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This is the one factor that can make or break a team

This phenomenon, often discussed with regard to addiction treatment, can hugely influence the success of a team.

This is the one factor that can make or break a team
[Source images: Aleksei_Derin/iStock; YakobchukOlena/iStock]

Anthony, a senior retail executive, was in a pivotal moment in his career when we met. He had to change the way the company did business—or it would become obsolete. The organization had just acquired a successful tech startup that could expand its reach, and, rightly or wrongly, Anthony would take the fall if profits didn’t meet the new expectations.

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It was critical that he get his legacy team to cooperate closely with the startup folks. But there was mistrust on both sides. Each viewed the other as unqualified and out of touch. There were redundant roles, and people assumed they could lose their jobs. They reacted by wanting to claim territory. There was a palpable sense of us versus them. They each had different skills, different ways of working, different expertise, and different market understanding. Combined, they had an advantage over anyone else in the market, but getting them to collaborate was not going to be easy.

Anthony ensured his team understood. He motivated with fear (we could all be out of a job if we don’t figure this out). And he motivated with inspiration (we could be celebrated across the company if we solve this). He reached out to the startup’s leader to try to forge a shared vision and was transparent about the challenges they all faced. He made clear his prescription for success and defended his team in front of other executives who doubted their contribution.

It wasn’t enough.

Bad behavior relapse

In the field of addiction treatment, there is a phenomenon that helps explain where Anthony went wrong.

A person goes to rehab and successfully stops using. A ray of hope. But when they return home, they start using again. Their relapse is commonly understood to be a function of the environment. In the rehabilitation facility, life—both physically and socially—discourages use. But in the home environment, stressors, social circles, and even factors as basic as one’s route to work—by the place one used to purchase substances—can all enable relapse. Unless the environment changes, the odds are long that the person will stay sober.

The effect can work for good, too, however. In 1971, researchers found that a shocking 20% of returning Vietnam War veterans had been addicted to narcotics while there. Virtually all stopped using spontaneously after returning home. Even among the most unequivocally addicted persons in the research, less than one in 10 fell off the wagon within a year. In the Vietnam case, the soldiers left an environment that strongly enabled use, and many entered one that did not.

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In short, the environment can make or break behavior change.

Anthony’s environment not only failed to enable collaboration—it actively impeded it:

  1. The physical environment made communication hard. The two teams were in different cities. Even just scheduling meetings together was difficult. Trust and respect stem from learning about the humanity, warmth, and competence of others. The teams had almost no direct contact so could not learn enough to trust or respect. On day-to-day decisions or input, it was easier to just speak with a colleague on their own team than reach out.
  2. The social environment made communication dangerous. One of the strongest predictors of behavior is the norm—what others around you do and approve of. Some norms were well-intentioned: Norms in both teams were that it would be disrespectful to go around authority. So only the team leaders spoke with any regularity. Some norms were negative: There was a toxic norm to cynically dismiss ideas from the other side as naïve. It was a mark of shame to spend time with the other side, a betrayal.

The legendary investor Warren Buffett described the importance of social norms like this: “I learned that it pays to hang around with people better than you are, because you will float upward a little bit. And if you hang around with people that behave worse than you, pretty soon you’ll start sliding down the pole. It just works that way.”

I encouraged Anthony to remove these environmental barriers to collaboration and create environmental catalysts instead. He committed to engineering ways for the teams to have physical (and virtual) contact more easily, and to establishing new social norms that encourage direct, meaningful connection.

Sculpt the environment

Some solutions for the physical environment are fairly obvious, such as getting the two teams together every month in person, having each person spend a week working out of the other office, and requiring people to use videoconferencing and phones rather than just email. Contact creates opportunities to build trust. Human connection makes a difference. Some solutions are less obvious, such as requiring that some people on Anthony’s team represent the positions of people on the startup team when the group is making key decisions—that requires making contact with them to understand their positions.

To create the right social norms, one must do much more than state the desired norm—one must instead take clear and visible actions. For example, publicly acknowledge collaboration when it happens, remove people who continue to act in an us-versus-them way, highlight those ways in which the majority of the team does the right things, and tell true stories that illustrate collaboration getting valued and rewarded.

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Anthony is at the beginning of this journey. However, as a result of Anthony’s actions already, things are in a good place and getting better.

Anthony’s team and those in the startup are highly intelligent and motivated. They understand the problem. That’s not enough. If you wish to drive change, it is your responsibility to sculpt the environment.

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