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601: The Four Pillars of High Performing Teams with Mike Robbins

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Mike Robbins discusses the four features of peak performing teams.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The one thing that builds a culture of trust
  2. The subtle ways we build—and destroy—belonging
  3. How to care in order to challenge

About Mike

Mike Robbins is the author of five books, including his brand new title, WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER: Creating a Team Culture of High Performance, Trust, and Belonging, which released April 21st.  For the past 20 years, he’s been a sought-after speaker and consultant who delivers keynotes and seminars for some of the top organizations in the world. 

His clients include Google, Wells Fargo, Microsoft, Genentech, eBay, Harvard University, Gap, LinkedIn, the Oakland A’s, and many others. 

He and his work have been featured in the New York Times and the Harvard Business Review, as well as on NPR and ABC News.  He’s a regular contributor to Forbes, hosts a weekly podcast, and his books have been translated into 15 different languages. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Mike Robbins Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Mike, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Mike Robbins
Pete, thanks for having me. It’s an honor.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. And, right now, you do speaking and consulting on high-performance teams, but in a previous career, you played baseball. What’s the story here?

Mike Robbins
I did. I did. Are you much of a baseball fan?

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I’ve enjoyed attending some games in my day, but I don’t follow much of anything sports.

Mike Robbins
Hey, it’s all good, man. Baseball is an acquired taste, so to speak. I grew up in here in the San Francisco Bay Area where I still live, and played baseball as a kid. I actually got drafted out of high school by the New York Yankees. Didn’t end up signing with the Yankees because I got a chance to play baseball in college at Stanford, and then got drafted out of Stanford by the Kansas City Royals and signed a contract.

And the way it works in baseball, you get drafted by a major league team like the Yankees or the Royals or the Cubs or any of the other teams in the major leagues, you have to go into the minor leagues, which I did. And I was working my way up, trying to get to the major leagues. Unfortunately, I was a pitcher and I went out to pitch one night, I threw one pitch, and tore ligaments in my elbow and blew my arm out when I was 23 after starting when I was seven.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, man.

Mike Robbins
I know. And then three years, two surgeries, and a lot of time later, I finally was forced to retire from baseball. But, you know, learned a ton, it was definitely disappointing the way that it ended, but, ultimately, went into the dotcom world in the late ‘90s, had a couple different jobs working for some tech companies, and realized, which I didn’t know going in, that there were going to be a lot of similarities particularly from sort of a team and performance standpoint that were somewhat similar in baseball that were similar in business, and that’s actually what prompted me to start my consulting business almost 20 years ago.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s great. And, yeah, pitching, man, it looks violent what’s happening to the arm.

Mike Robbins
Yes, not a natural motion. Not what you’re supposed to do with your arm over and over and over again.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I’m glad you’re feeling okay and you landed on your feet, and that’s good news. So, let’s talk about some high-performance team stuff. Just to kick it off, what would you say is maybe one of the most surprising, counterintuitive, fascinating discoveries you’ve made about high-performance teams?

Mike Robbins
Well, I think one of the things I realized early on, and again this goes back to my sports days, is it’s not always the most talented teams that are the most successful. Obviously, you need some talent, right? But anybody listening to us, whether you manage a team, or you work within a team, or have been on any team in your life, you may notice it’s not always when you have a team of rock stars that that ultimately makes the team the best.

I often ask when I’m speaking to groups and teams and leaders, Pete, I’ll say, “How many of you have ever been a part of a team where the talent of the team was good but the team didn’t perform very well?” and whether I’m speaking like I was six or eight months ago in front of an actual live group of people or we’re on Zoom or Skype, most people will raise their hands or nod affirmatively. And then I’ll say, “But on the flipside, have you ever been a part of a team where it wasn’t like every single person on the team, in and of themselves, was a superstar but something about the team just worked?” and, again, just about everybody can relate to that.

So, again, we all kind of know this but we think, and, again, a lot of managers and leaders that I worked with, or companies, were trying to hire the best and the brightest, which is important, but, ultimately, there’s something that happens when groups of people come together. And so, high-performing teams is about, yeah, we have to have a certain level of talent, but people need to understand their roles and it’s really about the relationships amongst the team members and the level of commitment or engagement the people have to the work that has a lot more to do than the actual talent of the individuals on the team.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yes, that totally resonates. And maybe could you maybe get us going here by sharing an inspiring story of a team that went from, okay, doing fine to really kicking it into high gear when they adopted some of your best practices?

Mike Robbins
Yeah. Well, a lot of examples. I think of there’s one team that I worked with a number of years ago and they, as a team, this was at Adobe, great technology company, great software company, and I’ve been doing a lot of work with Adobe, and the leader of this team actually changed, so the team members were all the same. But I’d worked with this leader, she was with another team, she took over the team. And what was interesting, so, again, none of the team members changed, and it took a little while at first, and part of what she really implemented was, “Hey, we need to communicate more authentically, be even more vulnerable with each other, be willing to fail.”

And a lot of times when a new leader starts with a team, everybody is a little bit on edge, everybody is a little bit walking on egg shells, wanting to impress the new boss. And one of the first sessions that she did with the team, and I wrote about this actually in my book Bring Your Whole Self to Work that came out a few years ago, but she did a series of sessions and had me help facilitate some of them where people really got real. She started, one of the things she said was, “I’m not sure I should’ve taken this job. Like, it’s a promotion for me but I really like the team that I was with before,” and sort of set a tone for, “We’re going not try to perform for each other, meaning impress each other, we’re going to perform with each other.”

And this team that was doing pretty well and had some pretty good talent went to a whole other level over the next year by really building a deeper sense of trust and communication. And, ultimately, what we call and what we now know as called psychological safety which basically means there’s trust at the group level, the team is safe enough for people to speak up, admit mistakes, ask for what they want, take risks, even fail not that we want to but we know we’re not going to get shamed or ridiculed or kicked out of the group for doing that.

And I’ve seen that over the years so many times with teams and with leaders, a willingness to really go there, a willingness to understand, as my most recent book is called We’re All in This Together, that we’re all in this thing together. Again, this idea of performing with each other as opposed to trying to impress each other.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so I think it’s great distinction right there, performing with instead of performing for. And so, you’ve got sort of four pillars of a culture of high performance, and the first one is psychological safety. So, that’s come up a few times on the show, and for those who don’t know, could you give us the quick definition? And then maybe just share with some of the best and worst practices. I think there are some subtle ways we erode psychological safety. I’d love it if you could flag some for us.

Mike Robbins
Oh, for sure. Well, again, psychological safety, basically, the way I think about it, I had a chance actually to interview Amy Edmondson from Harvard Business School, she’s basically the world’s leading expert in psychological safety. And it’s group trust. Again, it means the group norms are setup in such a way that we know when we’re on a team with psychological safety, as I was saying before, we’re not going to get shamed or ridiculed or kicked out of the group for simply having a different opinion or making a mistake.

And trust is more of a one-to-one phenomenon, Pete. So, you and I can have trust with each other or not. That trust can get broken. It can get restored. Psychological safety is more, “How much, if we’re part of a team, how much trust do we feel that the team exhibits as a team, as an entity, so to speak?” And so, one of the things that’s really important in how you can build more psychological safety, if you happen to manage a team or be the leader of a team, is, like that example I mentioned, this leader from Adobe who since has left and she’s now at Intuit, but she really was able to show up in a way that she was vulnerable with her team. She was willing to share how she was really feeling, admit mistakes, admit whatever was going on, as I like to say, down below the water line, if you will, of the iceberg. That can help create more psychological safety.

Also, whether you’re in a management position or not, how we respond both as a leader and as team members when something doesn’t go well, when there’s a failure. So, that’s a moment, often I say, “Look, nobody likes to fail, teams don’t like to go through stress, but almost every team is these days especially, but how you respond to those moments can either make or break how much psychological safety there is.”

An example being somebody doesn’t deliver on a project or doesn’t perform at a certain level, how is that responded to? Is it dealt with directly but is it also dealt with in a way that is respectful of the human beings involved? Again, if we get called out, which isn’t always a bad thing, but if I know I’m going to make a mistake, let’s say, Pete, that you’re the boss, and I screw something up and you chew me out in front of the team, maybe even I deserved it to some degree, but that’s probably going to have me and everybody else go, “Uh-oh, don’t screw something up around Pete because he’s going to jump down your throat.”

On the flipside, not that we’re going to sugarcoat it, or people have to be grownups, but if I make a mistake and it gets handled in a way but you deal with it directly but respectfully, now that sends the tone to the rest of the team, “Hey, you know what, this didn’t work out the way we wanted to, but we’re really glad, Mike, that you brought that forward, you took that risk, even though you failed. Let’s do more of that.” It’s like, “Okay,” well, then that reinforces, “Hey, we can take risks and make some mistakes,” and now that sort of sets that tone amongst the team members.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I like that so much and, boy, I’m having a flashback, and it was in my early with my first project with Bain, I think, they thought, “Hey, this guy is an intern so he can handle a lot of hard work and challenging stuff.” And so, I was in charge of this giant Excel business and I was making some mistakes and it’s creating some embarrassment, and it was very uncomfortable, and sure learned a lot.

Mike Robbins
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
But I remember I was having a chat with Brett, we’re having a little sort of a little mid-point feedback check-in, and I knew what I was doing wrong, and I’d started to make some improvements. But I just loved the way he set the tone, he said, “Well, you know, it’s just work.”

Mike Robbins
That’s true.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like, “Hey, we’re safe, we’re healthy, and the project is still going. But, yeah, we got some things we got to focus in on.”

Mike Robbins
That’s true.

Pete Mockaitis
And I really appreciated it. And even when you feel like you’ve screwed up about as bad as you can, you can bring some humanity and some comfort into those situations.

Mike Robbins
It’s true. And I think that’s an important distinction. Look, one of the things that happens, and I see this a lot in Silicon Valley and with a lot of tech companies, but just companies in general that want to be progressive, we want to have a really positive working environment, is that I think sometimes we err on the side of being nice versus kind. Nice is often sugarcoating, withholding, not really addressing it. Kind is where we have a sense of kindness, a sense of empathy, a sense of compassion, maybe even some levity and some humor. But, again, if somebody makes a mistake, it’s important that we address it.

I remember actually years ago at Stanford, I remember pitching really bad, and my pitching coach said to me, “You know what? Well, there’s good news and bad news. Which do you want first?” And I said, “How about the good news?” He said, “The good news is there’s a billion people in China that don’t know that you just pitched like you know what, right?” He said, “The bad news is we got some things to work on.”

And, again, to your point, it sounds like your example from Bain, I think there’s a way in which we can address issues and challenges, and even failures. Amy Edmondson from Harvard said to me, she said, one of the things she wishes about psychological safety is that we had maybe named it something else because sometimes people hear this concept of like safe space, meaning like you can’t say anything negative. She said, “That’s not like it at all. Teams that have a lot of psychological safety really have a lot of give and take, and there’s a lot of open, honest dialogue and debate and conflict, and challenging each other. It’s just we know it’s safe enough to do that.”

When I work with a team, Pete, and people say, “Oh, well, no one ever…there’s never a conflict. We never have any issues,” I’m like, “Okay, somebody’s lying and/or it’s not safe enough to do that.” So, those are the things that we can see. Even at home, sometimes my wife and I, we have two girls who are 14 and 12, and the girls will really get into each other, say stuff to us, and I’ll say to my wife, “Look, we do need to teach them about ways to communicate respectfully, of course, but the fact that they feel safe enough to speak up to each other, to us, is actually a sign that there’s something healthy going on here, because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t say anything.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Well, let’s talk about the second pillar then, focus on inclusion and belonging. What do you mean by this?

Mike Robbins
Yeah. Well, look, this is so important. I wrote We’re All in This Together last year and finished up writing the book in the fall, and didn’t know it was going to come out in the midst of a global pandemic on top of sort of a national and somewhat global reckoning around racial injustice in our country, specifically in America. But what I’d seen so, look, diversity has a lot to do with representation, right? And we may or may not be in a position where we’re hiring or we’re the people making the decisions on who gets hired. What we do know from all the research is that racially-diverse and gender-diverse teams perform better than teams that aren’t diverse.

But what I really focus on in this particular pillar in the book is on inclusion and belonging, which we have a lot to do with whether we’re making hiring decisions or not. And inclusion is about, really, doing anything and everything we can in our power to make sure we’re not overtly excluding people, particularly people who come from non-dominant groups. Myself being a straight white, cis-gender man, looking at, “Okay, how am I communicating? How am I operating? How am I thinking? What am I doing? What am I saying?” for anybody who’s a woman, a person of color or identifies as part of one or any minority group, it’s trying to, as best we can when we’re in positions of power or authority, do things and say things and be mindful and be open to feedback so we’re not excluding people consciously or unconsciously.

But even deeper than inclusion, as important as it is, what we’re ultimately trying to get to is a place of belonging. And what we know from Maslow’s Hierarchy, and so many other things, is that belonging is a fundamental human need. Everybody has a need to belong. And so, from a leadership position, but also from a team perspective, whatever we can do to create an environment where people feel as much as possible like they belong, the more engaged they’re going to be, the better they’re going to perform, and the more trust.

I mean, psychological safety comes first but we got to focus on inclusion and belonging because they’re so fundamental to so many aspects of success, especially in today’s world.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I’d love to hear a bit about the how there. I’ve certainly been in environments where I felt very comfortable, it’s like, “Oh, yes, I belong here and it’s great.” It’s sort of like, I guess, in my experience it’s sort of like people sort of delighted in me and my quirks and what I brought to the table versus, and a lot of those are sort of non-verbal cues, and it’s sort of like, “You know, we kind of all like each other more than we like you, and we’re not overtly saying cruel things to you,” but I just got the vibe, like, “Yeah, I guess I don’t really belong here. I’ll kind of move along.”

So, can we make that explicit? What are the things, the practices, the do’s and don’ts?

Mike Robbins
Some of it starts with a sense of emotional intelligence and social intelligence and, ultimately, even cultural intelligence. Something as simple as just me even asking you the question “Are you a baseball fan?” And then you say, “Well, no, not really. I’m not into sports.” That’s actually a really important thing to know, not because it doesn’t really matter if I like baseball and you don’t, but sometimes we make a bunch of assumptions, “Oh, you’re from Chicago. You must be a Cubs fan, and blah, blah, blah,” and, all of sudden, you’re like, “What the hell is this guy talking about?” And, inadvertently, I’m trying to connect with you, but what I’m actually doing is creating more distance and separation if I don’t know that as an example, right?

And, again, there are a lot of things that we do, and this happens. Look, I travel. Well, I used to. I don’t as much these days. None of us are traveling. But I travel around the world, and I go places, and I think of myself as a pretty open minded culturally-sensitive person, but the moment I step outside of not only the United States but the Bay Area where I live, I realize, “Oh, my goodness, my worldview is so influenced by where I live, where I grew up.” That’s not a bad thing. It’s just something to be aware of, to be mindful of.

Oftentimes, I’ll be sitting in a room and I’ll make some comment about just the gender dynamics, and some of the men in the room, not because they’re sexist necessarily, just they’ll look around and go, “Oh, is it mostly men in this room?” Like, they’re not paying attention. Whereas, every single woman at that table or in that room knows exactly that there’s, “Oh, there’s four women in this room.” Do you know what I mean? So, things like that.

Again, a lot of times with some of these issues, some of us either aren’t paying attention to them because they don’t relate to us personally, or we may be are paying attention to them but we don’t know exactly what to say, or how to say it, or how to address it, so it actually leads into pillar number three, without jumping too far ahead of sweaty palm conversations, which is so fundamental that a lot of what we can do, right now especially, is ask questions and be curious about things even if we might be a little uncomfortable with respect to, “Are there things that are happening that are creating less inclusion, less belonging? And if so, let’s talk about that.”

And the challenge is that we often get defensive because immediately we feel like we’re being accused of something, when, in reality, if you’re committed to your team having a culture of belonging, then you want to know if there’s anything that’s being done or said by you or anyone else that’s getting in the way of that. And, in some cases, people who, what I know from my research, I don’t know from experience because, again, I’m male, I’m white, I’m straight, but when I talk to people from different groups, depending on how much psychological safety there is or how safe they feel, they may not always feel safe even bringing that stuff up. So, those of us who are in positions of power or authority, if we happen to be asking questions about that.

I think about this. I learn all the time from my wife and from my daughters of things that I don’t see just along the lines of gender. One of the stories I share in the book, my wife Michelle and I were at a workshop, and the woman leading the workshop said, “I’m going to ask the men a question, then I’m going to ask the women a question.” It was a workshop that was sort of for couples and about our relationships. And she said to all the men in the room, “When was the last time you felt physically unsafe?” And she said, “Just raise your hand one time and I’m going to name off some timeframes. Is it in the last 10 years, five years, a year, six months, three months, a month, a week, the last 24 hours?” I raised my hand for sometime in the last year. I could remember a specific moment I was in DC on a trip and got lost coming back to my hotel, and was walking around in the dark, didn’t know where I was and just felt.

She asked the women the same question, Pete, and she’s gone on 10 years, five years, none of the women were raising their hands, and I’m like, “What’s going on? Why are they not raising their hands?” She gets to one week. A couple of hands go up. She says, “Within the last 24 hours,” almost every woman in the room raised their hand, that they had felt physically unsafe at some moment in the last 24 hours, including my wife sitting right next to me. And I’m like looking at her, and I’m looking around the room, most of the guys in the room were all looking around, go like, “What? When? Where? What is going on?” And the women were looking at us like, “How do you not know this?” And the woman leading the workshop said, “This is one of the fundamental differences between men and women, and we almost never talk about it.”

