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July 18, 2016

Leadership: Rah, Rah! Uh-Oh!

Bruce Murray

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Physically and psychologically, athletes can often exhibit all the signs of the classic "fight or flight" survival mechanism. In this energized state, they are ready to compete with strength, speed and endurance beyond their normal limits.

That may not be news to you, but here's something that might be: a new book by L. Jon Wertheim and Sam Sommers, "This is Your Brain on Sports," reveals that sports fans – whether watching in the arena or in front of a television – exhibit the same high-energy conditions.

This athletic achievement helps explain the widespread use of teams in business. In Agile project management, team meetings are even described as scrums, a term borrowed from rugby. And when people see their colleagues as team-mates with diverse skills, pursuing the same goals, the results can be at a championship level.

There is, however, a dark side when athletic enthusiasm in a team goes beyond healthy levels of competition. When things are not going well, the sports mind can turn delusional, sometimes leading to abhorrent reactions and flawed decision making. Dangle an Olympic medal in front of me and I'll elbow the schmuck next to me out of the way, leap four meters through the air, and grab it... Yeah, sure!

As leaders and managers, our job is to fuel the positive energy of teamwork, and there are many sources of advice about it. This post is about how to deal with the negative energies of teamwork.

Mutual trust in teams is vital for success. In an article for the Harvard Business Review, corporate trainer and leadership expert Joseph Grenny warns against "personalization," - adopting an attitude that it is "my team." He says this results in "competing tribes in which organizational mission is subordinated to team performance and identification with the team." Such tribalism is associated with nepotism, imposed conformity, and self-segregation that can render teams untrustworthy.

Trustworthiness is enhanced when leaders avoid negative or selfish thinking, such as a "use it or lose it" attitude to an organization’s budgets and resources. You should also avoid referring to other people in a derogatory manner. For example, don't use phrases such as "just blame upper management," "engineering did it again,” or "good luck getting approval from the bean counters." And don't insist that your team members check in with you when they communicate with people on other teams.

But do conduct regular discussions where you reinforce how your team's efforts align with the organization's strategic goals. This is an ideal time to dole out public praise to those achieving progress along those lines.

In her 2003 study, "Ethics and Leadership Effectiveness," Joanne B. Ciulla, a professor of leadership and ethics at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, University of Richmond, U.S.A., says, "Leaders who are loyal to, and competent at, attaining group goals gain 'idiosyncrasy credits' that allow them to deviate from the group's norms to suit common goals." In other words, no one objects when good leaders stretch ethical boundaries.

The team keeps an eye on the leader's moral barometer. And when that leader achieves success by breaking the rules, the team will feel secure in doing the same. Think of the follow-the-leader lapses with teams working on Enron's finances, Volkswagen's emissions testing, or 1990s baseball players taking performance-enhancing drugs.

So, when it comes to ethics, what is good leadership? Let us first acknowledge that ethical lines are blurry. Can we agree that ethical bounds can be pushed a little further when our team's rivals are outside our organization? (Remember that we’re talking about rival teams, not customers or regulators.)

Lecturing about ethics is a mistake that will only de-energize the team. Encourage ongoing, open discussion about your ethical concerns. You might say, "I learned that our app has a small security vulnerability that will take two weeks to fix. Should we inform our users?" Or, you might ask, "Is it okay to trash-talk our rivals on social media?"

Lead the discussion to setting appropriate boundaries. You won't cover every what-if, so encourage others to bring their concerns to the team. Professor Ciulla advises that, "A leader's role is to exploit tension and conflict within people's value systems and play the role of raising people's consciousness."

An attuned leader will see when the team is struggling under competitive pressures. When people cross the ethical line, do not delay in intervening but be careful not to add to the drama.

If the transgression is serious or repetitive, and discipline is necessary, stay calm. Just as you made your praise public, make your disciplining, teaching moment as private as possible.

Now, after 20 unsuccessful leaps, that Olympic medal is still dangling up there. But just watch - I'm gonna get it this time!

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