Getting Deeply Personal — Meaningful Relationships in Top Teams

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I’ve worked with quite a few top teams at this point in my career running the gamut from executive teams at start-ups, non-profits, mid-sized professional services companies, or multi-billion-dollar public corporations. My experience has led me to a working thesis about top team dynamics:

The interpersonal dynamics of an executive team are simultaneously a reflection of the relative state of the business and a contributing cause to the state of the business.

It is as if the top team is locked in resonance with the business overall. The operational health of the organization causes stressors and frictions and fosters specific behaviors in the top leadership group. The executive group in turn — specifically its interpersonal dynamics and sub-culture of norms and behavior — sets a tone in the organization that often contributes (positively or negatively) to business processes and operational results.

Wildly successful, runaway growth or profitability can engender commensurate “wild” behaviors even at the top where behavior is often most public. Tell-all’s from a variety of corporate sagas (e.g., Enron, The Big Short) are ample evidence of this but it can happen in less extreme ways too. In high growth or high profitability, people can tend to party and throw extra fuel on the fire. That produces positive energy that can lead to more business success. It can also lead to excess that results in margin erosion, inefficiency, and ethics issues.

Declining businesses or businesses in turnaround mode can lead to different norms — zealous frugality, business “seriousness”, a feeling of grind or a loss of positive emotional energy. Here the balance is between the wonderful creativity that comes with operating inside clear guardrails and constraints and the air getting stale in an emotionally dead organization.

In all these circumstances the culture that emerges usually has both healthy/adaptive and dysfunctional elements and most organizational environments oscillate up and down from a point of balance or equilibrium. Similarly, there is likely no such thing as a perfect executive team when it comes to relationships, teamwork, and team process simply because there is no such thing as a perfect business.

Realizing that this dynamic may be unavoidable to some degree, we can still ask ourselves how best can senior executives and a CEO positively influence the impact of their team’s subculture on the business at large? After all, good leadership and a strong executive team likely stands the best chance at minimizing runaway dysfunction in any direction even if some mirroring of the ups and downs of natural business cycles is unavoidable.

The answer is to get personal. Why exactly this is the answer requires looking at recent research on teams.

Research by Amy Edmondson of Harvard, which in turn influenced Project Aristotle at Google investigates the characteristics of top-performing teams. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a concept called psychological safety emerges as crucial. What ultimately distinguishes consistently high-performing teams from erratic, mediocre, or unsuccessful teams is the ability of that team to make the team conversation a welcoming and safe space for “voice”. Voice being understood not only as controlled and standard dialogue about business matters, but also about personal matters, emotions, fears, and hopes.

Edmondson’s research, also replicated by Google’s project, is convincing. If you want to have a high-performing team, you have to encourage — even require — team members to speak up even and especially when what they have to voice is uncomfortable for the rest of the team.

Similarly, as Patrick Lencioni points out in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, the groundwork of a team’s performance is trust. If team members trust each other, they can have productive conflict which ultimately leads to accountability and results. Lacking trust, or put differently, capped by the degree of trust in the team, a team’s productivity will suffer.

Why does psychological safety in a group and the team’s degree of trust ultimately demonstrate that “getting personal” matters in a team environment?

Because as human beings, we tend to reserve trust to some degree when we do not know or understand the motivations of the other person. We all learn early on that the greater the degree of interpersonal intimacy, the greater the potential for true connection, but also the greater the potential for being hurt or that connection used against us. Consequently, we tend to tread carefully and with reservation into intimacy of any kind with others — particularly at work.

The more we understand, and trust, the true intent, value system, beliefs, and motivations of our colleagues, the greater the potential for both psychological safety and trust, however.

The more serious the organizational risk, the more important the trust and trust-based communication. I attended a fascinating lecture by a NASA researcher a few years ago at SXSW Edu. Interestingly, preparation for potential Mars-mission astronauts at NASA involves radical transparency. Nothing is private. Astronauts must learn to talk to each other openly about everything (e.g., bodily functions). The group simply cannot afford “privacy” in a situation where the physical demands of the situation coupled with the high-risk environment require immediate and total openness. Anything “hidden” is a potential mission risk.

Executive teams certainly don’t require this degree of radical transparency. However, most executive teams spend very little time working on the personal and interpersonal. It is uncomfortable in the best of circumstances for a team. With top teams, it often can feel or be perceived as “off the business” or irrelevant to business decision-making. If we accept the research noted above, it is clearly on the business. As interpersonal trust increases, the team’s ability to handle conflict, acknowledge risks, and generate new ideas increases.

In practicality, getting personal is often misconstrued solely as talking about one’s family or hobbies in a business setting. That a colleague knows the names of my children isn’t bad but does not drive the nature or level of personalization that will really help.

What is much more important are the norms, principles, and beliefs that I carry into my workplace. Particularly important are the ones that guide how I show up with others and, critically, how I lead (given that leadership is in many ways a moral act).

Example: “I believe that the workplace is ultimately a competitive playground in which the point of showing up is to get the most of everything that is offered (biggest title, most money, etc.). That’s why I work, and that is what motivates me to succeed”.

Compare that to: “I believe that the workplace should be like a family. Inside, we care for each other and look out for each other. We compete fiercely with our external rivals, but inside we are a group defined by solidarity.”

The two statements above might be taken as mutually exclusive. Sometimes they can be exclusive, if those leaders are locked in struggle about how to set and enforce cultural norms in an organization. At the same time, there may very well be common ground areas even between such oppositional statements as the two above. Discovering common ground for such sentiments requires hard, sustained dialogue.

Similarly, it can be perceived as job suicide to tell your boss that you are bored in role. Imagine airing that out in front of an entire executive team! Yet it is precisely conversations of this kind that dramatically bond team members together and cultivate an environment where team members care for each and trust each other in more meaningful ways.

Ensuring that such conversations work their way into executive meetings is not without risks, however, beyond the straightforward discomfort of having the conversations in the first place.

There is risk that individuals will verify or surface areas of deep fundamental disagreement or values conflict. This can produce or heighten tension. There is risk that people will seek out emotional support beyond what the team or the team leader can give — e.g., “I feel I’m failing in my job, help me” when the answer really is “You are indeed failing in your job, and we’ve tried to help you.” Not easy conversations.

Fundamentally, the only true risk is deepened intimacy. It can indeed be harder to fire a subordinate or see a peer or supervisor dismissed when you truly care about them as a person. At the same time, as with all human relationships, the pain associated with the potential for hurt is almost always outweighed by the potential for connection. The team that knows itself, and continues to grow together as human beings, will have significantly more performance potential, particularly for innovation and tough, cross-functional conversations.

I’ve framed this piece as focused on top/executive teams. Everything above obviously applies to all teams. Ultimately, my selection of top teams as a target for this piece is about what may be perceived as the appropriate weight and value of “this kind” of deeply personal work at that level. Time is stretched so thin within senior executive teams, and frequently the small moments of available agenda time are contested hotly. The deeply personal is hard (and important) for all teams. My argument here, linked to the thesis at the top of the piece, is that the relationship dynamics at the top of an organization are extraordinarily important for the health of the culture and ultimately the health of the business. I think it also true that the deeply personal can often be squeezed out of top teams quickly, in favor of more obvious operational topics. My point, in sum, is that the executive team’s interpersonal dynamics ARE, in essence, a key operational and strategic topic; perhaps one of the most important ones.

Mark (an exec on a quest for including the deeply personal in all teamwork)