And, again, that’s just an example that, “Oh.” Again, in the working world, in the environment that we’re in, like, “Oh, these things play a big role.” And if we can be more mindful, be more curious, be more open, be more humble about trying to see things from different people’s perspectives, and then being interested in creating the most inclusive environments where people really feel like they belong, now people are going to feel more like they have a seat at the table, and they’re not busy sort of defending themselves or holding themselves back as much.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, there’s a lot of great stuff there in terms of the mindset and the awareness and the assumptions, and I think that a lot of times the non-belonginess comes about when folks make assumptions. And sometimes I hear it explicitly in terms of they say, “Well, obviously this…” It’s like, “Well, it wasn’t obvious to me.” Or words like, “Well, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you certainly know about this.” It’s like, “Well, I didn’t know so I guess…” Or there seems like there’s sort of contempt for a viewpoint.

And, politically, what I find quite intriguing is, oh, boy, there are some data that shared that large swaths of us, regardless of Republican, Democrat, are just fearful, it’s like, “Don’t even bring it up because you might get fired, and some people are willing to fire and think you should be fired.”

Mike Robbins
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
Or then there’s so much contempt as a baseline assumption that, “Well, of course, all of us vote this way or that way.” And there are some surprising…if you really dig into some data, I’m a nerd for this, like it’s surprising. For example, I learned, so you’re in the Bay Area, for instance, you might…I was surprised to learn, I checked the sources every which way, but in the Bay Area, there are more Trump voters in San Francisco proper than there are LGBTQ folks in San Francisco proper, indeed.

Mike Robbins
Really? Interesting.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you wouldn’t expect that.

Mike Robbins
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
And I imagine the Trump voters aren’t speaking up. And then when there are…and so let’s go with either side politically or racially or anything. If you just have it as an assumption, “Well, of course, we all believe this and, thus, I have license to speak about the other…a set of views in a contemptuous way,” I think that shuts down the belonging in a hurry.

Mike Robbins
It does. I see this because, living where I live, which is sort of at the macro level to your point, one would assume, “Oh, it’s pretty liberal politically.” So, if you have conservative views, you’re going to be more in the minority, although, to your data, it may be more widespread than one thing. But, again, even growing up here, I know if you share conservative views out loud in this area, ooh, that’s very risky to do. On the flipside, when I travel to other parts of the country that are more conservative, and I meet people, or people have conversations with me, and say, “Oh, my views are a bit more liberal but I don’t really share that out loud because that…” you know

And so, I think if you think about this, this isn’t simply just about Left versus Right here in the US, although it’s a very relevant issue right now given that we’re in a Presidential election season, I think from a leadership standpoint, and from a team standpoint, I’m not one that believes we should never talk about anything controversial at work. I think that stifles authenticity. I think that’s unrealistic. However, I do think we need to be mindful of not making assumptions that everybody agrees and believes what we believe because that does create, “Oh, when I realize…” even if you take it out of the political realm.

I was talking to a group of people the other day on a Zoom session, and we were talking about what makes it difficult to speak up. And somebody said, “When I know that I have a minority opinion.” And they weren’t talking about politics. They were just talking about, like, “I’m the only one that thinks this about this decision. Everyone else is on board.” That actually is really hard to voice, because, “Do I really want to be the one dissenting voice in the room when everybody else seems to be on board?”

But, again, if you think about it, if that person doesn’t feel safe to bring that up, and the group isn’t interested in knowing where people stand, we still will go with the majority and we’re going to move on, but that person that makes a mental note, “Oh, if I have a dissenting opinion, I better just keep it to myself.” And that starts to become part of the culture of the team, and then we don’t even know what we don’t know, what we’re missing, and people are less engaged, and people aren’t really speaking up, or they’re not totally bought in, so all of these things go to both psychological safety and belonging.

And then that leads to pillar number three, which I alluded to, which I call embrace sweaty palm conversations, which is about, you know, I had a mentor years ago, Pete, say to me, “Mike, what stands between you and the kind of relationships you really want to have with people is usually a 10-minute sweaty palm conversation you’re too afraid to have.”

Pete Mockaitis
Sounds right.

Mike Robbins
Yeah. He said, “If you get good at those 10-minute sweaty palm conversations, you’ll build trust, you’ll resolve conflicts, you’ll talk about the elephant in the room, you’ll work stuff out, you’ll get to know people who are different than you.” He said, “But if you do, like most of us, and you avoid them because they can be awkward, or uncomfortable, or you say the wrong thing, or you unintentionally offend people, or put your foot in your mouth, or it gets weird, then you end up just sort of having mediocre lukewarm type of relationships.”

And it’s tricky. I don’t love having sweaty palm conversations. They are not my favorite. But if a team is really going to perform at the highest level, if we’re really going to build trust one-one-one, and psychological safety collectively, if we’re really going to be able to have that sense of belonging, we got to be able to have those sweaty palm conversations. If I really screw up, I need someone who can come to me with kindness but also with some directness and authenticity, and tell me, like, “Hey, man, you really screwed this up. We got to work on this,” but do it in a way that doesn’t have me walk away feeling like, “I’m an idiot, and I’m a loser, and everybody hates me,” because that’s not going to be helpful. But, at the same time, you know what I mean? And that’s predicated on the ability for us to engage.

And, look, right now, it’s harder to have sweaty palm conversations via Zoom or Skype or WebEx or the telephone, not that they’re necessarily easy when we’re in person, but we don’t have the same sort of body language and physical cues to go on, but we still need to have them so we got to continue to develop our ability both individually, but they become easier if the team has more of the norm of, “We’re going to have those conversations in the room even if it’s a Zoom room. We’re not going to have the conversation afterwards, or send little text messages or IMs to each other about what we really think. We’re going to actually talk about it directly.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, hey, talking about vulnerability, I’ll put you on the spot. What happened, a couple of examples of the sweaty palm conversations, that were quite meaningful?

Mike Robbins
Well, gosh, I think of like I’ve had a whole bunch of sweaty palm conversations with my team over the last few months. When COVID first hit, we had…look, the way I make money, Pete, the way I’ve ran my business for all these years, the vast majority of revenue we generate is through speaking engagements that either myself or someone on my team goes and delivers in person. Every single one of those, it was on our calendar, got either cancelled or rescheduled or just went away within a matter of like two weeks.

So, I had to say to everybody, “Listen, I don’t know if we’re going to have a business anymore in the next six months. I hope so.” And then it was a bunch of individual conversations with everybody on the team about their roles, how they were doing, what they needed to do, and we had to let someone go, which was a really uncomfortable conversation, as often happens in business. And none of those were fun or easy for me, and, at times, I’m a pretty emotional guy, I was a little bit scared and stressed out as would make sense.

And, again, I think it’s just important for us, when we have those conversations with people, they don’t always go well. That’s the thing. Like, I had a situation recently where I had to have a conversation with someone, we had a little conflict going, and we had the conversation, and it blew up the relationship, like didn’t really work out well. That’s not usually what happens but that’s the fear that we often have, “Hey, I’m going to address this thing,” and this person is basically going to say, “Well, have a nice life. See you later.”

But, again, in hindsight, in that situation, for me, I realized, “You know why that happened? First of all, I addressed some of it by email before so it already didn’t start off in a good way. And, second of all, there were a bunch of sweaty palm conversations that I didn’t have leading up to that one that, ultimately, had that thing blow up.” So, again, it’s a constant work in progress. I mean, this stuff is messy. But great teams talk to each other and not about each other. It’s easier for me to go tell my wife that you’re getting on my nerves, let’s say if you and I are on a team together, than it is to go talk to you, “Hey, Pete, we got to talk about this thing, man. I got this issue. Let’s try to work it out because I don’t know how that’s going to go.” That’s vulnerable to have the conversation with you. It’s easy for me to go complain to my wife about it because she’s probably going to agree with me, or at least hear my version of the story, and go, “Yeah, Pete sounds like a jerk.” You know what I mean?

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Mike Robbins
But that’s not going to benefit you and me and our relationship is definitely not going to benefit the team if that’s the way we operate.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when it comes to these conversations, do you have some best practices associated with one’s summoning the emotional fortitude to go there, and, two, some do’s or don’ts for when you’re engaging them?

Mike Robbins
So, yeah, absolutely. The first thing is it’s important to acknowledge that they’re hard and they’re scary for all of us, so to have a little bit of compassion for ourselves and the other person or people involved. The second thing is we do need to get clear about what our intention is, “Why do I want to have this conversation?” Because if what I really want to do is come tell you why you’re wrong and I’m right, it’s probably not going go well. Even if I’m upset, even if I think something went wrong, I need to get to a place of, “My intention is really to clear the air, to connect more deeply with you to resolve a conflict,” some more positive intention.

The third thing is, whenever I have a sweaty palm conversation, and I encourage everyone to do this, is tell the truth. Lower the waterline on the iceberg, as I like to say. Meaning, express a little bit of how you’re actually feeling in the moment, which, for me, is usually some version of, “I don’t really want to have this conversation. I’ve been avoiding this, or I’m scared you’re going to get upset. This is not going to go well.” And I know it’s sort of counterintuitive to be vulnerable in the moment that maybe we have an issue, or a conflict with someone, or maybe we don’t feel super safe with them, but we’re relational creatures. So, the natural human response to vulnerability is empathy, so people tend to respond in kind if we start. Now, is it a guarantee? No. Could they jump on us and use it against us? Yeah, absolutely. But way, way, way more often than not, that’s not what happens. It ultimately gets the person into that place.

And then the final thing is it’s usually important to have some kind…not to be attached to a particular outcome necessarily but have some kind of action that can be taken from the conversation. Even if we agree to disagree, can we talk again about this, or revisit this, or how are we going to address this in the future? Or if we do come to some kind of solution, what are we going to do so it isn’t just this? As a friend of mine likes to always say, “Conversations disappear.” So, some kind of way of forwarding the action after we have that conversation, whether it’s a one-on-one conversation or as group, because there’s nothing worse than I get the courage up to finally come and talk to you about the thing we talked about the thing, “Pete, you’re open.” “Thanks, Mike. I appreciate it.” And then nothing happens or nothing changes, especially like if you’re my boss and I’m like, “Well, geez, I’m glad he listened to me but he didn’t really take anything to heart, and now we still have the same issue running over and over again.”

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Yes. Well, then let’s talk about the fourth area, the care about and challenge each other. You made a distinction earlier between kindness and niceness, which feels very applicable here.

Mike Robbins
Very much.

Pete Mockaitis
What are some of the pointers in terms of doing both?

Mike Robbins
Well, so this fourth and final pillar is about caring about and challenging each other simultaneously. And that same pitching coach I had at Stanford used to always say, his philosophy on coaching was, “You got to love them hard so you can push them hard.” And he was talking about it in the context of baseball, but I think that’s true for leaders, managers, that’s true for human beings, for teams. Meaning, “Can we really focus on constantly caring about each other?”

Now, when we’re caring for people, doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re all best friends, that we have the same values, that we like hanging out with each other. That’s a bonus at that. But you can care about people that you don’t even like, that you don’t agree with. You can care about people who bug you. Caring about is about finding value in people, wanting them to do well. And I often say, “Look, even if you’re super selfish and you don’t genuinely care, you’re just interested in your own success, it’s in your best interest to be around other successful people doing well because success is contagious. So, at the very least, can you at least care? I care about the other people on my team. Usually it’s not that hard to do, but then simultaneously, then challenging people, pushing people.

And, usually, when I talk to individuals about this or I talk to leaders or teams, most individuals, myself included, like I’m stronger on the care side than I am on the challenge side. Some people are stronger on the challenge side. I mean, it’s easier for them to push, push, push, but, like, oh, it’s harder for them to just naturally care about people. The tendency we have if we go, “Oh, I’m a pretty caring person but I have a hard time challenging people. Maybe I shouldn’t care so much.” No, no, keep caring as much as you do, just challenge yourself to push people a little harder, hold people accountable, have a healthy high standard.

And if you’re someone who really pushes people and challenges people, but you realize, “Oh, sometimes I’m a little harsh about it,” you don’t have to necessarily lower your standards unless your standard is perfection, by the way, which is people always fail. But what you want to do is then raise your ability to care about people. And some simple ways to do that are just looking for things that we find that we value and appreciate about people, and letting them know. Thinking if it were someone’s last day you are able going to get to work with them, what would you want to thank them for? What would you miss about them?

Again, looking at people as the full nature of being human. One of the things I do think is beautiful about this really challenging time in the pandemic, we are getting to know people. Even though we don’t get to see each other and spend time together, we’re Zooming into people’s lives and into people’s homes, and we’re seeing their dogs and their kids and their apartments and houses, and they’re sitting in their flipflops and shorts, and maybe they put on a nice shirt for the Zoom call or whatever. But it’s kind of equalizing in a way. Whether you’re the CEO of the company, or you’re an intern, or you’re anywhere in between, it’s like everybody’s got a life and a house and a family and friends and stuff they’re dealing with, so, in some ways, I think it’s both more challenging but in some ways also easier, if you will, to get in touch with other people’s humanity even in this weird virtual world we find ourselves in.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I really like that prompt there for the caring in terms of, “If it were the last day, what would you miss about them? What do you really value about them?” And so then, it’s just that easy, huh? You just let them know, “Hey, I really appreciate that you did this. I really love the way you do that.”

Mike Robbins
Well, you know, it is and it isn’t. I mean, here’s what’s funny about it. Look, my very first book that came out like 13 years ago, it’s called Focus on the Good Stuff, it’s all about appreciation. And I’ve been studying appreciation and gratitude for years. And what I do know about appreciation of other humans, it’s super valuable. We all want it and crave it. When one human being expresses appreciation for another human being, it raises the serotonin level in both people’s brains. If we do it collectively in a group, it actually raises our serotonin level, which lowers our stress level and increases our happiness and fulfillment. But it also increases our oxytocin if we do it in a group, which physiologically binds us to each other.

However, all of that said, most of us are terrible at receiving appreciation from other human beings. We’re just awkward. We don’t know what to do. We don’t know what to say. We either give a compliment right back, or we somehow discount what they say or blow it off. As simple as this is, and I swear this is like so basic, but I’ve literally seen this enhance the culture of teams fundamentally, is that we learn how to receive appreciation from other people more graciously. We simply say thank you and shut our mouths. Because part of why we don’t express appreciation as much as we could, and should, is because it’s not psychologically safe to do. It’s almost socially awkward to do.

But when you create an environment on your team where we can express, now we’re not doing it manipulatively, we’re not doing it inauthentically just to be nice, we’re doing it genuinely, what happens is people start to really feel valued and cared about. And when you create that sense of caring, what becomes available is the challenge.

Again, I say this all the time to people, “Think of the people who you will allow to give you feedback, meaning you’ll take it. And you may not always like it or agree with it, you may not even want it, but you’ll consider it. Why do you take their feedback? Because they’re super smart? Maybe. Because they’re an expert? Maybe. Because they’re your boss or your spouse? Okay, maybe. But it’s not their role, or their intelligence, or their resume. It’s because you know they appreciate you. They value you.”

You could give me a piece of feedback, Pete, and some other person. Let’s say you and I know each other well, “And I know Pete’s got my back. He cares about me. He wants me to do well.” Even if your feedback is pretty harsh, I’ll listen to it. Some other person who I either don’t know, I’ll think, “Well, that person thinks I’m an idiot or whatever.” I’m not going to take their feedback even if I really need it because I don’t already feel valued by them. I don’t know that they care about me.

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect. Yeah. That totally adds up. And love them hard so we can push them hard, yeah. Even if the accuracy is perfect, like, it is deeply insightful, the odds are high that it’ll kind of blow right past you if you don’t trust the other person cares about you.

Mike Robbins
It’s true because, look, relationships and, a lot of ways, teamwork, there is a scientific aspect to it. Data is important. There are lots of different assessments we can do but it’s more of an art than a science. Because, again, a computer could spit out a bunch of feedback for me that I need and all this data and I do all these assessments, I go, “Okay, but what I really need is a human being who cares about me to not only explain it but communicate it in a way that it’s really going to make a difference.”

Think about, again, your life, think about your career, I can think about mine, the pivotal moments along the way where people said things or did things, even if, again, it might’ve been a little bit tough love, and it’s like, “Wow, I really heard that.” It usually wasn’t, again, some piece of data or information as much as it was some communication that came through that touched us. Our mind, our heart, said, “Oh, I need to make a change, or I need to take a risk, or I need to stop doing something, or start doing something, or whatever,” and it’s like we look back in hindsight and we can see those pivotal moments, the challenges in the moment, “Can we be the kind of people that both give and receive that type of feedback and support in a way that’s going to benefit the people around us?”

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, tell me, Mike, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about a few of your favorite things?

Mike Robbins
Here’s one of the paradoxes of right now: We’re all in this together, yes, and people are having very different experiences. I like the metaphor, “We’re all in the same storm right now but we’re in different boats.” And so, I think both can be true. And what great teams and great leaders and just human beings who are interested in making a difference for other people have the ability to try to connect with an understanding, have empathy for different people’s experiences.

There is something oddly binding or bonding, if you will, about this experience we’re all going through, as challenging as it is, and there’s also a lot of uniqueness and diversity and how people are experiencing it. So, that’s a long way of me saying we need to have as much compassion for ourselves and each other because I know it’s corny and everyone is saying it, but we’re in unprecedented times and nobody was really prepared for this even though now we’ve been in it for five or six months or whatever. We just continue in and kind of make our way through it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. Now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Mike Robbins
Well, I’m not just saying it because I used it as a title of one of my books, but I love Oscar Wilde’s quote “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Mike Robbins
I love the positive psychology research on positives to negatives in terms of feedback, the five to one ratio, which the Gottmans did related to married couples, but I think it makes sense in leadership and teamwork and just all human relationships.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Mike Robbins
The one that just popped into my mind was Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and It’s All Small Stuff by Richard Carlson that came out in the late ‘90s, and had a huge impact on my life and was one of the main things that got me on the path of doing this kind of work all those years ago.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Mike Robbins
A microphone for my podcast.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. Well, you sound great.

