Monday, June 11, 2007

X-Teams create a safe environment for candid communication

I've been reading this book, "x-teams: how to build teams that lead, innovate and succeed," by Professors Deborah Ancona of MIT's Sloan School and Henrik Bresman of INSEAD, and, as I read on, its messages begin to seep in and I begin to realize that this is an excellent book that will earn a long-term place on my office bookshelf.

One message concerns candor in teams (see an earlier post on candid communication here). Great teams build a deep level of communication that is unfettered by fear of reprisal, concern about appearing stupid, or worry that one's point or question is too obvious to state. And such candor requires a safe environment for communication.

You may be saying, "Yeah, so what? How rare is that?"

In my experience, exceedingly rare. Most teams are very polite to each other. This reflects their organizations, in many of which politeness is raised to an art form. And those who speak up are viewed as poor team players. Wrap-up of a typical team meeting: "Does anyone have any objections to this approach?" Followed by silence.

"Silence equals assent" is perhaps the most incorrect statement in management. For when the meeting ends, small clusters of people gather and discuss what just happened, how dumb some ideas are, how they'll never work. It's a recipe for failure, repeated again and again.

One team profiled in the book, by contrast, held occasional meetings at the pub. Breaking down barriers that arise at the office, moving to an environment in which candid discourse is routine, allowed the team to get issues out on the table and create a true consensus for their next actions.

The three areas to encourage to build an environment for candid communication, according to Ancona and Bresman:

  • Psychological safety - acknowledging mistakes is routine, "quiet fixing," where an employee patches a problem without informing anyone, unthinkable.
  • Team reflection - the team periodically takes a break, looks back at what they've done, learns, and makes adjustments going forward.
  • Knowing what others know - the team shares enough so that they each create a database of others' knowledge, the better to know who to ask when something new comes up.