve them.
In my experience, you need multiple things to make sure a team will work:
People who serve the team reach, enabling them to reach their goals and make sure that people can succeed as individuals and groups. Often, those people are being referred to as leaders.
Soil that enables an environment of psychological safety, helping the team to establish healthy feedback cycles, allowing the members to grow and develop a culture aligned with the organisation they are embedded in and finally becoming a high performing team.
And leadership that supports the team; that provides clear guardrails to avoid anarchy in their organisation and implements a mechanism that will help the team take over the responsibility and accountability they need to become successful. And leadership that will help teams that ended up in a situation they cannot resolve alone.
The term servant leaders is not a new one. Robert Greenleaf coined it in his book Servant Leadership in the last century. It revolves around the principle that leadership requires altruism to care about the well-being of others selflessly and the intrinsic motivation to be a leader. You can find a better and more complete definition in the article from Eva, Nathan; Robin, Mulyadi; Sendjaya, Sen; van Dierendonck, Dirk; Liden, Robert C. (February 2019). “Servant Leadership: A systematic review and call for future research” that states:Servant leadership is an (1) other-oriented approach to leadership (2) manifested through one-on-one prioritising of follower individual needs and interests, (3) and outward reorienting of their concern for self towards concern for others within the organisation and the larger community.
For me, in a nutshell, looking at servant leadership explains why a behaviour everybody knows to be wrong, but still executed in many organisations, is potentially hazardous: Making your experts your leadership.
In almost every branch in the industry, there will be people excelling at what they do. They are the rockstars of delivery and capable of achieving the most complex and complicated solutions seemingly effortlessly. They are visible due to their ability to solve “the big issues”, and problems tend to be everywhere. So at some point, they will be placed in a position where they are no longer responsible for the technical solution but for a whole team that should deliver it. And the delivery goes as it always does. The team falls behind the plan, and the rockstar does what they always do: heads down, fixing it, delivering successfully.
While that works the first time, multiple things happen inside the team that will lead to disaster eventually. The other team members will feel inferior, as their assigned leader is their superhero and doesn’t need them. The more they lose confidence, the less they will deliver, and more will end up with their lead. The leader will become more unhappy and start micromanaging the team, trying to get back some control, which will lead to a loss of trust of their team members, unhappiness, conflict, and eventually this will erupt, and delivery will come to a halt. The team will be in a highly dysfunctional state, your former rockstar is burnt out, and no team building session will be able to get you back on track.
It’s important to note that this wasn’t the fault of either the person brought in as a leader or the team. The system was not set up for success and had little chance of success in the first place.
Obviously, though, this setup can work. If accidentally the leader brings in all the right skills, wants to be a servant to the team, and leads because they are servants. Remember, though, that a great expert might not necessarily be a great leader. There is a chance you are losing the expert and get a mediocre leader instead. If they don’t want to lead, don’t force them. And if they don’t have the skills, you will have to invest in growing them.
When one of my former employers sent me to leadership training the first time, I wasn’t convinced that artificial role games would help me. A few weeks later, however, I had the same situation I had in the session with my team. And thanks to the training, I was prepared, knew how to react, and resolved the problem.
As an expert in a leadership role, you are in an exciting position. You have the chance to bring in much authority with the knowledge that you have, and all you have to get to is gaining the trust of your peers to be able to help them. However, there is the dangling risk that you use your authority and knowledge to overpower your peers in many situations, which the others will hold against you.
So how to identify and coach a servant leader? The main difference between an expert and a leader is that the leader should help the team in any context, not just the context they were experts before. If you are about to be put in a leadership position and don’t think this would work in a different domain, then don’t go.
If you would never have your rockstar technologist in a leadership role for your product management skills, for an apparent lack of leadership skills - do you think it’s a good idea to bring them in for your tech team?
I’m not a fan of the term “team-building”. Building, for me, means creating something predictable in a well-defined way. There is a start and end; the steps to get from the first to the latter are relatively well defined.