Mike Robbins
Well, I appreciate it.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Mike Robbins
Meditation.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you frequently?

Mike Robbins
I would say that when we’re going through something difficult, instead of asking ourselves, “Why is this happening to me?” change the word to, to the word for, and ask yourself, “Why is this happening for me?”

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Mike Robbins
Best place is our website which is Mike-Robbins.com.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Mike Robbins
Be kind to yourself. I think we’re often our own worst enemy, and the kinder we are to ourselves, not nice, not pretending like everything is fine and perfect, but kind, genuine self-kindness, self-compassion, there’s almost no way we can overdo that. And when we’re kind to ourselves, we’re just naturally kind to others.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Mike, this has been a treat. Thank you. And good luck in your adventures.

Mike Robbins
Thanks, man. You too.

510: The Science Behind Successful Teams with Dr. Janice Presser

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Dr. Janice Presser says: "In efficient teams, people are able to share time appropriately... in the act of sharing it, they actually cause time to expand."

Dr. Janice Presser discusses how to build better teams using the science of teaming.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The 10 ways people contribute to a team
  2. Three questions to resolve team friction
  3. Two strategies for managing up

About Janice

Dr. Janice Presser spent her formative years researching how people team together, and found answers in systems theory and physics. Having written her first line of code in high school, she was positioned to architect a system to measure how people work together and develop the underlying theory and practice of Teaming Science. The author of seven books on teaming, she consults to executives and is currently working on the question of how spatial technology will impact human relationships in the future.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Janice Presser Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Janice, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Dr. Janice Presser
It’s awesome to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to get into your wisdom. And maybe you can start us off by orienting us a bit to what is Team Science and Teamability?

Dr. Janice Presser
Well, I started out life like anybody else trying to get all kinds of education. And the most important thing, I think, that I learned in way too many years of education was about asking questions. So, eventually, I became assistant scientist, that’s what my doctorate is in, and I was very interested in physics. But I was always interested in people.

And so, I actually started to think about, “What’s going on between people? And can we apply what we know from general systems theory and from physics to really understand what’s happening?” Well, fast forward many years after that, and the result was two things. One, a theory of teaming that we eventually proved out, and I did have a research colleague, or three, to help me think that through. And then the second thing was developing a technology by which you could measure it in an objective way.

You see, back in the day, there were lots of personality tests and everybody has probably taken them. You can’t apply for a job often without being asked to do something, and so personality tests were pretty key. But a personality trait is really just a slice of a person, kind of how they represent themselves at the time. And that wasn’t getting to the kind of, “Where’s the meat of what I want to understand?”

I mean, I had a whole lot of questions that maybe you and your listeners have. For instance, I always have to ask this question, “Do you really want to work on a team? Or do you really want to lead a team? Maybe you’ll really have much more fun working on your own, whether that’s occasionally being with other people and teaming with them, which is the way most consultants are, independent consultants, anyway. Or do you have a particular talent that you just love to do, and you might be a performance artist in any way?” To try and think of teaming as something better than or above what’s in your very nature, to help you contribute to the world. That makes no sense.

So, what made a whole lot of sense to me was, “How can we help people figure that out?” And so, I found out that there were really three key measures to understanding that.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. Well, so what are those three measures?

Dr. Janice Presser
Okay. First is, and they have names, so the first one is role, not to be confused with the way recruiters will use it, like, “I think you’re ready for a leadership role,” or something like that. But in the sense of, “How do you, in your deepest heart of hearts, get the most satisfaction out of making some contribution to the larger world?”

And, in the course of our research, we, in fact, validated that there are 10 ways, very general ways, and you do them in your own way, of course, that people contribute to the world. Some of us, and I suspect, Pete, you may be very similar to me in this, we like to work with ideas, big, long-range, huge ideas that might even change the world. And that’s a very different way of contributing to the world than, for instance, loving to organize it.

If we’re very lucky, and even in our first job, and even before that, and definitely in our personal relationships, we get to be with people who love to do the things that, hmmm, kind of leave us cold. And they, in turn, don’t really want to do what we do, so it gives us lots of latitude to kind of perfect and try new things out on the way that we do.

So, we use that term to designate this. And when you go through Teamability, which is the technology, you get to star in a series of 10 movies, and that will determine that. And the important thing is that once you know that, you can better align what you are doing or the kind of job you’re looking for. And on the hiring side, you’ll actually get people who’ll perform better because we all do best what we like best, and we like best what we do best, so let’s stop trying to change that. That’s human nature. It’s how we work. So, that’s the first thing.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’d love to hear, so there’s 10 of them. We talked about ideas and organizing. What are the others?

Dr. Janice Presser
Well, there are people who love to take those big visions that we come up with, and then drive them to strategic reality. And those are my favorite people for being consultants because they’re great at strategy. They analyze fantastically. But then they would prefer to break the work down, assign it out to other people who are just waiting to know what to do, and then when it all comes back to them, they might reorganize it and put the finishing touches on a report. But, essentially, their job is almost advisory and analytical in nature.

Now, that’s all great. But in order to put a company together, it’s very helpful to have someone who will then take those great big strategies and all that analyses, and help kind of hone everything down, in a sense, shape and form the strategy in a way that real people can do the work on a real day-to-day basis. And so, once they’re done doing that, then you’ve got a whole bunch of people who just love doing stuff. And those are the people who love doing things, like sales, like things that are much more immediate. When they lead, they lead on the ground, and they’re the greatest team-spirit people of all.

You know, the good neighbor that you have, the one who works all day, and then coaches the kids’ soccer team, and always wants to help you out, that very well may be a very action-oriented people. And then you need those organized ones. Then you need the people who go away from the team and bring treasures back to the team. Often, they don’t think of themselves as team players, but they’re so essential. They’re the innovation people and they’re almost magical. They see things that the rest of us might just not even notice.

And then it’s very helpful when they bring those great things back to organizations to have someone whose job is, well, best described by kind of like a controller does with money. Money comes in, and they use the money in such a way that will advance the goals of the organization in the best way. They don’t treat it like it’s theirs and hoard it, but it’s more of an investing in people, in process, in whatever it is that the company does.

Let’s see. I’ve got three more to go. There are the people who like to fix immediate problems that get in the rest of our way and mess up our ability to do our jobs. People like that often are very underappreciated because they’re there, they fix it, and they’re gone. And so, always remember, if they weren’t there to do it, you’d have to do it yourself. So, that’s an important thing.

And then there are the people who are kind of the historians of the organization, the librarians, in a sense, the curators of whatever it is that our business has done in the past, the things that have worked. And they’re very good at understanding, “What should we keep? And what should we just pass on, you know, kind of move on?”

And then there’s kind of the glue that holds all organizations together. And those are the people who go between everyone and they know what’s going on. In a very well-functioning organization, they know so many people that they can actually broker informal deals. You know, one part of a big organization may have lots of resources that another part of the organization is starving for. And these are the people whose great joy it is to bring needs and wants together, to bring people together for the spreading of community, of being that. Hopefully, we all have a great friend like that somewhere who we feel like when they’re listening to us, time goes away.

So, that’s the quick story on those.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, we got the idea people, the organizing people, the visions and the strategy folks, the strategy, the tasks folks, the executing the task on the ground, the innovation treasures bringing back the allocation of resources, the immediate problem fixers, the historians, and then the glue, so those are 10.

Dr. Janice Presser
They are. They all have special names, of course, but you can learn about that on the website. But there’s more to that. There’s more to having a great fit with your job, and these are the two other things. First is what we call coherence because it’s straight out of physics. It answers the question of, “Under what working conditions will you do your best?”

So, here’s my favorite example because, well, I kind of been in both. For most people, stress, ambiguity, uncertainty, is very uncomfortable and so they really don’t want a job that’s more stressful than they’re comfortable with, right? We’re all pretty much like that. But there’s a small subset of people for whom what other people call stress, well, let’s just say we call that excitement and fun. And we probably work best as entrepreneurs, which is about as uncertain as you can get.

People might say, “Well, you’re a risk-taker.” Well, there’s a difference between taking risks and really enjoying a pretty tumultuous kind of culture. So, lots of startup tech is like that. And if you don’t enjoy it, the environment is not going to change and probably you aren’t either. So, why are you working in an environment which isn’t any fun for you? And this works in the reverse.

My very first job, which was very long time ago, when, I’m sorry to say, women did not have the breadth of choices that they have now, I worked for a very large city. And it was probably the most boring job I ever had, and that was because nothing changed. There was no excitement. I would’ve enjoyed being named the commissioner but, of course, I was only 21, and that wasn’t going to happen. There just wasn’t enough opportunity to make something happen.

And so, if you really, really want to make something happen, don’t be in a job where you can’t do anything. It will only be uncomfortable just in the opposite direction. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, certainly. And so then, what are some of the particular parameters by which we often see, “Ooh, we got high coherence here or low coherence there”?

Dr. Janice Presser
Well, if you were in the kind of job where making a decision and having it carried out very quickly is very important, then that’s a very high coherence, requires a very high coherence kind of culture. On the other hand, in many government-type of agencies, and I hope this would change, somebody used to refer to this to me as the Department of Redundancy department, to have the desire to make fast change will only be frustrating.

So, if in fact you’re selling into an environment like that, you need to enjoy a slower, more leisurely, and probably more enjoyable to you, kind of environment. What you want is the match. What isn’t better than the other or worse, the question is, “What’s good for you?”

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, you listed a couple dimensions where we might find coherence. We got the sort of like the sameness versus difference, the quick versus slow. What are some of those other key dimensions?

Dr. Janice Presser
Ambiguity. Uncertainty. If you don’t like change, it’s okay, but you’re not going to be happy in a very high-change kind of environment. So, with startup tech companies making the fast pivot. Well, a fast pivot in tech is like a fast pivot on a basketball court. It can leave your head spinning. And the fact is some people enjoy that sensation and other people don’t, so it’s more of a matchup. And that’s what the technology is used for on both sides.

So, I do a lot of consulting now not only to organizations but to people who just want to know, “Do I have to keep doing what I always did?” Well, the answer is, if you listen to many career counselors, the answer will be yes. And the fact is it’s true, the HR Department might toss your resume if you’ve never had experience in the thing that you really believe is going to make your heart sing.

But you know what? It’s a gig economy now and you don’t have to have a 9:00 to 5:00 job anymore if what’s preferable to you is to really enjoy what you’re doing. There are so many different ways to learn new things and to then try them out and they’ll either fly or they’ll fail. But until you’ve had a couple of good failures under your belt, life may be boring. Again, it’s, “What are you going to be interested in?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, we got the role, we got the coherence, and what’s the third one?

Dr. Janice Presser
The third one is a big group, and collectively we refer to them as teaming characteristics. There are tens of thousands, and many people say, “Well, that’s synonymous kind of with culture.” And people are measuring culture in a whole lot of different ways now but, yes, you can use that to dig a little deeper into what you think your culture is, because, actually, in a well-functioning company, you have a lot of subcultures.

Nobody wants the, oh, let’s say, the scientific development part of the company to be like the culture in the customer service department or social media, if you have one. Think about what do you have to do to do you job well? Does it involve chit chatting with a whole lot of people and making them feel comfortable and part of your community? Or are you much more cut and dried and let’s get to the bottom of how are we going to cure this disease?

Nobody expects chitchat in the laboratory. In fact, many of the best scientists I know, other people might call antisocial. No, it’s just that in order to think about the things you have to think about, if you’re going to be a scientist, you just don’t have all that much time to give to things that aren’t related to that. So, as I said, there are tens of thousands of different teaming characteristics, and they’ll show up on a report or not if they’re not prominent. And the fact is they’re for kind of micro fitting to an environment. So, for instance, believe it not, there are actually some accountants who are very friendly and very social.

Pete Mockaitis
I can believe this. I can believe it, yeah.

Dr. Janice Presser
I know. I’ve even known some of them, even though the stereotype is you have your head in the numbers and all of that. Well, guess what? If you went to school and you’ve got that coveted CPA and you’re keeping up with those credits, now make sure you put it on your calendar, because if you’re like this and you’re good with people, you’re probably not great with times. Just put it on your calendar and you’ll be okay.

You have the perfect job waiting for you. All those accounting companies, they need somebody like you who both understands accounting and loves to talk to people so you should be the one that’s going out to all of the, oh, you know, the meetups where the new companies are and selling the services of those other people who’ll then do this part of the work which you probably don’t enjoy that much.

So, this is true for anyone. You’re going to have some teaming characteristics maybe that make you a great fit in one environment. But the same job title in a completely different environment? They just leave you cold and not be satisfying at all. And then there are some that are not going to be relevant at all to what you’re doing but maybe they’re important to you in your personal life because you know how happy you are at work will be reflected when you come home.

I mean, seriously, if the thing that happens after you’ve been at work all day is that you come home and you kick the cat or you pick a fight with the person who loves you the most in this world, you’re not having an awesome work day at all. And it’s not that you aren’t awesome as a human being, and that that job isn’t awesome for somebody else, but that oomph, it’s just that the awesomeness is not aligning and nobody is going to be happy.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, you talked about teaming characteristics, you’ve mentioned some, hey, you like talking to people, or be in deep inside the lab and not talking to people. Do you have sort of like the 10 for the roles, you have a set list that show up the most often?

Dr. Janice Presser
Oh, no. No. Actually, no, because this is a multidimensional way of looking at things. We’re actually measuring how the space will go between you and someone else. So, for instance, here’s an example straight out of reality. I was talking to someone, and she had a particular teaming characteristic… You know how we all have our blind spots? We’re human. We all have our blind spots and we pretty much all have the stuff that we really don’t enjoy doing.

Well, she happened to have a pretty big blind spot and, in the course of our conversation, she said to me, “Oh, my God, that’s my husband. And when he does that,” she said, “I have a terrible time listening to him.” She said, “Sometimes it’s like I don’t even understand the words that he’s saying.” And I said, “Well, that’s really great. Obviously, you’ve been brought together so that you can learn from him, how to then apply, loving what he does and he contributes to your world, into your professional life.” And she said, she was a little speechless, and she said, “That’s exactly how it worked.”

And I found out later that when they were planning to get married, they had both been sent by their premarital counselor at their church, they’ve both been given a personality test. And two separate religious advisors advised them not to get married because they were so different. Well, 10 years later and a couple of kids, and these people are happy. But understanding even more why that seemingly odd block was there to their getting together, “Why should this be here?” when, otherwise, everything works well is not dissimilar from what happens in the workplace.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, there we have it. So, we’ve got these components, and so then I guess I’m curious in terms of there’s a lot to be said associated with match and then the interaction amongst people there. And so, are there any particular best practice behaviors within teams and organizations that just are quite wise because they make good application of this knowledge?

Dr. Janice Presser
Well, understanding that people are healthier when they do what they love, and they’ll get along better with everyone. What you want to do is start out by aligning what the person really is like, that is their role, their coherence, their teaming characteristics, with the work that you’re expecting them to do. And so, my favorite best practice for managers is this.

You know how we all hate doing performance evaluations? Seriously, if there’s anyone out there who loves doing performance evaluations, please let me know. I haven’t met you yet. But most people, we don’t like doing them as managers, and people don’t like listening to them because nobody’s ever perfect. And sometimes your compensation is tied to it. So, this is my way of evaluating people as a manager, three simple questions.

First, “Are you doing enough of what you really like?” Pete, are you? I think you are in this job.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Dr. Janice Presser
Right. “Are you doing too many things that you don’t like?” Now, I know you’re doing a few things you don’t like because, well, doing a podcast involves having to do a whole lot of technical things that are besides the point, but you do it just like startup people do it. You do that stuff because it’s important to the achievement of the vision, which is, in your case obviously, the world-changing podcast, right? So, that’s okay.

But if you were working for someone else, and let’s say 10% of your work are things that you love and 90% are things that you didn’t, you’d probably go looking for a new job and I wouldn’t blame you. And then the final question I asks is, “So, what can we do together to make it better?” That’s it. And then for the manager, you can start to look at the work that your team is expected to do in a whole new way. Just look at it from above. Think of your team as a living, breathing thing, the team itself, I mean. And that team has needs to get to whatever its mission is, whatever you’re supposed to be doing, and that part doesn’t matter.

And then you can look at, “What does the team actually need in order to get to the achievement of the mission? And who would like to do these things the best?” So, sometimes the job descriptions that get handed down from HR to HR to HR don’t really align with the real people that are in your team. Just because you have an official description doesn’t mean that you, as a manager, shouldn’t just be able to just get the work done, take care of business in the way that makes sense for everybody.

It isn’t that difficult and I’m always delighted when I’ve gone in and advised someone and everybody’s gone through the technology, and we’re looking at reports, and coming up with suggestions, and I find out that they already started moving some bits and pieces of job descriptions around and redistributing work to make people happier. And then, of course, they always report back the positive effect it has because it has the physical effect of removing friction. It takes out the friction.

Sometimes what you discover is that you have hired a little too much in your own image and it’s not an uncommon thing. So, very strategic people will often hire people who they see as being strategic thinkers. The problem is that’s not required if the job is to manage day-to-day operations. All you’re going to do is have a lot of people who want to do the same thing for the team and nobody who wants to do what the team really needs in one or more areas. And that’s a guaranteed fail.

You’ll get somebody to halfheartedly do it, they’ll probably do it, but they’ll be either putting their resume out on the street or they’ll be getting their satisfaction somewhere else and you will sink to the bottom on their important list.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s a cautionary tale. Thank you. And so then, if you are the individual professional and you are getting some awareness for what you need, and you would like to get more of that, what are some of your pro tips for managing up effectively to make that happen?

