Sustainable organizations know that all members of a team have something valuable to offer. They instill this belief in their culture, and apply it both internally and externally to clients, customers, partners, and vendors. They build their business on good relationships with people, which are based in respect.
As consultants, we often challenge our clients to differentiate between their aspirational values and beliefs and their actual values and beliefs: we instruct them to place their aspirational values in the category of vision; their actual values then remain as the things they do so naturally that they are assumed – and yet, still somehow distinct from others in the marketplace.
Believing that all members of a team have something valuable to offer is aspirational for many organizations. And those who believe it, but who don’t consistently live it out, find that they let value they already have go to waste. This waste weakens their company and is often symptomatic of other structural challenges in the organization, as well as mindsets and habits that are not sustainable in the long run.
Like an un-booked hotel room on a night when every other spot in town is sold out, missing team members’ value stands as the opportunity of a lifetime in the evening, or a foolishly missed opportunity in the morning. It certainly matters what time it is.
In the clear light of morning, we see that there are two ways we miss out on our team’s value – or, in serious cases, actually devalue our team: Structural Misses and Personal Misses.
Structural Misses are those ways our business is designed that create value gaps. Here are four examples:
- Role Pigeonholing. When we see someone only in their role, we miss what other value they can offer, and often deny their creativity. We see the “finance guys” as the “finance guys” and interpret everything they say and do through that angle. Living down to our expectations, the finance guys just give us the finance guys angle. On teams with differentiated roles based on expertise, operations run smoothly because everyone knows their role. But when it comes time to adapt, change, or innovate, sometimes it’s best to mix these roles up temporarily, to encourage creativity. For instance, one team we worked with intentionally broke into smaller groups to work on a problem, and each was assigned an area of the problem that was not in their core capacity, to see what people would come up with. Another team we worked with did an exercise where they “left their role at the door” so they could all work as equals, and not as representatives of their departments. In both cases, the team discovered something new from an unexpected place.
- Communication. Most organizations have communication gaps. It’s so often taken for granted that whole courses are designed for business leaders about how to communicate. Sloppy communication devalues the input of those who need to bring something up; it also devalues those who have to act on what is communicated. Organization after organization lets value go to waste by holding someone as “institutional memory” instead of documenting and communicating their knowledge throughout the organization – often until it is too late to retrieve it. Other organizations keep communications so siloed that some who could add to the conversation are not in it. Still others are so haphazard that they end up creating as many problems as they solve, living in perpetual firefighting mode.
- Imbalance in the Locus of Decision Control. Most organizations benefit from pushing decisions downward and outward. And most organizations, as they grow, have to fight against the urge to centralize and push decisions upward. On the other hand, some organizations with a flat hierarchy are troubled by the fact that no one actually has the power to actually do anything – which isn’t really independence, but consensus, and without a consensus as to how the consensus is to be achieved. So people can’t act when they should, and often act when they shouldn’t.
- The Assumed No. Many organizations miss the value that they already hold because the company has a “permission-denying culture” where the assumption is that anything requested or anything new will be met with an initial “no” that has to be overcome in order to act. While the stereotype is of older bureaucratic institutions, or those with high levels of regulation, sometimes even the smallest sole proprietorships operate that way, if that is the owner’s general outlook on the world. Alternatively, organizations that can build clear outside-bounded policy can create the space for people to create, design, and innovate while building trust needed to respect one another.
Personal Misses are how we miss the value of members of the team through our personal outlook. Here are four examples.
- Expertise-ism. When we focus solely on our area of expertise, and another’s assumed area of expertise, we tend to miss our own gaps, and how others may be able to fill those in. In addition, we tend to minimize the contributions of others that are not in our area of expertise.
- Confirmation Bias. Human beings are wired to make assumptions based on our environment and take action based on what we experience until overwhelming evidence points us in a different direction. When faced with novel situations, we tend to give more weight to the opinions or situations that reinforce what we already believe, and tend to discount those opinions or situations that challenge our already-held beliefs. This causes us to miss out on valuable information when faced with new situations where our current outlook is incomplete.
- Fundamental Attribution Error. We’ve discussed this elsewhere – and this time, we summarize this error as judging ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior, and assuming that their behavior points to a character flaw rather than to their situations. These assumptions tend to cause us to dismiss, minimize, and judge others to a degree that we miss what they have to offer.
- Focus on the Challenges. As leaders, we want to see our vision become a reality. We have to identify the gaps we see and fill them so they no longer stand in the way of where we are going. When we focus on the gaps, though, we tend to see where people aren't performing well, and miss where they are working with excellence. Each person on our team deserves to be seen as a whole person - which can help when tough decisions have to be made about their performance.
Changing the Time
Returning to our un-booked room analogy, we see three ways that we can change the time from the missed opportunity of morning to the ready opportunity of evening.
- Surface and address our structural misses. Surfacing and addressing our Structural Misses – particularly the four in the examples here – goes a long way toward turning existing team value into opportunity. Addressing these allows people to begin to recognize when Personal Misses may be at play as well. Nevertheless, since this is cultural change, it will take time, patience, and energy to overcome the inertia of the present culture.
- Build space in our workplace for people to be secure in themselves. Most of the Personal Misses amplify when people feel insecure in themselves. Whether they walk around with shame-based thinking, or have to rely on their expertise for their value to the company, when people’s security is based on the variability of their value, they will tend to ramp up their defenses. Creating workspaces where people can be secure in themselves – where their worth is humanized and not just based in production – then they tend to become more open to new ways of seeing the world and become more creative in challenging situations.
- Measure and reward progress. Few of us start off doing this well. Determining what we need to measure, and then measuring it, and rewarding teams that make progress reinforces the behaviors, habits, and mindsets that will lead us to sustainability.
The Value of Opportunity
The people we already work with have value that we have not tapped into. Can we structure our work, our relationships, and our approach to others in a way that helps them (and later us) to tap into that and experience the benefits of the value they already have?
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