Your Teams Need ‘Boxing Rings’ and ‘Campfires’

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Apr 11, 2018

Senior leaders were asked to estimate how much “wasted time” had cost their companies. Their average answer was nearly $15.5 million!

It seems that our abundance of unproductive meetings, dysfunctional workplace dynamics, bungled opportunities and mishandled people problems are cumulatively wreaking havoc on our organizational productivity and profitability to a much greater extent than ever imagined.

In their book, Stop Spending, Start Managing, authors Leigh Thompson and Tanya Menon outline their research with those senior leaders and describe some of the thorniest people problems leaders handle – or rather mishandle – every day.

Here are three such problems — as well as what managers can do to stop reinventing the wheel, start encouraging productive conflicts, and save a lot of time in the process.

1. Competitiveness prevents us from learning from others

Many high-performing teams become so used to winning they become unwilling to seek valuable information from one another, since doing so would be a tacit admission of imperfection or weakness.

Thompson’s research found that when given a choice between spending a hypothetical R&D budget on the ideas of an internal rival or those of an outside competitor, managers were willing to spend 42%  more on the outside competitor’s ideas. “This is why consultants get hired,” Thompson says. “We bring in outside people to tell us something that we already know,” because it paradoxically means all the wannabe “winners” in the team can avoid losing face.

Action to take: Build yourself up — then learn from your rivals. Take the shortest path to valuable insights, even if the solution is a rival’s. Shore up your confidence by listing accomplishments you’re particularly proud of, so when you hear about the achievements or ideas of a colleague, you’re more receptive and less threatened by them.

2. We send mixed messages to our teams

Managers often send mixed messages to their employees. While encouraging their team to excel as individuals, they also expect them to be good team players. Without distinct guidance on what hat to wear when, employees may find themselves confused about the path forward.

The rub, of course, is that both of these hats are important – but only in the right situations. And since most people don’t seek out disruptive conflict, the teamwork hat in particular can become a liability. Ambiguous expectations from managers, combined with a default desire for teamwork, can paralyze the communication that needs to happen.

Action to take: Set aside places to build consensus – and places to duke it out. To avoid the confusion trap, remove any ambiguity. The authors recommend establishing “boxing rings” and “campfires” to delineate the difference for employees. In the “boxing ring,” everyone knows the ground rules for conversational combat and that attacks on the problem aren’t aimed at anyone personally. For consensus-building, “campfires” take the converse approach.

3. We can be blinded by our own expertise

It may seem obvious that when you’re faced with a difficult problem, you want to bring in the best experts to solve it. Only, sometimes, you don’t. Sometimes expertise can get in the way if we get bogged down in idiosyncratic biases or blind spots. Outsiders, or other employees in the company not directly impacted by the problem, can bring a fresh perspective to the issue and aren’t handicapped by the same assumptions insiders have.

Action to take: Reframe the problem so no expertise is necessary. When know-how has come up short, move away from the problem’s details in favor of exploring its deeper structure so experts have a completely different lens for viewing the problem. Or you can get similar benefits by inviting someone into your decision-making process who brings different expertise to the team.

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