Dr. Janice Presser
Ah, managing up is always a challenge. Managing up is a whole interesting kind of thing. We often think of our boss like kind of a super parent, right? So, they know more, they’re more powerful, and please stop making that assumption because it’s probably not true. In fact, very often you may be reporting to someone who is not, in fact, making your work ready for you, to make it more accessible to you. It’s not a failing on their part, it’s kind of a systemic failing that there is nobody kind of managing the transition from the strategy into the action.

But sometimes you’re below in the hierarchy but you’re really, really good at that. So, keeping in mind that one of the things that you need to not do is to invoke a whole lot of fear in the person who you’re reporting to. Oh, that’s very important. Fear diffuses people’s energy. Fear just makes them less coherent. You want to encourage the coherence, or the holding together, the sharpness, the focus of the person who you’re reporting to.

And so, now again, depending on your field for what kind of certainty environment do they want, you may need to give them the feeling that things are very even keel before you go to them with a whole lot of complaints about how things are not working out. If you have somebody who gives you that fear response or defensive response immediately, retreat. Because if you make them more defensive, they will turn that back on you. Unless, of course, you want to get fired to collect some unemployment while you’re following your dream. I make no judgment whatsoever on that.

Remember, you have your special way of contributing to the world and so do other people. And your way may actually be more effective in your boss’ job than they are, so you have to tread carefully. Here’s another little secret. We are all motivated by the same things, and I’m just going to talk about two of them quickly and tell you how you can use that.

So, everybody has some level of motivation towards power, not power over people but empowerment, you know, feeling, “I’ll be able to do this. I can drive the business,” whatever it is that makes you feel exhilarated and powerful and instrumental in your world.

The other major motivator is affiliation, friendliness, being liked. Now, you can’t make assumptions on that. We sound like we’re having a very friendly conversation, I’m sure, to podcast listeners. But I will be the first to confess, I’m all about the power and affiliation pretty much has always taking a backseat in my life. So, it’s not bothered me if somebody didn’t like me or I’d scared them enough that they didn’t want me in their company anymore because I really wanted to do my own company and have a culture. That was the way I envisioned it. That would be fun for everyone.

So, if you can get a feel for what’s more important to your boss, this is what you can do. Are you ready?

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, indeed.

Dr. Janice Presser
So, if your boss is very high in power, and, Pete, I’m going to make the assumption you are because if you weren’t wanting to be instrumental in this world, you never would’ve started a podcast, or been a great consultant, or anything else that you do. So, how I’m going to approach you is, even though I’m normally a real power person, I’m going to go in very low in power, and I’m going to say something like, “You know, Pete, I’ve been trying to solve this customer problem, and I just need to ask your help.”

Now that’s going to be hard for me because normally I’ve got 17 solutions and I’d like to go in and say, “Pete, could you give me like 50 people so we could try these things out?” But recognizing you’re a motivator, I can enhance that and bring it over to my side to engage you to use your desire for power to help me solve my problem.

Second thing, so I’m going to go opposite. Now, by the reverse, let’s say I’m trying to manage up and I’ve got a boss who’s not very motivated by power. If you’re working in customer service, particularly in a call center, that may be true for you. So, I want to go in with the reverse. For instance, something like, and I can’t even say, Pete, because it’s very unlike you, but let’s say, “Joe, I’ve been giving this some thought and I’m wondering if this might be a very effective way to do things and I’m going to give you a chart with maybe a few bullet points or something. And I’m going to be very happy if you adopt it for your own.”

So, I’d be going in in the opposite direction, so on that power gradient you always want to be the reverse of what the other person is. But, on the cordiality dimension, you want to match up with someone. So, that’s pretty easy. If somebody is very friendly, go in first with a giant smile on your face no matter how much you have to complain about. And if you’re a power person, this can be a hard lesson to learn, okay, because you’re going to have to use some of your desire to be powerful to learn how friendly people interact. It’s not that difficult, just observe a few.

For instance, they always smile. No one ever has to tell a very cordial customer service person, “Smile before you pick the phone up.” No, it’s we power people who need that reminder. So, go in with a smile and with love in your heart, that’s love on a casual, cordial level, not bad, don’t get the HR police on you, none of that stuff. And go in with something that matches their level of cordiality when they’re on the friendly level.

Now, here’s the caveat here. Sometimes you walk into a situation where the other person is anything but cordial. In fact, they’re spitting nails, they’re furious and all that, and your instinct, and, of course, since I’ve just told you to match that cordiality level, might be to yell right back at them. Don’t do that. The way you’d match low cordiality would be to just go cold, kind of blank, blank expression, no smiles. If you smile, the other person is going to think you’re a complete idiot, so try not to do that even though that may be always your natural inclination to try and warm people up.

If you go in minus your usual cordiality level, that is you go in with no smile, no yelling, but no smile, eventually that will move the needle on the other person’s cordiality as they warm it up a little bit, and they say maybe, “Ugh, excuse me, I’ve been having a horrible day. The furnace exploded and the cat had 17 kittens, and I don’t know what to do.” Then you can warm it up and say, “I’ve had those days too,” a little half smile. If they go to full smile, bring it up to full smile.

But managing somebody is a matter of really managing them where they are. And that has some changes during the day. Everyone has kind of the motivator that is always going to spark something in them. But there’s always enough room for you to get in under there. As long as you understand that you can never, don’t yell back, that will never be effective. And what you really want to get to is a level of respect and trust on a mutually-agreed upon framework that actually works to help you both be more productive.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, tell me, Janice, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Dr. Janice Presser
Oh, my God, let’s see. I think the main thing for managing up, it dates back to our childhood. When we’re kids, the person who has the more powerful title is always the one we’re afraid of, and we know they’re more powerful because mommy and daddy can make that car go, and they can sign their name, and we get food in the house and things like that. It doesn’t work that way at work. We’re all adults, right?

You may be working for someone much more educated or anything else, but you deserve to have that respect and trust at the level that you give out also. So, just do not be afraid of it. Go ahead and use it. I’m forever challenging particularly because, I guess, I run into it more, younger women who are not taking command of their scene. Go ahead. Just do it. Whatever you think is in the way, you can overcome it. And if you trip over it, just get up and do it again. It will be fine. I’m living proof.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Thank you. Well, now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Dr. Janice Presser
You know, this is the back in the olden days, and I don’t know if this is true now. We had to memorize a poem, and I think this might’ve been third or fourth grade. And I think I probably memorized this one because it was dark but it was powerful. And it’s “Invictus,” it’s the last stanza of “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley.

“It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.”

That’s always spoken to me.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Dr. Janice Presser
My favorite is my ongoing research, and it’s about the only quantitative research that I actually enjoy. And that’s my counting the number of times people have said to me, after I’ve told them about something, not knowing the person that we’re talking about, but just on the basis of their Teamabilty report. And they said, “Oh, my God, that’s dead accurate.”

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. And how about a favorite book?

Dr. Janice Presser
Oh, all right. Well, I don’t know if you’ve read this, but they did make a movie, and I haven’t been able to bring myself to see the movie because I love the book so much. And it’s Madeleine L’Engle’s book A Wrinkle in Time and it’s a children’s book, and it’s part of her Time Trilogy which won all kinds of wonderful awards. And I love it because of the science in it.

But I mostly love it for what she said about it. And what she said was, “When I have a topic that’s too difficult for adults to understand, I write it as a children’s book.” And she inspired me enormously.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite tool or something you use to be awesome at your job?

Dr. Janice Presser
Ah, Lose It! LoseIt.com because you live in a physical body and you need lots of energy. And, yes, I am older than I look, and I have to give lots of credit to Lose It! I think I’ve been using it way past 10 years. It’s just, “What are you eating? What are you exercising? And what other goals do you have?” It’s grown as I guess as I’ve grown and used with it. So, there are lots of things you can track with it that are measures of, “Am I spending enough time during the day reflecting on am I going to have enough energy to accomplish all these things I want to do?” And if you haven’t figured it out by now, retirement is not one of those things that I want to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks?

Dr. Janice Presser
Oh, boy. Well, I will tell you what someone else has told me. I actually don’t remember when I even wrote this, but people are always reminding me that I said it. And I said, “In efficient teams, people are able to share time appropriately. They cooperate over it. And in the act of sharing it, they actually cause it to expand.”

And that’s what happens on great teams, is that at the end of the day, we don’t feel tired. We go home and we feel renewed and so we give more to our people, our family, our friends, or whoever is in our community, our cities, our states, our countries, the whole world, our entire environment. And that’s what is important to me.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Dr. Janice Presser
TeamingScience.com where you’ll learn about teaming science. Of course, if you want to follow my blog, I do, some is team-oriented but some of it goes off in other directions. And it’s just my name, DrJanicePresser.com, and I think there are links on either that will take you to the other. Please feel free to send me an email through either site. I love hearing from people in how they’re doing things. And, of course, you can always follow me on Twitter @DrJanice. She sometimes tweets a little rude but it’s been over 10 years and still tweeting there. And @TeamingScience is more new. So, if it’s tips you’re looking for, I’ll be getting to get those out soon.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Janice, this has been a lot of fun. Please keep up the great work.

Dr. Janice Presser
Thank you. It’s been great to be here with you, Pete.

458: How to End Bad Behavior and Renew Your Team Amidst Change with Steve Ritter

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Steve Ritter says: "The recipe for what makes a team effective is no different than the recipe for what makes a relationship effective."

Steve Ritter shares the fundamentals that makes teams healthy through their inevitable changes.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Where teams get stuck most often
  2. How to grow and deepen over time as a team
  3. Why there’s hope for disengaged team members

About Steve 

Steve Ritter is the Founder and CEO of the Center for Team Excellence. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst College where he earned the President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. He is the acclaimed author of the 2009 Amazon Top 50 Business Book: Team Clock: A Guide to Breakthrough Teams and the 2019 release: The 4 Stages of a Team: How Teams Thrive…and What to do When They Don’t.

Resources Mentioned in this Show:

 

Thank you to our sponsor:

Steve Ritter Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Steve, welcome back to the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Steve Ritter
Pete, I am thrilled to be welcomed back. It has been how many years since we talked the first time on Episode 36, I believe.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that was, well, almost three because you were one of the first as someone I know.

Steve Ritter
Yeah, so a lot has changed and a lot of things haven’t changed since then.

Pete Mockaitis
I hear you. Well, yeah, and we’re going to talk about both of those things. But, first, I want to get updated. So, you do a lot of fun garage band rocking with your crew. What’s the latest there?

Steve Ritter
Well, so technically speaking the music hub is a basement not a garage. And I just realized in thinking about this that we’ve actually performed 1% of the time. This group of guys got together for the first time in 1985, so I think we’re in year 34, and we get together once a month, and we mostly just improvise with pizza and cold beverages.

And, in that time, we’ve had four gigs. So, when we have a gig coming up, we get to work and make sure it’s as tight as possible, but that’s not our natural state of being. Our natural state of being is to improvise and have fun and see where it goes.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you’ve been improvising and having fun and seeing where things go – – but committed to it with your work in teams. And so, you just recently released another book “The Four Stages of a Team,” and your previous book “Team Clock” we talked about way back when. So, can you orient us, for those who are not as familiar with the first one, sort of what is your team philosophy, framework, and what’s new?

Steve Ritter
Well, so “The 4 Stages of a Team” was the book that followed the why and the model. So, “Team Clock: A Guide to Breakthrough Teams” is now a 10-year old book, and that followed about 30 years of discovery of a method for what makes teams effective and how teams sustain and thrive through change after change after change.

We’ve been doing the work for about 30 years but had not trademarked the methodology and hadn’t published the book. And so, we had a lot of knowledge but we felt like we had to get the why out there. So, a decade later, and approximately 300 team engagements later, there was a lot of clinical evidence about that it works and why it works and how it works.

And so, to the why and the model of Team Clock came the how of “The 4 Stages of a Team.” The subtitle of the book is “How teams thrive…and what to do when they don’t.” So, in a nutshell, the model was designed after an analog clock where each number around the clock, from 1:00 o’clock back to 12:00, represents a stage of the team’s development.

And the notion of using a clock was because teams operate in cyclical ways, not in straight line trajectories. The inspiration for the model, back around 1980, came in a graduate school class after learning about Bruce Tuckman’s 1965 team model of forming, storming, norming, and performing, which makes a lot of sense at face value when you look at teams who come together, and they form, and then they have some conflict, and they storm, and then they establish some ground rules, also their norms, that enables them to perform. And then, congratulations, now you have a team.

But when I looked at that, I realized that none of the teams in my life and none of the relationships in my life went from beginning to middle and then called it done or over. All the teams that I saw, operated in cycle after cycle after cycle after . And so, the clock became a way of saying, “So, what happens in the early phase?” And then once you establish that, what happens next? And if you establish that, where does it go after that? And when you repeat those cycles over and over, how do they grow and deepen over time?

So, the simplest model was that, in the first stage, which is investment, teams are figuring out their norms, teams are getting aligned on their mission and their values, teams are learning how to disagree and how to manage conflict in a professional and constructive way. And that provides an infrastructure and a platform and a foundation to be able to do things that feel much more like teamwork which is trust, and collaboration, and sharing, and those kinds of .

And so, the second stage is trust phase where teams learn to connect, and teams learn to share or respect, and teams learn to be accountable to themselves and to each other. So, now, when you get to that stage of a team, you’ve created a sufficient platform to be able to be really innovative, and to explore, and to experiment, and to discover, and to be creative, and to take advantage of the differences that you have on the team, and to take some smart risks and move .

And that creates change, and that’s the fourth stage, which is we call distancing because when you’re in a state of change, you kind of have to step back, and re-evaluate, and refuel, and kind of recalibrate, and refocus on whatever your new circumstances are, which takes you back to the investment phase, and to kind of resetting your ground rules, and resetting your values and mission, and making sure that everyone is together on .

And so, that’s kind of where this started and where it went was here’s the model. We believe that all relationships and all teams and all organizations, when they’re healthy, operate in these cycles. And, now, we have 300+ case examples over the last decade to help people who are going through challenges in their teams, see how other teams in all walks of life have handled those same kinds of challenges.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, 300, well done. That’s awesome.

Steve Ritter
Thanks.

Pete Mockaitis
I remember it back in my day before the book was written and, yeah, so that’s fun to see it evolve over the trajectory here. Well, so then let’s dig in a little bit into that subtitle “How teams thrive…and what to do when they don’t.” How do teams thrive? Like, what are the fundamental ingredients so that they go in a cycle, okay? So, I imagine there are a couple make or break things that could happen at each phase in this cycle that really matter.

Steve Ritter
Absolutely. So, you think about the investment phase and the team, people are either baking in healthy norms and they’re baking in unhealthy norms. They’re either moving forward with clarity around their values and their mission, and their vision, or they’re moving forward without that clarity, or they’re building in unhealthy conflicts versus healthy conflicts. When you think about the things that teams are trying to establish as a foundation that will be reliable, it’s just that.

It’s, “How do we treat each other from day to day under normal circumstances? How do we treat each other from day to day under stressful circumstances? Are we all moving in the same direction toward the same goal? Have we created space for differences on the teams? So, we may have the same destination but there may be many paths to that destination. And have we made room for the diversity of all those paths?”

And so, the idea in the investment phase is to get clarity around norms, and mission, and values, and vision, and how conflict should be handled. The place that people get stuck there is that that’s hard work. And, usually, that phase comes after a distancing phase or a change phase when people are really emotionally and physically depleted from managing.

And so, it’s difficult to work on infrastructure and build a foundation when you’re really depleted from going through a change. And, oftentimes, that’s been a change of leadership, or a change of direction, and not everyone is in agreement about whether the new leader is a good leader, or whether the new direction is a new direction. And so, that’s the place that people get stuck .

Interestingly, the place that people get stuck in the trust phase is in one of two ways. One is either that it’s working, and people are being accountable to the mission and the values, and people are feeling connected and respected and accountable, and it’s very . And the place that people get stuck is that, “Why would you want to sacrifice comfort to do something innovative where it’s a little more apprehensive or scary?” And so, people like to get into their comfort zone in the trust phase.

The other place that people get stuck is when that’s broken down in some way, and the team doesn’t have psychological safety to be able to take risks, and trust is a problem on the team. It’s really virtually impossible to move forward because what’s supposed to happen next, after trust builds on a team, is for people to explore and innovate and be creative. And when there’s not psychological safety on the team, it’s really hard to take the risk of .

And then the exploration phase, the innovation phase, has reasons that people get stuck as well because you’re out on a limb and you’re trying something new, and the chances that that might fail are part of the discovery process. And not everyone feels comfortable with being out on a limb, and not everyone feels comfortable with taking a risk, and so not everyone feels comfortable with diversity.
And so, in order for innovation and creativity to really thrive on a team, people have to be comfortable being out on a limb and taking risks and having diversity of ideas and of backgrounds on the team. And then, inevitably, that creates . And the obvious reason that people get stuck during the change phase is that most living things prefer stability, and when things are changing it depletes energy, and it’s hard to imagine a better future when you’re in the middle of a lost or a .

And so, kind of like a night’s sleep or the dormant phase of a tree in winter, sometimes we have to step back and refuel before we can step forward and get back into something that’s different than the way it used to .

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I think a lot of the beauty of this model is that it, especially if you’ve been on a particular team for a while, you can sort of see it, like, “Oh, yeah, this happens. There are cycles. There are phases. And you can’t sort of expect it to be all innovation all the time. We’re banging out new ideas 24/7 for years at a time.” So, that’s pretty handy there. So, then I’d love to get your take then, maybe you could start with an example. Let’s talk about a workplace, and how you saw some things transform from unhealthy to healthy.

