Tag Archives: Social Skills

High-Performing Teams: Built from the Basic Skills of Human Interaction

I’ve struggled my whole life to connect the dots. I’m the smartest dumb person I know, and I at times amaze even myself with the brilliance of my own insights, which generally occur simultaneously alongside my forgetting to turn off the stove, or turn on the dishwasher (which I’ve just finished loading).

I recall quite vividly sitting in Instrument Ground School, well along my way to becoming an F-14 Tomcat Radar Intercept Officer (RIO), and learning about Crew Resource Management (CRM) for the first time. My overwhelming thought at the time was, “why do they insist on teaching us things we already know?”

Of course, they weren’t. Instead, once again, I was both intelligent enough to recognize the value of CRM for what it meant to my situation immediately, but not smart enough to appreciate, in any sense whatsoever, the importance of its formation and history, nor its incredible potential to help people everywhere to work together, in any environment or on any problem; from operating rooms to oil rigs, from ocean floors to outer space.

High-Performance Teaming™, one of Crew Resource Management’s successors, leverages those same skills which have been proven to help teams perform and succeed in High-Reliability Organizations across cultures and industries to include NASA, surgical teams, nuclear power stations, civil and military aviation, and special forces units, to name just a few.

The simple reason that these tools work across such diverse types of teams is not because they are based in the newest or most proven processes, or the latest in business operating frameworks or methodologies. Rather, these tools work because they focus on building the skills which enable dynamic, positive, and powerful human interaction.

By leveraging our shared human abilities to learn and improve, and targeting the skills specifically connected to the human capability to effectively function as part of a team, we can develop high-performing teams regardless of functional level or the domain of work.

Take, for example, rock climbing.

I know – “whaaaat?” Stick with me. I was recently asking one of the teams I work with what they would like to do to celebrate our successful (and early) completion of a software feature. Typically I would expect the standard answers: go to a team lunch, after-work drinks, trip to the pinball museum, Friday-night pool – the usual things teams choose to do. Yet, as is becoming standard, the team surprised me.

“The weather Thursday is supposed to be beautiful. How about if we do a team rock climbing day?”

Now I’m a climber and so are a couple of other people on the team, and going climbing together is something we’d half-joked about plenty of times, but this was a real suggestion. So I asked around, gave it some thought, and realized we could use the experience to not only have fun and bond further as a team, but to actually train with the skills we’d been talking about at the office in an entirely different context. My hypothesis was that a team of individuals climbing together is still a team, and the same skills which drive human interactions within teams in an office environment, an operating room, or in a cockpit, should be congruent.

So we went rock climbing, and discussed the litmus test. Here’s how I set up the day and the High-Performance Teaming skills we discussed in the context of our day on the rock.

Communication. As it was actually quite windy at the climb site and we were a few hundred feet up the side of a hill beside a busy interstate, the conditions for clear and easy communication were not good. Yet communication is critical to good team performance. Personal tendencies, culture, speech, choice of words and a standard vocabulary, not to mention overcoming environmental challenges (wind, noise, etc.) were all critical to our performance.

Assertiveness. Given the challenges already acknowledged to our communication, combined with the fact that we had a few new climbers who hadn’t done this sort of thing before, we recognized the need for everyone to assume an assertive role in helping the team ensure that we achieved our goals. We needed everyone to speak up when something didn’t look right or make sense, or when they did not understand anything about what they were being asked to do.

Goal (or Mission) Analysis. I asked the team at the parking lot to state what they believed was our goal for the day. “Go climbing,” “have fun,” “enjoy the outdoors,” “bond as a team” were a few of the responses. All noble and understandable goals, to be sure, but I offered another: “come back safely.” Understanding what your primary goal or goals are isn’t always intuitive, obvious, or easy, but getting it wrong can create a cascade of mistakes due to your team being misaligned on the very fundamental issues around why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Situational Awareness. Understanding that we’re going to have to make decisions about which routes to climb, who will be climbing belaying, whether we need to clean routes behind us, and a host of other potential situations (what happens if someone is injured?) requires us all to constantly re-assess and evaluate where we are in our day, what we are doing, and what we are trying to do. We need to ensure that we are fully aware of what is going on around us, and what is supposed to be going on around us.