For teams, however, this does not hold. It’s a fuzzy, unclear thing, and you never know what you’ll get out of it in the end. For me, it’s more like gardening. You put a few flower bulbs, a few seeds there and then work hard on the surroundings to ensure that the plants will thrive. No matter how much work you put in, the result is unpredictable. The flowers might die due to a late frost, or the seeds might not sprout. Or a few flowers came out, others died, but the result is okay.
As a gardener (and this is where I feel helping a team is similar to gardening), your job is not to micromanage single seeds to blossom. And if you try, there’s a good chance that the plant will die.
Your job is to make sure the environment is just right, that the plants have great soil, water, and that you remove things that hinder their growth.
When talking about teams, the soil is an environment in which people feel safe enough to help grow the team. My favourite model for this is from the essay from Amy Edmondson “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams” , in which she highlighted how crucial a foundation of psychological safety is for teams to foster a learning culture that allows for high performing teams.
Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.
How can you help provide that safety?
I fancy taking a look into history to understand what can help the present. There is an unlikely example from the past that might provide insights: The development of free cities in the medieval Holy Roman Empire.
It has been harsh times, with unstable political surroundings, wars, and raids that threatened the people’s life and well-being. Town lords offered safety inside walls, laws and a stable environment, which led to thriving autonomous cities, independent of their surroundings and self-governed to a very high degree. The safety the people received inside the city’s robust walls fulfilled their basic need for security. The constraints in the form of rules and cultural expectations, the community – especially in the form of the church – satisfied their need for social interaction and allowed cities to grow, improve and become strong beacons of culture, trading and technology.
This idea is similarly valid for teams:
By providing a “wall” around the team, protecting it initially from outside requirements, you allow an environment of mutual trust and respect. This will enable people to feel safe enough to express concerns and compliments alike and hopefully provide a stable foundation for the team to grow its own culture.
This culture will help the team navigate through storms, integrate new team members, and provide a foundation for their values with which each team member will see themself and identify with. Note that this is a double-edged sword, and you will have to monitor the situation to avoid a “we against them” attitude by leading by example and including the environment.
So how to provide a wall for the group?
Unfortunately, unlike in ancient Rome, you cannot simply start by building a wall. You will have to help the people become the wall, provide them with tools and traditions that allow the team to keep the wall “up” while not decoupling it too much from the surroundings and the value stream generation the group is a part of.
Tools for creating such a light wall providing such safety are well-controlled stakeholder management, a strong feedback cycle, insight and expertise in what you work on and the possibility and freedom to advance yourself. And there is another tool that is often not considered but important.
Earlier I have highlighted the church in the free cities of the medieval roman empire. That wasn’t coincidental. Independent of your personal belief in god(s), a church or your opinion about how much good or evil religion brought to the history of humanity, religion has a jack of trades that made it a solid foundation for communities: A set of shared values.
A former colleague of mine coined the following sentence:
It’s funny how everybody cares so much about freedom, yet the most stable and longest living of all communities are those with the strictest and most permissive rules
He was referring to Amish people, a community with very tight constraints that denies itself the amenities of modern times. Unlike the hippies that have disappeared shortly after they emerged, the Amish have been there for centuries.
Creating a highly exclusive club with strict laws and possibly an unfriendly, all-seeing god seem to help a group maintain itself over a longer time.
I don’t have to bring up the example of sects' dysfunctions to highlight that we don’t want something that extreme in a company. In such communities, we have a few downsides that we have to avoid, like a lack of innovations due to strict rules that prevent that. Eventually, a selected group will start abusing their power and exerting control over the other members. At the same time, they systematically break the rules themselves to advance their position.
However, what can help us from that example is writing down a lightweight set of explicit rules that the team lives by. More often than not, a team will have those rules already, but often the team hasn’t written them down. For new joiners coming into the team, it will be hard to figure those rules out, and there might be popping up conflicts in the team due to different interpretation of the rules.
An excellent example of how this set of shared values can be written down and significantly impact a team is the agile manifesto.
Teams often focus on their Definition of Done; they should think about how they work together.