Steve Ritter
Your introduction to that question makes me think of a different case example that I had considered sharing with you. Most of the case examples that we see involve teams that are struggling and are trying to get moving again. But you joked that teams just can’t be all innovation all the time. But the case example I’m thinking of, actually, that was their goal. Their goal was to be able to be all innovation all the time.

And the challenge they needed to get past was in order to be able to do that, you have to go through the other stages too. You have to manage the fears around innovation. You have to manage the change that you create. You have to lose people. You have to reinvest. You have to rebuild trust. There’d have to be glitches. You have to get through those .

But they, the team that I’m thinking of, and I didn’t end up using them as a case example in the book, is a team that is so attentive to the wellness of their entity as a team that they never let themselves get stuck. They never let conflict become destructive. They never let disrespect take any footing on the team. They never let fear get in the way of trying something new. And they embrace change as a healthy component of their .

And the result of that is that they are probably the most innovative team that I have been aware of in the history of my career. And they know that. They know they’ve become that. And, as a result, they have become a powerful magnet of recruitment internationally. People come from all over the world to be on this team, and they have become an impressive group of people that retains their talent. Nobody wants to leave this team as .

And the reason that they’re a good story is because they didn’t begin this way. I’ve been involved with this particular team for about six years, and when we began it was very similar to many team stories. This was a medical team in an academic center. And it’s not unusual for a couple things to be true on medical teams in academic centers. One is that the politics of universities-based medical centers are rich with academic politics, and they affect the way people…

Pete Mockaitis
Politics are rich. What a weird word choice. Impressively annoying.

Steve Ritter
Exactly. So, oftentimes, you’ll get a leadership change where the natural response is for the faculty to reject the new leader or to fall into factions in some way. And then you get the same dynamics that you get in any group situation. The Gallup organization has been measuring engagement and disengagement for decades. And so, it’s not unusual to have about 20% of your people unhappy anytime there’s been a change. And, oftentimes, people spend all of their energy acting out that unhappiness and then preventing the team from moving .

So, you got a team that’s trying to pursue excellence, and you got a team that’s trying to be more productive and to grow, and you’ve got a team that wants to be more magnetic in their recruitment, and you got a team that wants to research and discover new ways of doing things, but you’ve got 20% toxic, broken, dysfunctional people who are trying to hold everyone back at the same time.

And so, the idea is to be able to somehow get around the corner from the 6 of the 30 people on the team that seem to want to use up all the team’s energy moving forward. And so, ultimately, we end up in a situation with teams like this that I call stay stuck or move forward. There’s usually a moment of truth in teams like this where the vast majority of people in the room want to move forward, but a vocal minority, with power, wants to stay . And you see this in medical centers, you see this in law firms, you see this on professional sports teams, you see this in public schools, you see it everywhere that the powerful vocal minority oftentimes is enough to keep the majority stuck in some .

So, the stay stuck or move forward moment is the team, as a whole, has to decide whether to empower the bullies, or whether to move forward and invite the bullies, or whoever is bringing the dysfunctional behavior onto the team, you know, how to mitigate that. And, usually, it starts with some clarity around mission and values that everyone on the team can  that, “We want the finest clinical excellence. We want the finest patient experience. Or, we want the highest associate satisfaction scores,” or whatever that happens to be.

And if everyone can agree to those values, and everyone can agree to that mission, then it’s a question of whether people can be accountable to that, and whether people can hold themselves and each other accountable to . So, at that point, you’re giving everyone the equivalent of a striped referee shirt, and you’re empowering people from top to bottom of the organization to blow the whistle, or call, or throw a flag whenever there’s a foul. And a foul would be that we didn’t respect somebody else’s opinion, or the foul could be that we don’t view conflict as a productive and powerful change agent, or the change isn’t being managed .

And so, when people are empowered to call a foul, or to throw a flag, or to blow a whistle, and say, “Hey, that’s not what we all agreed on.” And you do that enough times, the culture starts to shift. And, eventually, people who are in that dysfunctional toxic group either leave or they find a way to get in stride with everybody .

And so, usually, at that point, you’re deciding how to kind of reward and invest in the engaged people, you’re deciding how to coach the under-engaged people into engagement, and you’re deciding how to mitigate the disengaged , whether that’s inviting them into the culture on your terms, or whether that’s excusing them from the organization in some kind of a Human Resources 101 Performance Improvement Plan, or whatever it happens to be.

And it’s surprising how the power of a culture that has shifted in that direction will take on its own momentum and that the right things will happen. Either the Performance Improvement Plans will result in the intended outcome, or people will fold into the culture and negative leaders will become positive .

So, team that I’m thinking of that became the most innovative team I’ve ever seen took on that challenge and spent probably almost two years eradicating the dysfunction. They called it a bullyectomy where they surgically removed the people who were hurting the team. As talented as they might’ve been, as condescending and arrogant as they may have been, and for being the smartest person in the room, if they were hurting the team, they didn’t belong on the team .

And so, after about two years of a successful bullyectomy or two, this team got to the business of defining clinical excellence, and using research and discovery to innovate new things, and becoming a magnet for recruitment for the world’s best . And if you think about the old spinning the plate on the stick thing where the plate wobbles, you got to spin it again to keep it moving, they just keep spinning the plate over and over and over again, and they never let anything dysfunctional or anything toxic to the team take root. They know that it’s going to happen every once in a while, because humans are humans, but they address it proactively, even if that means an uncomfortable .

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, some of those norms that you’re talking about establishing there, that everyone had the right to referee, what might those sound like in practice in terms of particular behaviors?

Steve Ritter
How we treat each other, civility, respect, appreciation of differences, embracing change, those kinds of things, Pete. The common sense things that you would have in your marriage, that I would have in my marriage, the way I would treat my children, the way I would treat my best friend, and the way I treat my spouse are the same ground rules that you want in a team or in an organization, they just apply in a larger scale.

And so, it gets down to the way we treat each other, and the way we talk to each other, and the way that we value the diversity on the team, and the way that we manage conflict and adversity in kind of a poised and resilient . It’s basic things you learn in kindergarten kind of values that somehow get a pass in a workplace but wouldn’t get a pass with a best friend or with a lover, right?

So, one of the things that we have learned is that the recipe for what makes a team effective is no different than the recipe for what makes a relationship , whether that’s a co-worker, or whether that’s a lover, or whether that’s a friend, or whether that’s a teammate on a recreational softball team you’re playing on the weekends.

The scale is different when it comes to trust, for instance. Interpersonal team may be more intimate, but the expectation that people treat each other with kindness, and with civility, and with understanding, and with productive conflict resolution, and poise and resilience and flexibility during periods of adversity and change are common sense. And, really, the refereeing is giving people permission to embrace that and to call themselves and each other out.

If in yours and my relationship, which goes back a few years now, if I treated you in a way that was disrespectful, even if I didn’t realize I was being disrespectful, I would hope that you would bring that to my . I’d hope that you would say, “Steve, when you said X, it caused this in me.” And I should have the maturity to say, “Whoa, I had no idea. I did not intend to hurt you, but I see that I did, and I own that, and that’s not going to happen again, and I’m sorry for what I did.” I should be able to do that in any relationship.

One of the exercises that we do with teams is we ask everyone to think about three relationships in their lives, at least one in the workplace, where there’s an unresolved crucial conversation that ought to happen. And the reason it’s unresolved is because it’s uncomfortable, or because you’re afraid it might make it worse, or whatever it happens to be. And then what is the issue? How do you want to address that issue? And what would be the measurement of the outcome of that being in a better ?

Oftentimes, when we see teams move to healthier cultures, that’s what’s happening behind the scenes, is that people who have been not getting along for a long time, figure out why that is and what they need to do about . I had a manager in a medical team last week say, “I don’t understand why she doesn’t like me anymore. We used to be friends.” Now, that’s a very personal exchange, but that caused her to go back to her and say that directly to her, which was my intervention with her, is, “Have you asked her what happened?”

And so, she went back and said, “What happened between us?” And it ended up being something, in the grand scheme of things, that might’ve been petty, “I found out that you made more money than I did, and I’ve never felt the same about you since,” something like that. But, now, it’s being talked . So, if you take the kind of crucial conversations 101 curriculum and methodology, oftentimes that’s what people need to .

And most human resources departments are equipped with people that have the talent to move people through conflict resolution, to move people through crucial conversations, to move people through change management, innovation technique. It’s really just giving the team permission to be well and to act on the common sense things and make relationships .

Pete Mockaitis
And I guess that’s what I’m wondering when it comes to common sense things. I mean, a lot of the things we’re talking about, you know, poise in the midst of conflict, or respecting conflict as a tool to bring about good things. I guess they’re almost a little bit subject to interpretation. I guess. If someone were to sort of throw a flag, and say, “You’re not doing this.” And they can say, “Yes, I am.” It’s almost a little bit, not to be sort of like childish or elementary, but I can see like, I guess, there’s this tension I’m thinking through with regard to, are you really going to spell it out in terms of like explicit rules, like, “We do not say, ‘That’s a stupid idea here’”? Or do you leave it at a higher level of abstraction, like really respectful in our discourse?

Steve Ritter
Sometimes it is childish and immature, and sometimes you’re calling people out for not playing nice in the sandbox. I had a situation where probably the most highly-educated group of people in the room were listening to their assessment results. And so, when you get assessment results that say there is an undercurrent of disrespect in the workplace, for instance, and that that scores a really high mean and a really high standard deviation statistically, which means people feel really strong about it, and there are some people who it affects more dramatically than others.

And you give that piece of data to the room, and then you say, “You, 12 people, responded to this survey in a strong way saying there’s an undercurrent of disrespect on this team. Or, words and actions that undermine the team are tolerated by a leadership. These are survey questions assessing the team’s wellness that give very clear valid metrics around what’s broken with the .” Then you get the conversations about, “What does that mean?”

So, I’ve had a person raised their hand, and say, “I think that’s me. I think I’m the one that people are talking about. And the truth is I don’t handle stress very well and I don’t know what to do about it because when I’m stressed, I don’t treat people very nicely. And I guess people learn to tolerate that with me. And I don’t want to be that way but I don’t know what to do about it.” And then you get four other people that raise their hand, and say, “I’d be happy to help you with that.” And then that person grows in some .

I had a person once in a public school setting where, after about a year of the majority of the faculty trying to wrest control back from the handful of bullies that were bullying the rest of the faculty, raised her hand and said, “I know that everyone thinks I’m one of the bullies, and everyone thinks that I’m one of the disengaged people. The reality is I was and I don’t want to be that person, and I see where we’re going, and I want to move in that direction. I’m just slow to change. So, if you can bear with me, I’m coming.” And everyone embraced that. Everyone embraced the fact that people are allowed to repair . People are willing to accept folks who are on their own journey to be a better teammate in some way.

So, usually, the data from the assessment, whether you do that formally with the online assessment that gives us the rigorous metrics of what’s going on in every aspect of the team, or whether you do it informally with just asking a couple of simple questions, usually leads to a , “So, why are we seeing this data? Tell me what’s going on with the team that makes this data portray this aspect of the team.” And people will tell you a story, and the story will usually lead to, “What do we need to do to fix this?”

Pete Mockaitis
And it’s really beautiful as you described these conversations, they’re just so open, so real, you might say vulnerable. It’s like, “Yeah, this is what’s really going on with me, y’all.” And it’s beautiful. And I think some of listeners might be like, “Wow, we’re miles away from people being able to disclose at that level.”

Steve Ritter
But that’s what happens. So, if the foundation, our norms and values, and that creates a platform upon which to build trust, and there is psychological safety in the , then those are exactly the kinds of conversations that happen where people will ask for coaching, where people will ask for help with .

You work from the assumption that everyone’s doing their best and most of us perform pretty well when there’s no stress. But under stress, some of us regress and some of us get immature, we’re not always at our best all the time. And so, when you’ve gone through the labor of building an environment of accountability and a culture of accountability that strengthens trust, those are exactly the kinds of conversations that  where people will say, “I would like help with this. I’m not being my best self. I’m holding the team back. I want to be a part of this moving forward. What do I need to do to get there?”

Pete Mockaitis
And for the disengaged bullies and folks who are just not having it, you mentioned some coaching and Performance Improvement Plans. How does that process work?

Steve Ritter
Well, you would be surprised at how many people who are in that category find other places to work on their own. For some people, dysfunctional relationships is their currency in life, and when a culture shifts to a healthier more trusting environment, they’re not getting their needs met because their needs are met by making other people feel small, and so they have to go somewhere where they can make that happen.

So, you always have a small number of people who find a way to leave for those reasons. But you’d also be surprised at how many people don’t want to be broken, and they’ve never really had an opportunity. We call them the tippable disengaged, folks who can be tipped into the culture. And so, disengaged people rarely become under-engaged people. They usually buy in, and they say, “I want to use my leadership skills in a different way than being a negative leader. How can I be a part of the solution

And so, I guess when you think of a PIP, when you think of Performance Improvement Plans, they’re generally designed to get somebody out. They give people a tight set of accountabilities and a tight timeframe to perform them which guarantees failure, and then you catch them on the failure, and you have a reason to let them go. That’s usually what a Performance Improvement Plan is designed to do in Human Resources circles.

But a true Performance Improvement Plan gives someone a path to grow and to improve. And if you surround them with the right coaching and the right , you end up with conversations like, “Your peers say that you’ve not been easy to play with in the sandbox. I’m guessing that this isn’t just a problem in the workplace. Perhaps this is a problem in your family, in your social circles as well. You’re 43 years old, do you want to do something about this? Is this okay with you? Because if you want to do something about this, we have resources that can help you.” And you’d be surprised at people’s ability to transform when provided an opportunity to get coached.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. And when you said about the drama or the conflicted relationships is their currency in life, it just reminded me of a quote from The Office, Kelly Kapoor said that if she had to choose between two suitors, and she said, “Robbie makes me so happy, and Ryan causes so much drama, so I just need to figure out which of those is more important to me.”

Steve Ritter
Exactly. Exactly. Well, you know, but if you think about that, those of us, and I’m one of them, who thrive on conflict and who thrive on change, I’ve put three kids through college and built two businesses on assisting people with conflict and assisting people with change. And so, there’s a positive way to have that surround you in life. It’s okay to be fueled by chaos as long as you manage it in a professional and a respectful way. It’s okay to have conflict as long as you are mature and adult about the whole .

And so, there are people in life who’s competency is to be good under pressure during periods of significant change and conflict, and those people often become advisors, and consultants, and coaches, and therapists, and teachers, and mentors, and those kinds of professions because they can elevate other people into healthier places, and elevate relationships and teams into healthier places. So, conflict and chaos sometimes gets a bad rap.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. And so then, I guess I want to talk a little bit about the innovation side of things. So, once you’ve got some of those norms well established, and we’re invested, and there’s the trust is working, and we’re sort of owning our stuff and sharing it, what are some of the best practices for making the most of the innovation phase when you’re in it?

Steve Ritter
Oh, well, I think it’s a willingness to live with an unsolved problem to begin with. Innovation always starts with an unsolved problem. And being willing to experiment, and explore, and create, and fail a couple of times to be able to discover a new way of looking at that problem. And so, all of those dynamics require someone to feel safe and trusted in an environment that supports that kind of thing.

And so, I guess a rich and fertile garden of diversity, full of people who are unafraid to take smart risks and to stumble and fall a couple of times, is usually what creates new ideas. Whereas, the opposite, where people hold onto the status quo and aim for safety usually doesn’t result in new ways of thinking about things or doing .

And so, it all goes back to the foundation of common values and common goals that allow for a culture of , that enables a team to have the psychological safety for people to take risks because innovation is all about providing an atmosphere that, I suppose, has a safety net underneath it so that people can be out on a limb and take risks and try  without having to worry about whether the amygdala portion of the brain screams fear and tells you not to do it, that you go ahead and use your cerebral cortex to analyze and interpret and make decisions and try things even though your fear center is screaming, “Don’t do it.”

And, usually, that happens most effectively when the team has created an atmosphere of collaboration and psychological safety so that falling, or stumbling, or failing are not a big deal. They’re actually fuel for the next round of .

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Steve, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Steve Ritter
Well, I think that you’re going to see a barrage of social media hype around the book “The 4 Stages of a Team: How teams thrive…and what to do when they don’t.” I’m excited about this book, but I also want to let your audience know that there’s a 10-year archive of blogs on the TeamClock.com website that are categorized in every area of team effectiveness that you would imagine. And so, while the book is a few hundred pages of best practice and case study and how to, there’s a deep archive of blogs available on the website as well, so I would point people in that direction.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Steve Ritter
You know, I think the last time you asked me that, I quoted Seth Godin, and I think I want to quote Seth again. Seth was kind enough to endorse my first book. He talked about the importance of taking responsibility for what it means to join or to lead a team. And his most recent book is titled “This Is Marketing,” and he says in that book, “People don’t want what you make. They want what it will do for them. They want the way it makes them feel.”

And so, that might be more connected, or that might mean peace of mind, or that might be status in some way, and so I think about that quote all the time. I think about that quote when I listen to your podcast, for instance, because your podcast is a great example. I listen for the way it makes me feel. It makes me feel smarter. It makes me feel more equipped. It makes me feel like I have a better toolkit to go out and manage my life. And every episode, without exception, has that outcome when I listen.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, shucks. Thank you.

Steve Ritter
You’re welcome.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I just put out a big survey, and I asked a question along those lines in terms of, “What are your recurring thoughts and feelings when you’re experiencing the show?” And I’m thinking I believe that more and more for marketing, and that’s been part of my…well, this isn’t about Pete’s journey to learn marketing.

