It’s not so much the fish, more the water they swim in

What must happen for people to be the best that they can be in the workplace? What motivates to do a great job them? It has always fascinated me that while one team can be doing very well, another team, perhaps at the end of the corridor in the same building, is mediocre at best. What is the difference that is making the difference? In many instances the team members are similar: the same experience, qualifications and, by and large, the same temperaments and outlooks. So, if it is not the people, what is the influencing variable? Very simply, the social and emotional climate in which people work is critical.

In his book Why We Do What We Do, Edward Deci argued, with the benefit of an impressive evidence base, that we are at our best when three key needs are being met: competence, autonomy, relatedness (CAR). People yearn so strongly to feel competent or effective in dealing with their environment that competence could be thought of as a human need. We must be good to survive. Initially good at hunting, now good socially and at work. Without competence at work, we will not survive. When feeling free and volitional in our actions we embrace activity with interest and commitment. We are being authentic. When controlled, we are pressured and act without personal endorsement. We are alienated. People feel the need to relate to others amid being effective and autonomous. This is the need for relatedness: the need to love and be loved, to care and be cared for. Put another way, when these three needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness are being met, we our happy, motivated, and productive.

Some team leaders are, by nature, CAR leaning. Their experiences, beliefs and successes lead them to act and behave, albeit unconsciously, in very effective ways. Indeed, if asked to explain why their teams are effective, they might be hard pushed to explain. And therefore, modelling the practice of successful team leaders and filtering what they do through a CAR lens can be so beneficial for an organisation looking to improve. It is about distilling and sharing their magic.

Granted, less effective team leaders can observe their more successful colleagues. But it is not simply a case of imitating observed behaviours. There needs to be a deeper engagement with successful practice which is to do with beliefs. The successful team believes that she must begin any project with a dialogue aimed at promoting competence: she believes that for team members to be competent, they need to have appropriate skills and resources and that it is her job to make this happen. Questions like, Tell me if there is anything else you need to know or be able to do to complete this job? and Is there something else you need to  learn before starting?  are good ones to ask at the beginning of a project. Similarly, To get a great outcome, tell me what other resources you need? is another good starting point. The effective team leader is always guarding against failure and providing the conditions for demonstrating competence. And the very act of doing this, is a measure of the care she has for her team members and the extent to which she has their psychological well-being at heart.

Less successful team leaders invariably find it challenging to let go and to trust their team members. If there is a pervasive, controlling climate of mistrust, team members will find it difficult to engage or take responsibility for outcomes. Who would when there is an assumption that everything that is done will ultimately be the result of the team leader’s actions? Offering team members, a degree of autonomy within a framework of accountability – usually agreed criteria informed milestones – is another facet of competence. Importantly, the very act of offering team members an autonomous context in which to work deepens relationships because people are being trusted. And having a sense of personal responsibility for a job or project just about guarantees a much greater degree of commitment: team members are no longer working just for the organisation; they are working for themselves and creating opportunities to showcase their worth. There is a lot in it for them.

We have much to learn from fortunate colleagues who have unconsciously assimilated the CAR mindset. However, team leaders who want to emulate their success need not feel despondent. With observation and astute questioning – What decided you to let that person work independently? and How did you decide to do the additional training? – they can tune into the thinking that gets great outcomes. Granted successful team leaders will argue that they do what they do because it is just them – It’s the way I am! But what they do is a learned behaviour (albeit an unconscious one), and anything learned can be learned by others. This aside, though, aspirant excellent team leaders can make an immediate start by looking at how they set up new projects using a CAR framework and asking questions such as:

  • How will I make sure that my team members will be able to prove their competence? What do I need to find out about my team for them to be competent? What do I need to check?
  • How much autonomy can I give to each team member? How might I help team members who are lacking in self-belief? How will I measure progress if I’m not doing the job myself?
  • How will I show on a day-today basis that I care about my team members and their well-being?

The answers to these questions will shape work practices for the better, deepen relationships and create an altogether different, enabling architecture. It is, after all, not so much about the fish, more the water they swim in.

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