When psychological safety is the soil, then the wall is you removing slugs eating your flowers, and a team manifesto is the water shared between your plants which helps them grow.
Your role as leadership
I have seen a few examples of organisations that implemented self-organised teams in a specific fashion:
- Tell everybody “you are self-organised now”.
- Send them to our team building.
- Complain that no one takes ownership.
There is the idea behind this that people will find their way automatically, understand their responsibility and act accordingly.
The reality, however, is often very different. There are often uncounted invisible walls of responsibility in an organisation that people who are naively trying to broaden their impact hit. Hitting these walls will demotivate them, and they will stop trying. On the other hand, nobody will have told them what responsibilities they should take manage.
As a leadership group, you will have to clarify the expectations you have for the team and also listen to what they are happy to take on. A team, just like a single person, will have to grow over time, and your job is to enable the team to learn sustainably.
An excellent tool for this can be a delegation board with delegation poker. The idea of this board/poker game is relatively simple. As a leadership group, you develop the things you do and put them on a whiteboard. On this whiteboard, there are also numbers, from 1 to 7, representing the levels of delegation. The number one stands for “tell”, meaning you will tell the team, while seven is for “fully delegate”, meaning that’s the team’s job. In between are the different levels of delegation. Next, you come together with everybody, and you walk through the items. First, the leadership draws in the invisible walls on specific topics. For instance, they might not be able to put salary raises fully into the hands of the teams, as they receive their budget from higher up and have to follow organisational constraints on how they can distribute it. Then, the teams play out which delegation-level everybody feels confident with by throwing in their poker cards. This little exercise will make it very transparent what everybody expects and make sure that differences in the expectations between leadership and team are highlighted.
A very simplistic delegation board
Even with proper delegation, the context the teams are embedded in might not be as visible to them as you would expect. Just as we had with the manifesto before, we will have to create visibility and guardrails that allow the different groups in our organisational hive to interact. And we want them to do so in an efficient way, without limiting their freedom and ability to innovate.
Luckily, we have a fantastic tool to achieve exactly that: A shared vision.
A vision is a larger goal that is true for your whole organisation. The tricky part is not necessary to create a grand vision (even though it’s tough) but to find a way to propagate this vision inside your company.
A decent (though not perfect) method is “objectives and key results”, or OKRs for short. When working with OKRs, the top-level management creates an objective and a few key results to measure if the objective is reached. The teams can then make their team level objectives that are derivated from the top-level goal. That way, it is ensured that all teams work on the same goal, leading to high alignment and cooperation.
Another thing that will happen in some teams is that they will end up in situations they cannot resolve alone. Typical examples are conflicts in the group that exceeded a certain level, an unhealthy team composition, or a lack of capabilities. This is when the team will need your support, and as a leader, it is my responsibility to act quickly to help the team untangle the situation.
Coincidentally it’s the issues that often require the power that self-organised teams try to avoid. And exercising this power is a tricky thing. As a leader, every time I use my power, my actions will be looked at in much more detail by the team. More often than not, whatever I do, I will make people unhappy. It’s the most challenging and least rewarding part of the job; furthermore, it’s unavoidable.
Taking those actions can therefore lead down a dark road. As you start to feel powerless and criticised as a leader, you start caring less for the people you are serving, considering them unappreciative and thankless. As you care less about them, you become more directive, beginning to lead in orders. And with every order you issue, your authority will decrease until people see you as just another pointy-haired boss from the Dilbert comics.
It is crucial, though, to remember that as leadership my job is not unlike the gardener. Help provide the soil, the water, the environment. Occasionally remove the weeds. Then get your hands off and concentrate on orchestrating the garden, and stop concentrating on single areas.
Picture from ukgardenfotos on flickr
As a plant, you don’t know how much the gardener has done for you. The same should be the goal for you as a leader.
 Servant Leadership, Robert Greenleaf. Servant Leadership ISBN 0-8091-0554-3 ↩
 Edmondson, Amy (1999). “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams” ↩