Steve Ritter
But we’re thinking the same too that, as Seth says, it’s not about what you make, it’s about what it’ll do for you and the way it makes you feel.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And I think that’s true of everything, even when it’s a rational purchase. It’s like, “Oh, this is a wise investment because it will save me money or make me money, so it’s money on top of money. Of course, logically that’s just better to do than to not do.” It’s like, “Yeah, but why bother? Why do you even care what’s money doing for you in the first place?” I was like, “Oh, I feel secure and free and able.”

Steve Ritter
Peace of mind, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. So, I think Seth really is as brilliant as people say he is.

Steve Ritter
Well, not many people write a daily blog that has the followership that he has.

Pete Mockaitis
And a good daily blog.

Steve Ritter
Yeah, and I’m one that reads it every day. And, you know what, they’re not all a plus and neither are the things that I write, but there’s enough A pluses to keep reading and keep sharing.

Pete Mockaitis
And, let’s see, was I asking about a study or a quote or a book? You’ve got a little bit of everything.

Steve Ritter
You asked about a piece of research. I don’t know if you remember, you and I talked about this Journal of Applied Psychology article that came out maybe over a decade ago.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I do.

Steve Ritter
They studied what it is that most drives the outcome in a professional relationship. And they studied all of the variables and equation from gender to age to educational background to theoretical orientation, and they found that the greatest driver of outcome in a professional relationship was the perception of connection within the first hour from the perspective of the client. And so, if the client felt like there was a good connection in the first hour, the outcome of that professional relationship is going to be much stronger.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, absolutely. And in a way that just makes me feel so much better. I thought about that many, many times as our conversation because it makes me feel better about, I guess, others think I’m like being real judgmental in terms of like I’m reading a book or listening to something, I’m just like, “I just don’t like this guy.”

Steve Ritter
Right. And then when it resonates, you have the opposite feeling, it’s like, “Oh, we are connected, yes.”

Pete Mockaitis
And then I feel so bad, it’s like, “I don’t like this guy. I want to stop reading.” It’s like, “Well, Pete, you should like him. Take in broad perspectives from all sorts of different people that you like and that you dislike.” And then I come back to, “Yeah, but Steve told me that…”

Steve Ritter
In the first hour, in the first 10 pages of this book better grab me.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, so even if I muscled through this book and hated every moment of it, it probably wouldn’t deliver the goods for me just because I’m not resonating from the get-go. Maybe I think they’re scamming or unethical or fraudulent.

Steve Ritter
As an author, Pete, I don’t want you to have to muscle through any page of my book. As our mutual friend, Mawi, told me when we wrote Team Clock, “You never want to give a reader any reason to put a bookmark in the book. You always want the reader to continue to turn pages.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. Mawi episode number one.

Steve Ritter
There you go.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, he’s like the cardinal sin, I think, he said is being boring.

Steve Ritter
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Don’t do that. Oh, inspiring dude. Okay. Well, how about a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Steve Ritter
Favorite tool. I’m going to give you two. As a writer, I am a devotee of the Flesch-Kincaid Readability statistics in the options menu in Microsoft Word. I don’t know if you use that but it tells you not only how many words you’ve written, but how many sentences per paragraph, how many words per sentence, how many syllables per word, and it tells you at what grade level you are writing at. And I try to keep all of my writing in the eighth to ninth grade level. It just keeps the book flowing and doesn’t give people a reason to put a bookmark in any page. It keeps pages turning.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you.

Steve Ritter
The second tool I would offer is I’ve become an owner of the HeartMath wearable biofeedback tool. And so, the app on your phone is called Inner Balance but it pairs with a Bluetooth connectable device that reads your heart rhythms. And if you want to know how to manage your stress in real time, all you do is clip this thing onto your shirt, and attach it to your earlobe and turn on your phone, and it will tell you in real time whether you’re in a relaxed or stressful state. And you can teach yourself how to put yourself in a relaxed state at any time. And what I find is when I need to perform, whether that’s my band at a wedding, or whether that’s writing a book that I want you to read, I do that at my best when I’m in a relaxed state.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And a favorite habit?

Steve Ritter
I put a little creative music into every single day no matter whether that’s five minutes or an hour. It opens new pathways.

Pete Mockaitis
And a particular nugget that you share that really connects and resonates and gets quoted back to you often?

Steve Ritter
I’ve gotten a lot of feedback on the concept of renewal. When you think about teams and relationships that’s happening in cycles, you realize that there’s always another chance to refresh something or to repair something. And so, when you think about the things that happen in relationships and teams, anytime you add or subtract a teammate, you have a renewal. Anytime a conflict gets resolved you have a renewal. Anytime an innovation alters the work of the team, you have a renewal. Every time you celebrate a success or a disappointment of a failure, you have a renewal. Every time a goal gets redefined, you have a renewal. And so, you get these chances over and over to elevate your relationships and your .

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Steve Ritter
TeamClock.com. There’s plenty on the website and it’s in the process of getting refreshed with the new book information, so we hope to make it even more beneficial for our readers.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Steve Ritter
I have been asking people to continually assess their relationships and their teams for my entire career, and I want to make that simple. Ask three questions, “In what stage are we right now? Why are we in that stage? And what should we do to move ?”

Pete Mockaitis
Steve, once again, this has been a treat. I wish you lots of luck with the book “The 4 Stages of a Team,” and all your other adventures.

Steve Ritter
Thank you, Pete. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you, and I look forward to all the other episodes. You’ve created a tool for all of us, so thank you for that and thanks for inviting me on again.

435: Building Trust and a Powerhouse Team with Kristine Lilly and Dr. John Gillis

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Kristine Lilly and John Gillis say: "Wearing the same jersey does not make a team."

Legendary soccer player Kristine Lilly and researcher Dr. John Gillis share the 13 tactics of a powerhouse team, whether in sports or business.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The 13 tactics that make a powerhouse team
  2. The most common mistakes teams make
  3. How to build trust in a team

About Kristine and John

Kristine Lilly is an expert on effective teamwork. She consults with organizations, providing lessons gleaned from her remarkable career as a professional athlete. Lilly played midfielder for the United States Women’s National Soccer Team for over twenty-three years. This included five FIFA World Cups and three Olympic Games. She was inducted into the US Olympic Hall of Fame in 2012 and the US Soccer Hall of Fame in 2014. Before that, she won four national championships at The University of North Carolina.

Kristine lives outside Boston with her husband, David Heavey, a Brookline firefighter. They “team together” to raise two amazing daughters, Sidney and Jordan.

Dr. John Gillis, Jr. facilitates executive leadership development using a dynamic business simulation for LeadershipX. As a management consultant, he has worked for IBM, Accenture, Center for Creative Leadership, and The Conference Board. He did his doctoral work at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and Wharton Business School. He lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife Lynette and their four children: Jack, Rylan, Caroline, and Mary Claire.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Kristine Lilly and John Gillis Interview Transcript

Kristine Lilly
For women for the span of – if you look at 1991 was our first World Cup till 2004, which some of the – Mia, and Julie and Brandi retired. Those eight to ten years, we won two World Cups, two gold medals, came in third twice and won one silver.

Pete Mockaitis
There you go.

Kristine Lilly
Not to say we won every tournament, but if you look at – and if you go further on, the worst place we’ve done in any competition with the US Women’s National team is getting out in the quarter finals of I believe it was the – what Olympics? ’96, 2012, ’16. They lost in the quarter finals. Every other big event with the US Women’s National team participating either got first, second or third.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Kristine Lilly
So we won. We won a lot. We worked hard to be successful and really amazing group of women that I played with during my time and obviously now. The team continues to win, which hopefully, is due to a good foundation that was set early on with the National team.

Pete Mockaitis
That is awesome. That is quite the track record, so I want to hear how you did it. I understand much of this is packaged in the book, Powerhouse. Maybe you could orient us to what’s the big idea in the book?

Kristine Lilly
Well, basically, when John and I talked about it, I would share the stories about the team and he couldn’t – I think, John, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think he had an idea of the US team, but I don’t think he really knew the history of what we accomplished. Then I finally shared a movie with him called Dare to Dream that was on HBO. I said, “Just watch this.”

Then he got a history of the team and he was really impressed with the team. Then we talked a lot about business and how a business needs to come together and work as a team like these sports teams to be successful. He’s like, “You’ve got such a great story here. Why don’t we share it?” That’s where we are with how we got this book going and sharing all these great stories of the US Women’s National team while paralleling it to business tactics as well.

John Gillis
Pete, if I could just add on. As a spectator and a fan of the team I got to watch when they were winning the gold medals in the World Cup Championships. But then when Kristine and our families became friends and she’d tell some of the stories behind the scenes and all the effort, the practice before the performance and what they did to prepare themselves so that the team would be successful.

Those are the stories that I think are so relevant that Powerhouse shares some insight into those stories, not that you’re just seeing the team win, but what it takes to actually build that effective team so that they put themselves in position to win. Those stories that Kristine was sharing set through the years that I’ve known her, that’s what we really wanted to share and then say how does that apply to business.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. You’ve got 13 tactics in the book. Could you give us a quick overview of what are the 13 tactics?

Kristine Lilly
Right. I think if you’re first wondering why 13, that was the jersey number I wore for the US team. We’re trying to keep that kind of personally cute and connected to my career. We have 13 tactics. We’re not reinventing the wheel on teamwork or anything. We’re just trying to emphasize if you put these tactics together that they can help you be successful.

What’s really cool about this book too is we’ve broken them down into groups of three. Obviously there’s one underlying theme throughout this whole book, which is our last chapter called Doing the Right Thing. Each group of three is under a different category or pillar. We have transform, empower, achieve and motivate. We’re using the word team to create those words.

Each pillar has different tactics. The first one we have selecting your team members, align the team’s directions, score a goal, would be transforming a team.

Obviously you get into empower, so we’re setting the team foundation, leading the team, and then serving on international teams because, obviously, the game is global for soccer and obviously, business and corporations are global as well.

Then our next one is achieve and you have learn teamwork, communicate with the team, and handle team conflicts. Then the last pillar motivate, you have chemistry, cultivating your team ethos and a winning mentality.

When I look at all these things, it’s really powerful when all those components come together and what the team can accomplish. I think when we talked earlier about the success of the US Women’s National team, all these components were on fire, all these components were working. There wasn’t something lacking in any of them when we were successful. I think that’s the difference in a good team dynamic and one that’s not as successful.

Pete Mockaitis
And in business environments, what would you say is something that is most frequently not working within that lineup?

John Gillis
I’ll jump in here and just highlight that Kristine mentioned that we’re not recreating the wheel, but at the same time, Pete, every business that I go to and I’ve been doing management consulting my whole career for decades. I go all over the globe looking and talking to companies and time and time again you see where there’s dysfunctions within the company.

Even though we recognize that teamwork and being effective in our teamwork will help provide a competitive advantage, each organization if you go to an individual at a company and say, “Hey, tell me about teamwork at this company,” most people will tell you a story in the negative. They’ll tell you what’s going wrong, why there isn’t effective teamwork.

Even though the question is “Tell me about teamwork at the company,” most people just have a negative experience with it. We’ve always known for years that teamwork can help a company succeed both as far as the teams working effectively, but how that contributes to the bottom line and making profitability, but yet, companies continue to struggle in that.

Through the 13 and really looking at assessing your company with some key questions at the end of every chapter, it’s saying let’s self-identify and self-assess where our team is strong, but where we have opportunities to improve so that we’re not one of those companies that’s saying when someone asks you, “Tell me about teamwork,” that we answer in the negative.

We want people to be able to go through the 13 teamwork tactics and be able to answer in the positive and say, “This is why our team is strong.”

Pete Mockaitis
Within those negative answers, what do you find most often? You mentioned you’ve got an assessment with the questions at the end of each chapter, so you can get to the particulars for your given organization. But what are the ones that you’re seeing most commonly folks are falling down on?

John Gillis
I’ll go first and then I’ll let Kristine jump in here in her experience. But I find that each company is unique and different, but yet if you have to highlight some of those, it really comes down to a breakdown in trust, a breakdown in role clarity and a breakdown in accountability.

We see team loafers that are there pulling down the other team members because their roles aren’t clear, they don’t have accountability for executing their work deliverable and so the overall trust among team members breaks down because of that role clarity and the accountability. Kristine?

Kristine Lilly
Yeah, it’s not ironic, but I think it’s similar on the sports side of it as well. Trust is a huge thing and knowing what your role is and accepting it and diving into it. Because a lot of times you may have a position on the field or in the office that you don’t agree with, but if you want to have your job and you want to help your group or your organization be successful, you’ve got to hunker down and do your job that it is and accept and go with it.

I think John was spot on with the business side of it, similar with the team side. Trust is a huge component for team members on our team. We had that throughout.

I think the other one I would add in there would be communication. Usually when I look at a game that we played and we haven’t been successful or we’re not being cohesive, we’re not finding the rhythm together, the field is really quiet. When we start talking and we’re communicating a little bit better, it changes the flow of the game. I think communication is a big part of it as well.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting correlation that you noticed in terms of actual experience that when things aren’t going well, it’s quiet.

Kristine Lilly
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
And when things are going better, it’s not quiet with regard to speaking up. I can certainly see times where that happens.

John, I was intrigued by the interrelationship that you point out there in terms of when there’s a lack of role clarity and/or accountability, you’ve got some loafers, folks who aren’t doing much, and then trust is eroded in terms of I guess the other folks are taking a look at the loafers like, “What the heck? This isn’t fair.” It’s a real knot of unpleasantness. Tell me what are some of your top tips to facilitate some additional role clarity and accountability and trust?

John Gillis
Pete, you nailed it on the head. I think most people that are listening to this podcast would be nodding their head and saying, “Oh yes, I remember at this company or the company I’m at now or the company I was at a decade ago, I remember that team loafer and how it really did erode the trust.”

One of the things that we try to highlight in Powerhouse, it’s not just here’s the areas where teams might have issues, but how do we go about building trust. When you get to that section of the book, it’s looking at those steps as far as the benevolence, the openness, the honesty that’s going to help create trust.

As we talked about ahead of time, most of this book, if not all of it, it’s all evidence based. We researched trust. We researched accountability. We researched roles. We wanted to give people not only here’s issues that might come up, but here’s some research-backed approaches that you can use if your team is having a trust issue.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d love to hear what are some of the most impactful practices or activities, things to do when you find yourself in those shoes?

Kristine Lilly
With our sports team, one of the biggest changes in our team was when we hired a skills coach. We had Dr. Colleen Hacker join our team and she changed our group in a sense where we found everything we needed within each other, but it was really finding that path to connect with everybody and accept everyone for who they are and know that everyone had a role. I think that really was a change for us.

We would practice different things, whether it was team-building exercises, where we had to do to the typical fall back and your teammates got to catch you. Every time you do that, you’re still wondering are they going to catch you. But you build that trust and you see that. That was a big change in our team and bringing out the trust of the group and really helping us connect.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting. Kristine, you’re saying that you did on numerous occasion these trust fall exercises and that was genuinely helpful?

Kristine Lilly
It was. It totally was because you still wonder if someone’s going to catch you. You’ve got to trust in that. They were there always. Sometimes a little laughter or maybe they caught you a little late, but they still caught you.

There were different exercises that helped build that or different ways that someone could step up and lead in different activities we did that maybe they were quieter on the field, but then you came to this tactical game and they started to step it up so that gave them the confidence to be like, “Oh, I do have a voice and people will listen.”

John Gillis
Pete, I think it’s really critical here that Kristine gave a great example. Finding the right team building activities for your audience, not – a trust fall might be perfect for your audience or it might not be the right activity.

In the book we talk about business simulations and we talked about coaching. We walk through several activities that you can do for team building because you have to find the right one for your audience.

One other story that Kristine shared in the book that I think was critical is that different activities are going to allow different players or different team members an opportunity to shine. You’re giving different platforms for people to step up and take leadership roles.

Kristine had talked about specific activities where a team member that might have been quiet in one activity was able to shine in another. It really allows that trust building to come through different environments and scenarios.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Okay. We talked a little bit about some of the problems and interventions. I’d also like to get your take when it comes to the thing that makes the biggest difference in terms of boy, with this you see a whole lot of power in terms of teamwork and performance getting enhanced. I’d be curious to get each of your takes on is there one of the tactics that is perhaps the most impactful.

Kristine Lilly
I think when you look at building a team and becoming a powerhouse, I think if you don’t have all these, you’re not going to be as strong. But I do think if I look at one area that really helped us, I would say this is from ’91 to ’99 when we won two World Cups and then the first gold medal in the Olympics and then came in third in one game, our leadership was unbelievable.

When I look at a component of a team is you have to have good leadership from your top coaches down to the bottom. That’s really important to have that going for you. Carla Overbeck was one of our captains and the leadership that she provided along with Julie Foudy was incredible.

The one thing in the book that she has a quote in the book, she says, “Our whole team was based on servant leadership.” What I love about that is Carla was the first one – she was our captain and everyone respected her – she would be the first one to pick up the balls or pick up the cones or do the hard work when, in highlight, when you look at anything that some of those players would just walk by it.

We genuinely cared about each other and genuinely wanted to make each other better, so we served each other to help that happen. I think leadership role from top all the way down was just so important in that timeframe.

Pete Mockaitis
So you mentioned the servant leadership piece and going ahead and doing some of the grunt work, the not so glamorous stuff, picking up the cones and balls and such, could you share what are a couple of other things that come to mind that make that leadership incredible?

Kristine Lilly
Well, I think when I stepped on the field with these women, we all were similar mentality, had the same goal set. We wanted to be the best in the world. But obviously there were times when you weren’t at your top and you’re struggling or technically you’re not on and your head goes down.

The greatest example I can share with you about Carla and how well she led us and how balanced she was with how she spoke to us, was if your head was down, she wasn’t like yelling at you, “Let’s go.” She’s be like, “Kristine Lilly, we need you.” Immediately you’re like, “All right. They need me. Even if I’m crappy right now, they need me.”

