Don't Be Right And Don't Ask Why: Essential Ingredients For Building A Team

Imagine the following scenario: You ask someone on your team to provide you with performance data for a project he’s working on. He rolls his eyes.

Or this one: you find a huge mistake in a report that’s meant to go to the CEO. No one seems to know how it got there.

Or this one: You tell your team you want them to share any challenges with you so you can work them out together. They never do.

These are not technology problems. They are not problems of skill or of expertise. They are problems of human dynamics, and they are the biggest challenges any team will ever face.

If you’ve ever been part of a dysfunctional team, you know how horrible it is. People keep their opinions to themselves or run roughshod over others. Decisions don’t get made, or there’s no follow-through. You emerge from meetings feeling drained and ineffectual.

Life is too short for this kind of nonsense.

The excellent business author Patrick Lencioni identifies the core human behavior problems in his book “The Five Dysfunctions Of A Team”:

  • Absence of trust
  • Fear of conflict
  • Lack of commitment
  • Avoidance of accountability
  • Inattention to results



All the technical skill in the world can’t save you if this is the way members of your team behave with each other. And, of course, the team dynamic starts at the top. Your team member rolls his eyes because a core relationship issue is festering, unaddressed. Your people don’t hold themselves accountable for the mistake in the report because they don’t want to get punished. Your team doesn’t share challenges because there is no safe space to do so.

Luckily, leadership strategies for transforming this behavior can be found in another Lencioni classic, “The Five Temptations Of A CEO”:

  • Choose results over status.
  • Choose accountability over popularity.
  • Choose clarity over certainty.
  • Choose productive conflict over harmony.
  • Choose trust over invulnerability.

In other words, choose the scary thing over the easy thing.

Dealing with people is scary. Choosing invulnerability, for example: Nobody likes to put her hand up and say, “I made this mistake and I was wrong.” In her TED talk, “wrongologist” Kathryn Shulz points out that, “by the time you are nine years old, you've already learned, first of all, that people who get stuff wrong are lazy, irresponsible dimwits -- and second of all, that the way to succeed in life is to never make any mistakes.”

That’s a lot of baggage to overcome. And the way to overcome it is through practice. As often as possible, as soon as you realize you’ve made a mistake, say so, out loud and with no qualifiers. “Oh, I didn’t understand that. I was wrong.” “I thought you had added, but I see you subtracted. I was wrong.” “I thought there was a mistake in the report, but I see I was the one who made the mistake. I was wrong.” The more often you say it -- and even though I know you are an absolutely outstanding human being, I’m sure an opportunity or two to practice will present itself -- the easier it will become.

As you become better and better at releasing yourself from the desire to be right, you’ll need to create an environment in which it’s easy for your team members to share their opinions. To that end, here’s a simple tool: Don’t ask them why they think the way they do, talk the way they do, or behave the way they do. Ask them what or how. “Why?” provokes defensiveness. The response is to immediately justify the behavior. But if you reframe the question -- "What was your thought process?” or “What attracted you to that decision?” -- the entire dynamic changes.

Choosing the scary thing over the easy thing and being careful how you frame your questions won’t solve all your team woes. But it’ll certainly be a start -- and it’s certainly an investment worth making.

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