Then on the other side is when you’re doing well and you’re tearing it up, Carla would be the first one like, “Lil, that’s the way to go.” You have a leader that knew how to help each individual player out there and get the best out of them at the highest moment and at the lowest moment. I think that’s why Carla was so amazing in that sense.

Julie Foudy was our other captain and she balanced that out with humor and passion. You have two people leading us in different ways, but getting the best out of us at the same time.

Pete Mockaitis
Can you give us some examples of the humor and passion that really made an impact for you in the leadership realm?

Kristine Lilly
Yeah. Well, Jules was our vocal leader. She always wanted the ball, so she was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” and half the time she had two players – three players on her, like, “Jules, I’m not giving you the ball.” That would make you laugh a lot.

But there was one play in the World Cup, in the ’99 World Cup when we won, where I headed the ball off to …, which we talk about in the book. After the play happens, I’m running out of our penalty box, we just cleared it, I’m running next to Jules and we look at each other and she’s like laughing and we’re both thinking in our heads “Did that really just happen?” We were just laughing at that moment.

I’m like, holy cow, we’re in the World Cup final. Overtime. We almost lost the game and we find a moment where we can laugh. That’s what was so great with Jules is the humor was always there to remind us this isn’t life or death. This is a soccer game. You’ve got to enjoy it.

Pete Mockaitis
I really like that notion of if you’re feeling lame and underperforming, to hear your name and we need you as opposed to any number of other things you can yell out, like, “Come on. Get it together. What’s wrong with you?”

Kristine Lilly
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Dozens to choose from, but I cannot think of something that would be more kind of uplifting in terms of getting a quick refocus then hearing your name and we need you.

Kristine Lilly
Yeah, it was pretty powerful to be honest with you.

Pete Mockaitis
I dig that.

John Gillis
Pete, I know that you come from the business world like I do and how many times has someone come up beside you in the business world and said, “Hey, Pete, we need you.” It just doesn’t happen as much. Even though I can point to the times in my career where it has because they’re few and far between, but they mean so much to me when someone comes on and picks me up in the corporate setting.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly and you feel valued in that midst. I think it’s …, rather than saying that, we’re just kind of ticked off that someone’s not doing what they’re supposed to do. Instead of thinking, “Oh, we need you,” it’s “Well, hey, who else can I shift this too who’s not going to let me down and make me angry?”

John Gillis
Exactly. That memory of teamwork where you have the social … that really impacted you.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d love it, so as you teach this stuff and you’re sharing the good word and helping the teams to perform all the better, what are some particular mistakes, some things that people struggle with when they’re trying to put it into practice?

Kristine Lilly
Well, I think if you look at sports teams, business is they talk about it and talk about it and they tend not to put it into action. If there’s a way that you’re supposed to handle conflict and your leadership kind of just brushes it under the rug and talks about “Oh, everything’s transparent,” and then brush it under the rug, you lose respect and you lose trust immediately.

I think being consistent with what your ideas are, your values are, what your per se rules are, and staying true to them. I think that’s any kind of team, a business, any organization, your family as well, letting know what all the rules of the house are or guidelines that we all go through.

But I think really putting everything into practice is really where I think people falter. On the sports field definitely I feel that. We just don’t execute each thing we have set out to do, but I think in the business world that can be one of the parts that people can struggle with. They do a lot of talk, but they don’t put in to action.

John Gillis
I think, Pete, one of the reasons that it’s not going into action is that most people if you talk to them, they’ll say, “Hey, I’m a good team member. It’s that other person that’s not a good team member.” We don’t realize our own blind spot. We’re not self-aware or we’re not team aware.

I think it really requires that trust and that openness and communication to say, “Hey, I need to acknowledge where I’m a strong team member and I need to acknowledge where I’m not so that I can work on that,” because no one on the team thinks that they are not an effective team member.

They might think that they are, but it’s being team aware of how you fit in to the team and how you can better impact the team in a positive way and then acknowledge and work on the areas where you might be pulling the team down.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent, thank you. Tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

John Gillis
One last thing that I would just highlight here is that Kristine mentioned that her number was 13 and there’s 13 chapters. She talked about the four pillars, transform empower, achieve and motivate. When we were structuring the book, it’s not that there’s one that’s more important than the other. All 13 really are critical.

You have the four pillars, and of course, the foundation that she talked about earlier, doing what is right. That’s a foundation for the other 12 chapters. Each one is critical and you can’t really ignore one and highlight the other because then you’re going to have a gap on your team.

Kristine Lilly
I think what I add to the process of writing this book with John when we were figuring out what all the chapters and who to talk to and obviously I was thinking of my teammates and once we figured out where we wanted to go with the people, once I started to reach out to them, they all were like, “Sure, when do you need me?”

It just reiterated why this book is so important because immediately I asked all these women that are super busy in their lives and they immediately were making time to do the interview to share their insight on the success of the US Women’s National team and just made it more prevalent how great that team was and how great the team continues to be because they do for others. I thought that was pretty cool.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Thank you. Well, now could you share with me a favorite quote? If one of you has one and the other one doesn’t, that’s totally fine for each of these fast faves. But yeah, what is something you find inspiring?

Kristine Lilly
A favorite quote of mine just in general?

Pete Mockaitis
Yup.

Kristine Lilly
I think one of the quotes that I always resort back to is an Emerson quote, “What lies before us and what lies after us are small compared to what lies within us.” I think when I look at my career and being part of the team, there’s always so much more you can give from yourself. If you look at the sports world, you spend your time like, “Oh, I can’t run anymore. I can’t do it,” but you can.

There’s always something more we can give to others and to our self to be better. That quote always resonates with me in life when I choose to do something and I’m feeling real rundown or a bit tired, I’m like, “No, I can do more.” That’s always for the bigger picture. It’s for others. It’s for your team. It’s for you to be better.

John Gillis
I love Kristine’s deep quote. I was just going to highlight that at the beginning of each chapter we pick a quote from one of those players that Kristine just mentioned and put it at the beginning of the chapter. But the introduction, the quote that we lead off with is “Wearing the same jersey does not make a team.”

I think so many times in the business world we say “Hey, this group of people, they’re a team because they all work for Company X,” or “They’re all in Department X,” or whatever reason we say, “You’re a team,” but yet, quite frankly, they have the same name across their jersey, the department or the company, but yet they don’t operate as a team.

Even though we put the team moniker on lots of groups of individuals, it’s really a team in name only. They’re not collaborating. They’re not building trust. They’re not having open communication. They don’t have clear goals and responsibilities.

We really need to – the word ‘team,’ that moniker, is thrown around quote a bit, when actually groups of individuals aren’t working together effectively as a team. I love that quote, “Wearing the same jersey does not make a team.”

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. How about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

John Gillis
Kristine, are you letting me take this one?

Kristine Lilly
No, I’m letting you take this one, John. You just busted on my sweet quote, my deep thoughts with Kristine Lilly here.

John Gillis
I love the deep thoughts of Kristine Lilly.

Kristine Lilly
I’m just kidding. I’m just kidding.

John Gillis
Pete, one of the great things here is the team that wrote this book, so you have Kristine at the beginning of her chapter sharing these wonderful soccer stories and you have Dr. Lynette Gillis that did a lot of academic research that plays into the book so that it’s evidence based. Then I provided the management consulting experience with numerous companies across all sorts of different industries.

The research is really throughout, but the one that I’m going to highlight for you on that question because we did every chapter there’s research, but yet the one I think that people might not think about as much is the network centrality and really saying that when you look at your team, you need to figure out where the center point is.

For a lot of teams that might be the leader. Kristine talked earlier about Julie Foudy and Carla, but on some teams it’s not necessarily the person at the top. That central part of a team could be the person where people go to for information, for guidance, for direction, for know-how, for knowledge, for historical comparisons, that they are the central part that the team members go to in order to get work done effectively.

Understanding who has influence on a team, especially if it’s not the formal leader, but yet that informal leader, I think that’s a critical aha moment that the research provided in this book to say when you look at your team, don’t just look at the leaders, but look at the informal leaders, those that are central that have influence among your team members.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Thank you. How about a favorite book?

John Gillis
Well, I can tell you, when we were writing this, there’s several authors that came to mind that we really admire and wanted to model after. Those, Sheryl Sandberg, with her book Lean in and Option B and of course her co-author there, Adam Grant that also wrote Give and Take. You look at Malcolm Gladwell and his evidence-based approach to look in at psychology and workplace culture.

A lot of those writers and authors are the ones that we really looked at it and tried to model some of this writing after. Obviously, that’s a high standard but we wanted to give that evidence … based approach similar to Jim Collins in Good to Great and give people a book that they could go to their business teams and their organizational teams and say, “Wow, this is not only entertaining, but I learned a lot and can apply to my business.

All those authors I just mentioned I feel like when I read their books, that’s what I felt. That hey, it was entertaining and I know that I can go and apply this immediately. I can pick up the book at the airport, read it on the airplane and when I get to the worksite, I can immediately apply it because it was not only entertaining, it was immediately practical and applicable. Kristine.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, how about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Kristine Lilly
Favorite tool, awesome at my job. I don’t know. I think for me – obviously my career playing my tools were my feet. They keep me going on the field. I think now we have a company with Mia Hamm and Tish Venturini called TeamFirst Soccer Academy. We travel around the country teaching kids about the game, but also about the passion and love that we shared for it and how to be a good teammate and obviously, how to work together as a team.

I think for me, my tool is just communication for me within my co-founders, also friends and then the staff we bring along with us to be able to communicate with them to get the best of them for the day on the field with the kids or whatever it may be and to make sure there’s fun involved because the reason why we played sports or play sports is because it is fun.

When you get into the world where now you’re trying to make money and run a business, I think there still needs an element of enjoying what you do. I think if I look back at my coaches that I had in the National team from Anson Dorrance, one of the first coaches of the US team and then Tony DiCicco took after him. He passed away almost a few years ago now.

He used to come to the field – Tony would come out to the field and he used to stand in the middle of the field, put his hands up in the air and he would just say, “I love my job.” We’d be like, “Yeah, yeah, Tony. We know. We know you love your job.” But it kind of – it stayed with me and a lot of the players that one thing we remember about Tony was him saying that.

But the fact was he really did love his job and we could tell he loved his job because how he taught us, how he communicated with us, how he was passionate about everything from the field stuff to caring about us. I think that’s a pretty powerful thing when you love something and if you can be passionate and spread that love and be contagious, that’s a great tool to have in your pocket.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite habit?

Kristine Lilly
John, do you got any favorite habits? I had a whole routine for my game.

John Gillis
Kristine’s habits are fantastic.

I think the habit is knowing where your strengths are and where someone else’s strengths are so that you can leverage your strengths for effective teamwork. In this case, I was more the cheerleader for the girls and the email guy to organize the parents, knowing that Kristine and her coaching would give them all the soccer tactics that any five-, six-, seven-year-old girl would need to know at that level.

The habit for me for effective teamwork is knowing your strengths and capitalizing those, but also recognizing where your team member has more strengths than you so that effectively the team as a whole is stronger.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular nugget that you share in the book that really seems to connect and resonate with audiences and you hear it quoted back to you frequently?

Kristine Lilly
Well, I don’t know if there’s just one nugget. I think for myself when I worked on this with John and read it over again, I think obviously the one thing that comes over and over in our minds is the word ‘team.’ I know that’s what it’s about, but even with our four pillars – transform, empower, achieve, and motivate – are all from the word team.

What I’ve learned throughout my career and pretty much in life and everything, you can’t do anything alone. You need people. People need people, but people also want people. People want to be a part of a team. They want to be a part of a group and feel like they’re valued.

I think the team concept is so powerful that individually, you just can’t necessarily do all that you want sometimes. I think the team is great. I would say the word ‘team’ is pretty much used a lot in this book and one that resonates with everybody and really resonates with me because I was part of such a wonderful team.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome.
Oh great. Thank you. If folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Kristine Lilly
For me, you can go to KristineLilly13.com to reach out to me. Also, go to Amazon to preorder the book, which will come out May 7th, but is available to preorder now. John can share his contact info.

John Gillis
JohnGillisJr.com. Kristine’s speaking, we have training workshops and just thrilled for everyone to join this Powerhouse training with us.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Kristine Lilly
Well, I think first off, recognizing what your part of your organization and what you’re trying to accomplish as a team is the first step. I think once you have that and you can embrace your teammates and find the strength within each other and the familiarities and the common mindset, then you can do great things.

I think back to why the teams were successful when we did win championships. It was a group of women coming together that were likeminded, strong, competitive, feisty, wanted to tear people apart on their way to success, but, in the same sense, doing it together, working your role and figuring out what you need to do to help the whole unit be successful.

When that happens, you’re in the zone. It goes back to the sport’s thing going, people in the zone, they don’t hear anything, they’re confident, and they’re going to make whatever shot they’re going to do right now happen.

John Gillis
I would say from my charge, we can all reflect back on our careers and know the successful teams that we were on and then the groups of individuals that were teams in name only.

Yet, when we were naming this book, we didn’t have Powerhouse when we started writing the book, but then someone said, “You need to name this book Powerhouse because the definition is a team having great energy, strength and potential for success.”

When you look back and say in your career where was the powerhouse that I was on, the team with energy, strength, and potential for success, and what can I do in today’s team to help us be a powerhouse.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Kristine, John, this has been a lot of fun. Thanks so much for sharing the good word. I wish you much luck with your coaching and teaching and book and all the fun you’re up to.

Kristine Lilly
Thank you, Pete, for having us. We appreciate it.

John Gillis
We really do. Thanks for it. It’s awesome.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool, well that is the recording. Good deal, thanks a lot.

Kristine Lilly
Thank you so much. That was great. We appreciate it.

429: A Navy SEAL’s Surprising Key to Building Unstoppable Teams: Caring

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Alden Mills says: "Don't settle for average. Keep pushing yourself out of the comfort zone."

Former NAVY SEAL platoon commander and current entrepreneur Alden Mills walks through his CARE framework for teambuilding.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Four key steps to leading with CARE instead of fear
  2. The distinction between caring and comforting
  3. The high stakes associated with caring

About Alden

Alden Mills is a three-time Navy SEAL platoon commander and was the CEO of Perfect Fitness. He is also a longtime entrepreneur, with over 40 patents and over 25 years of experience working on high-performance leadership, sales, and team-building.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Alden Mills Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Alden, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Alden Mills
It’s awesome to be here. Thank you, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s awesome to have you. I’m so excited to dig into the goods. Maybe why don’t we start with some action to hook this conversation into some entry. Could you open us up by sharing a daring story from your days in the Navy SEALS?

Alden Mills
Well, when I think about daring stories, I have to tell you, probably the single most daring story I had was actually when I first started SEAL training to begin with because I really wasn’t sure if I could make it through that. I remember this man coming up to us who had his left butt cheek blown off by a rocket propelled grenade in Vietnam.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh man.

Alden Mills
He walked with this limp. He had this deep Southern accent. We had about 122 candidates. I was as nervous as I had ever been because here I am; I’m about to start training, but he’s going to make us do this physical test. The same physical test we had done multiple times.
He gathers us up and he speaks to us and he says, “Class 181, gather around here. I want to let you in on a little secret.” We’re all like, “Oh, secret. We like secrets.” “Y’all interested to know how to make it through Navy SEAL training?” We were like kids to a campfire. We were all bobbing our heads up and down.
He goes, “It ain’t complicated. You just have to decide how much you’re willing to pay. You see, I know for a fact 80% of you aren’t going to be willing to pay the price. You know why? Because you all want to be SEALs on sunny days.” He goes on for a while, but what he’s really talking about was talking about creating this conversation in our head, in our heart.
I remember all of us standing around and it was kind of the first time that somebody had really talked to us about saying, “Hey, are you willing to die for your country. Are you really going to do this or are you just going to be that SEAL on a sunny day?” Within six weeks, we went from 122 down to 18. That was the beginning of a transformation of a whole series of evolutions of SEAL training.
I thought when you just asked me that I’d start with that. There are mission that I’ve been on that are still classified that I won’t talk about, but some of the things that were most exciting to me were those personal challenges like that day when he started bringing us all around together and telling about this conversation he was going to create between our head and our heart and how we had to learn to deal with what it was we were willing to sacrifice to make it through.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. Yeah, that’s a powerful perspective that can apply to many circumstances. You’ve put together in your book, Unstoppable Teams , a number of pieces that sort of speak to some parallels between how Navy SEAL teams can really have some real similarities to high-performing civilian teams.
Could you draw that parallel for us or build that bridge, lots of metaphors here, if folks are saying, “You know what? What I do is nothing like what a Navy SEAL team does,” can you set us straight, Alden?

Alden Mills
You know how many times I’ve heard that. People will say, “There’s nothing similar between you and me. You’re a Navy SEAL. You’re a freak of nature.” Okay, maybe there’s a little bit of a freak that you want to go through that kind of training, but the same things that they do for us in SEAL team, they’re just more condensed, are exactly the same rules that apply as a civilian, which, by the way, I’ve had much harder times leading civilians then I’ve ever had leading SEALS.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh intriguing. Could you say more about that, please?

Alden Mills
I can. In part because in SEAL team they have this place called X Division. X Division is a place where they remove the negative attitudes, the quitters. They don’t let any of that get involved with the people that are in the arena.
As a civilian, after I left SEAL team, you’re surrounded by people who are in X Division. You have to make your own X Division. You have to decide who you want to listen to and what voice you want to focus on. You can’t just willy-nilly go out there and fire anybody you want. It takes a long time to remove somebody off of a team. Most of us, we inherit people when we go from one team to the next.
Sometimes the X Divisions that you have to create, both, by the way, I call them – there’s two kinds of teams. There’s the internal ones, inside of you and the external ones, all the different relationships you build. Sometimes those people are close to you that you have to put in your own personal X division, like family or friends who are telling you, “Oh, how do you know you can do that? You can’t do that.”
A lot of people who tell you you can’t do something, it’s because they haven’t done it themselves. It scares them. They don’t want you to go out there and be different. Misery loves company. That became probably my biggest challenge when I transitioned out of SEAL team into being a civilian and leading civilians.
I’ve led civilians in all different capacities, from community organizations to charities to … startups. I think that’s a really important element to share with people is to understand that it’s up to you to decide what are the things you want to focus on from the people that are telling you what you can and can’t do because at the end of the day, it’s up to you to set those limits and that focus.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. That’s good. The X Division is sort of like x out of considerations, like we’re just not going to let that into the thinking or consideration at all.

Alden Mills
That is correct.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Alden Mills
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
Done. Cool. Well, tell us then. You’ve got a lot of good stuff in your book, Unstoppable Teams . Could you share what would you say is sort of the key thesis or big idea or main message here?
Alden Mills
The biggest thesis out of all of this is using the most fundamental human emotion to connect, inspire and empower people to do something that moves them from a point of natural selfishness to selflessness . That human emotion is care. It’s not fear. You don’t want to lead by fear. What you want to lead by is with care, what I call care-based leading .

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. You say care is the emotion, so we’re going to unpack that into you’ve got a bit of a framework here. But let’s talk a little bit about the emotion itself and how that does lead folks out of selfishness to selflessness.

Alden Mills
Take a look at some of the most recent research that’s come out. There’s a wonderful piece of research that’s come out through psychologists down in UCLA who I quoted her in my book. What she’s talking about and discovered is all humans have a natural capacity for care reciprocity. Unless you’re a psychopath, okay, the amygdala isn’t firing and we just don’t accept any emotion there. But for the 99.9% of us out there, we respond to care.
In its most basic form, I hold the door for you, you turn around and you turn around and you hold the
door for somebody else. That’s usually pretty instinctually a reciprocal event. The same type of reciprocity occurs as you go further and deeper into caring for somebody. “Hey, how are you doing today, Pete? What happened last night? I heard about your mom. Is she okay?” Going and taking a step and initiating care.
All of the sudden, Pete feels like, “Wow, somebody did something kind of selfless. They weren’t worried about themselves. They were worried about me and my mom. They showed an element of curiosity and care about me,” that may have nothing to do with work, but it does have to do with the whole picture of who Pete is.
You go even further from that and say now I’m a first line, second line leader, manager, whatever you are in your organization and you’re saying, “Hey, I know what you are today, but I also know that you want to be here in a year. I’m going to help you get there.” Again, it’s not directly related to trying to help you get a better return on investment. It’s trying to help somebody go to another level.
When that starts to happen, people will start to say, “Hey, wait a second. These people are actually more interested in me and I’m going to reciprocate by doing even better work. That’s at the highest level what I’m talking about.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, yeah. That’s great. Then you sort of go into some depth there when it comes to caring – it’s a bit of an acronym – to connect, achieve, respect and empower. Can you give us a little bit of a detailed taste for what you mean by each of these four verbs?

Alden Mills
Again, so when we talk about these highest levels of how do you get people to reciprocate with care, and, by the way, care is also a function of oxytocin. There’s a blocker to oxytocin called cortisol. These have all been scientifically measured. The first thing that’s got to happen is to create a level of trust, which is what I call connect.
Being a military guy, I’ve created a simple acronym of these flywheel or loop, what I call the care loop of connect, achieve, respect, empower. When it comes to connect, how you connect and what’s the point of connecting. The point of connecting is creating and building trust with somebody. How do you do that? Well, you do that one, through communication.
Communication actually is involved with mental, physical and emotional communication. 55% of communication is broken down into your body language, 38% is through tone, 7% is through the actual words. The next piece of that is your credibility. Do you do what you say you’re going to do? How accountable are you? What level of proficiency do you have at something?
The third part of connect is committing, making that commitment. Are you all in? Are you all in for just some people or are you all in for everybody? When you start doing that on a consistent basis, you start building up a level of trust that then sets in motion the next step because if you’re on any kind of a team, teams are designed to accomplish something. You move to achieve.
When it comes to achieving, the whole point of why you build a team in the first place is to go achieve
something. Achieving really is setting direction for that team. What’s the purpose, where are we going and how are we going to get there?
I break achieving down into a series of what I call the five A’s of achieve. The first one is starting with aspire. Aspiring means when you’re going after something – when I’m talking about teams – and, Pete, a lot of people get teams and groups – they use teams so often that they mistake most things for groups because teams are a much rarer form of what a group is.
A group is really a combination of people coming together that maybe connected or directed to do something, but teams, they move at a higher level and are much more focused on doing something greater than themselves. Usually, the teams are coming together to do something that no single individual could do.
When it comes to inspiring, you need to have a level of trust already built for them to say, “Are you kidding me? How are we going to get to the moon in less than a decade?” Some of these great challenges. Then once you start the aspiring, this is a natural tendency for people. I call it the second A, which is assume. You have to let people go and experience and try and take their own path to getting something done.
A lot of leaders will make the mistake that, “Okay, I’ve inspired them. Now I need to tell them exactly what to do.” What happens there? You just take away the fire in their belly of saying, “Hm, how can I figure out the best way to do this my way.” You remove that creativity from them and you micromanage them.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Alden Mills
That can kill the team dynamic early on. Then from when you get to assuming, you can relax a bit because don’t worry I’m not telling you assume they’re going to get it done and see them in two months. You create assessments. You create assessments for the team. We always had assessments at SEAL team, checking in on how we were doing for the next – how was our progress as a team.
It wasn’t so much – excuse me – it wasn’t so …. the weakest link, as it was how is the team doing together, how are we processing.
Once you pass through assess, the next piece is like, “Oh my gosh, there are times when we’re not progressing.” A leader has to step into assure, to assure them that, “Listen, we’re going to take a couple of steps back before we go forward. Just look at the core ways we’ve learned not to do something.”
Then the final one is having an appreciation, having an appreciation for the whole person, not just for the eight hours or the ten hours in which you see that person . Have you spent the time to appreciate what struggles they have outside of work, things that you may or may not be aware of or things that you can help them with?
But when you start adding those pieces to the puzzle of building out a team, that’s where care starts to
build on the flywheel that takes you to the third component, which is building out an environment of respect. A lot of people today are like, “Well, we’ve got to have respect because it’s just the right thing to do.”
But what’s the real reason to create mutual respect? The real reason is to get people to willingly contribute. That’s what you want respect for, respect for different cultures, respect for diversity of thought. That’s what it’s about is getting these different points of view to give you different ways in which you can slay the obstacle and grab the opportunity.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I like that.

Alden Mills
Respect is what I call – go ahead.

Pete Mockaitis
The respect is not just like “You should respect,” be like well, no, it fundamentally is what leads to folks willingly contributing and if you don’t then they won’t and you need it and you’re missing out.

Alden Mills
Yeah, you’re going to be suboptimal. Some of the most enjoyable moments I’ve had in companies is when we brought together what – some people may say, “People around this table look like the Island of Misfit Toys from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer . Oh, they all look totally different.” I’m like, “That’s perfect. That’s exactly what I want,” because I know that I stand a better chance at getting all kinds of diverse opinions.
What you’re really after is diversity of thought, not diversity of heart. I want everybody’s heart in alignment, but I definitely want to create that diversity of thought. The only way that’s going to occur is on that third piece of the flywheel of the CARE loop with respect and what I call realize, recognize, and require. Realize and respect can come from two places: authority or your actions.
If people think that “Well, just because I’m the senior person here, I get more respect,” that is a very short-minded approach because it’s not going to last very long. Authority and respect in a SEAL team would last for about ten seconds. Maybe in the civilian world it might last for a couple of paychecks, but over time what wins the day are your actions.
That brings you to recognize how do you recognize the actions of others. Do you take the extra time to figure out, “Hey, Sally over here is a math genius. She’s phenomenal at pivot tables.” You may have said, “What’s pivot tables got to do with launching the perfect pushup?”
Well, it solved all of the big issues that were actually our biggest Achilles heel, which had to deal with supply chain management and shipping millions of units. If it weren’t for Sally and her pivot table super powers, we’d be in the hurt locker.
When you can start to recognize how a super power of each individual comes together to build up the team, then you’re starting to create an unstoppable team, where everybody starts realizing “Hey, this
person is really caring about me and what I can bring to the table, therefore, I’m going to start reciprocating and do the same.”
That final R, by the way, is you have to require it. If you find time and time again that somebody is just totally disrespectful and they’re not into it and your efforts have not been sustainable to help them switch, then it’s time for that person to move on because that will just kill the environment for contribution.
That brings you to the final piece of the care loop and it closes it, called empower. Empowering is about building owners. I talk about doing that through educate, enable and engage. By educating people, you’re helping them be better, not just for their job at hand, but also helping them grow in the direction that they are seeking to do for the long term.
Enabling is helping them to succeed. And engaging is the active process of testing their education, challenging them, improving them, and helping the entire team grow.
When that all happens, the loop closes and people go, “Hey, I’m going to share this care loop with the next team that I …,” because teams all disband, people move on. That’s the great thing about if you approach things with a care-based philosophy, I guarantee you, it will come back in spades in the positive realm for you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah. That’s handy. Your articulation of it in terms of care as a macro acronym and then all the C’s, and A’s, and R’s, and E’s underneath, so it’s easier to remember there. I suppose that makes good sense to me.
Now could you tell me in what ways do you get resistance from this because I’m hearing this as like, “Yeah, that would make sense. We should do all those things. I am right with you, Alden.” Where do you find people say, “Alden, you’re off base. I disagree here,” sort of where is there some contention?

Alden Mills
Well, let’s see. What’s the first big disagreement I’d get? “Wait, you’re a Navy SEAL talking about caring. Are you kidding me? Navy SEALS only care about killing, right? How can you go around talking about caring?”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I was going to ask, I wouldn’t put it that far, but if you look at the footage of-

Alden Mills
But that’s how some people would approach it.

Pete Mockaitis
The training. Yeah. The training doesn’t look like it’s caring with all the screaming and the discomfort. But what’s your take on that?

Alden Mills
Well, so the first thing is when people hear care, they hear oh, soft and cuddly. No, that’s not the care I’m talking about. I am talking about the care to be the best version of yourself, the care of you being able to go beyond what you originally thought possible. I’m not talking about caring and keeping you in the comfort zone. I actually want you out of the comfort zone .
The people that are the instructors at SEAL team, they are only there for a short period of time. They’re going to go back to a platoon. I could very well – and it happened to me. Some of those instructors became the people that I ended up leading. They give an unbelievable amount of care to ensuring that there’s a certain quality of individual that they’re looking to work with because their lives could very well rest in the hands of that person that they’re training.
The care that I refer to is the more you care, the more those people will dare. Ironically, to do that, it’s going to require you to dare first. Leaders are going to have to take that first step. How leaders deal with that first step is a critical first path.
I brought up cortisol and oxytocin earlier. Some people will say, “No, no, leadership is just like the movie Patton . You’ve got to get out in front and bark orders at them and do those kind of things.” Maybe there’s some organization that needs that, but I’ve never found that to be the most powerful.
There are times where you have to get up and give somebody an inspiring speech or assure them that we’re on the right path, but the large majority of the time, the work’s happening one-on-one or one in a small group and you’re getting people to stay focused on the objective at hand. The most important way to first do that, why people will even listen to you is because they know that you care about them.
A lot of people will make the mistake of going out and barking an order, saying, “God, you sucked at that. Why did you fail so badly?” The moment that happens, and this has been proven, cortisol gets fired off. Cortisol is a hormone for fight or flight or what I would call freeze, reaction. You are not in a creative space once cortisol is fired off. Cortisol is three times more powerful than oxytocin.
Oxytocin, you can argue, is the care hormone. When that gets fired off, it’s the ability to allow you to be more creative. If someone were to come to you and say, “Gee, we just failed.” “Oh great. How did we fail? Do we know what it was? And can we figure out a better way to do it?” versus “You did what? You failed.” Those two different approaches will send people down completely different paths.
That’s one of the first conversations I’ll get into with people about, “Oh, you’ve got to be tough. You’ve got to set this tough standard.” The tough standard is the goal that you’re going after, but you only ever have to be as tough as a situation dictates .

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Thank you. I’m curious, with all of these verbs here, I’d love to get your take on which of them do you think has the biggest impact in terms of, “You know, Pete, this only takes a minute or two to do and yet it has such a lasting impact on folks really stepping up and growing.” What would you say is the key thing or two or three things that have an outsized impact?

Alden Mills
One of the first ones that I do anytime I get into a team is a I try and get one-on-ones with all my direct
reports for sure, but even the people that aren’t my direct reports and understanding, “Hey, what’s your goal? Why are you here? What’s important to you?” If I have more time, like I was on SEAL team, I’d ask people to give me one-, three- and five-year goals.
They’re like, “Well, I don’t know what they are?” I’m like, “Okay, well, give me a personal and professional and physical one or give me a financial one. Tell me what’s motivating you. Why are you getting up in the morning? Why are you coming here?” It totally disarms them because they think I’m going to be talking about “Gee, tell me about our ROI for this quarter. How come you’re not hitting your numbers?” I will take a roundabout approach to doing that.
But if you find and you stay curious about the whole person and not just what their performance is at this moment, it instinctively gives you some other things that you can always come back and connect to that person.
When I interview somebody, as an example, the first thing that I’ll have them do is say, “Hey, tell me your story.” “Mr. Mills, what do you mean by that?” “Give me your story. Where did you come from? What do you like? What did you study in school? What’s your favorite book? What’s your favorite movie? Tell me some things about yourself.” Trying to get multi-dimensional on the person instead of just, “Oh, what’s their output today?” Taking that interest in everybody.
Business would be really easy, Pete, if we didn’t have humans. Team leading and team output and being a leader is being a relationship builder. The better you can become at building relationships with multiple different types of people, the more you will be able to succeed because you will get more differences of opinion and different points of view that can give you different ways to solve problems and make great things happen.

Pete Mockaitis
I dig it. I really liked how you shared some particular verbiage that you use in terms of key specific questions that you were asking folks and things that you’re saying. Are there any other favorite phrases that you find really come in handy and you use often as you’re doing this caring stuff?

Alden Mills
Well, the first thing and one of my all-time favorite quotations that I use all the time is from good old Teddy Roosevelt. I think it applies as much today as it did back in whenever he said it. I think it was 1912 or so. “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” Sometimes it can be really hard to flip the switch from caring about what you need to caring about what’s going on with them. The more you can remember that if you lead with care, they will dare.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear some of your favorite things?

Alden Mills
Some of my personal favorite things?

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Is there anything else you want to say before we shift gears to the fast favorite’s portion?

Alden Mills
I just really want to impress upon people that this care is not to be taken lightly.
This isn’t just, “Okay, I’m only going to care about the people directly in me.” It becomes a mindset of how you handle relationships across the board. As that happens, you’ll find a force multiplying effect that will go into action because everybody else wants to help you succeed because you’re trying to help them succeed.

Pete Mockaitis
I dig that. Well, now, you mentioned a favorite quote, could you now share a favorite study, piece of research or experiment you found compelling?

Alden Mills
Well, I’m a huge believer in physical fitness, as you might surmise. There is a book out there called Spark . Spark has to do with essentially the link to physical activity and mental performance. I often find that a lot of people who have a bad attitude, have poor performance, they’re all things within their control. Usually, and this is what I started my first company on, it was the attitude of take control of your body, take control of your life.
Large majority of the time, as an example, depression can be solved – 80% of common depression can be solved with 30 minutes of consistent high aerobic activity.
There are so many different things that are within our control that we seem to forget and we allow outside influences – say, “Oh, it’s the environment,” “Oh, my life is miserable,” but they don’t realize that the few things that they can control of how they think, how they feel and how they act can totally change their direction in life and change the people that are with them.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. All right, I’ve got that book. I also ask about a favorite book. Would that be it or is there another key one you’d recommend?

Alden Mills
I’ve got lots of favorite books. Let’s see, besides Spark , which I ended up going back to all the time, I like Endure . I like Culture Code . I like Boys in the Boat . I’m a former rower. I real also enjoy a great story. By the way, I use story a lot to connect with people. People will find story very powerful as a way to connect, so I love reading about biographies. I’m reading about Leonardo da Vinci right now.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Alden Mills
I would give my favorite tool, you’re going to laugh about this, as I love my Peloton.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you.

Alden Mills
I use a Peloton to – I follow a couple of different trainers and I so enjoy getting on that for a 30-minute of just flushing my brain and allowing myself to just focus inwardly before going outwardly.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have any other favorite habits?

Alden Mills
I do a mindful walk. I like watching the sunrise. I like going out with no particular agenda, but a 30-minute walk in the morning. Sometimes I refer to it as a prayer walk, but it’s an act of meditation for about 30 minutes.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks and they quote it back to you?

Alden Mills
Yes. Their limits are up to them.

Pete Mockaitis
Alden, if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Alden Mills
They can come to my website, link in with me. My website’s called Alden-Mills.com.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Alden Mills
Don’t ever stop dreaming. Don’t ever settle for average. Keep pushing yourself out of the comfort zone. It’s so easy for us to stay in the comfort zone, especially as we get older. Stay away from those that want you to enjoy the misery that they’re enjoying and keep dreaming.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Well, Alden, this has been a lot of fun. I wish you all the best with your companies and your writing and the book, Unstoppable Teams . Yeah, keep up the great work.

Alden Mills
Thank you very much for the time, Pete. I hope this helps.