Decision-Making. Early in the day our ability to decide on which routes to climb and which partners would climb/belay in what order was affected by stress, but as the day wore on and the stress of working together in a new team diminished, fatigue and the potential for complacency set in. Our ability to make the right decisions in important situations such as who climbs next, when to clean the route and move, who leads, where and when to relocate, when to take a break, and when to stop for the day, hinged on our ability to communicate well, maintain our situational awareness, and maintain focus on our primary goal – a safe return.

Agility. Many people talk about being Adaptable, however I prefer the term Agility. Agility, I’ve heard said, is Adaptability in a timebox. We had no sooner hiked around the corner to our climbing site to begin execution of our plan to climb the first two pitches (which were not challenging by design), then we had to adjust our plan due to the fact that both routes were already being worked by the local fire department, also out for a day of cliff rescue training in some gorgeous weather. So we quickly re-planned and moved to an alternate site.

Leadership. In a team of peers, leadership is often a revolving position. In a team with three experienced climbers and three beginners, we needed to rotate leadership responsibilities at different times based on the situation. Yet what most people get totally wrong is what the leader actually does. The leader isn’t there to make decisions and pass out orders, rather to pull the team together, ensure everyone understands what is occurring and what the plan is, solicit feedback and invite constructive dissent, to support assertiveness, and to leverage the collective wisdom of the team in analyzing goals and making collective decisions. Leadership is not about being right, it is about what is right. As each of us moved through moments of assuming leadership, our interactions were all similar: does everyone understand and agree with the plan? Does everyone understand what is being asked of them? Are you ready to move forward? Are we all ready for the next step?

Empathy. The ability to recognize and respond appropriately to the emotional state of others is a fundamentally human skill which powers every other social interaction skill. Looking at my climbing partner who is about to start on the route, I ask “ready?” The novice climber looks back tentatively and responds “ready.” However I see in his stance, face, and eyes that he is struggling with fear, doubt, and uncertainty. I encourage him to begin the route by pulling the rope tight and responding “on belay – I’ve got you.” This gives him some confidence. I don’t want to take his fear and uncertainty away – I want him to work through it on his own, which I know he can. This is empathy in action.

The skills required to enable and power high-performance teamwork are grounded in our fundamental ability to interact with other humans. This statement will continue to be true until the day arrives when we need to team with robots or aliens, at which point it is conceivable that other skills might be required. However for the entirety of human existence, people have needed to work together and have, unsurprisingly, evolved to do just that. The amazing thing in our growing technological age is that some of those natural, instinctual, basic social skills are incredibly difficult to recall and apply. Yet train, learn, and apply them we can, and in doing so we can actually help build and become the incredibly high-performing teams we’ve always envisioned.

 

Chris Alexander is a former F-14D Flight Officer, the co-founder of AGLX Consulting, High-Performance Teaming™ coach, Agile coach, and Scrum Master, and has a passion for working with high-performing teams. Learn more at https://www.aglx.consulting.

Share This:

The Missing Half of Team Performance: The Social Skills Behind High-Performance Teaming™

The overwhelming majority of businesses and organizations today are incredibly focused on adopting processes, tools, and frameworks to supercharge their teams’ productivity and quality, but in doing so they are solving for only half of the problem.

Whereas the team approach is often seen as a solution to cognitively complex tasks, it also introduces an additional layer of cognitive requirements that are associated with the demands of working together effectively with others. [1]

We are incontrovertibly human. When working in teams, we are humans working with other humans. Unlike a software program, the daily inputs and outputs of our lives are far too complex and changing to conceivably map and understand in a finite way; the potential derivations of our interpretations and reactions throughout the course of simply living our lives is, literally, infinite and unknowable.

Yet in virtually every business, organization, and team across America, we are focusing our efforts on establishing and implementing process, creating standardized operating procedures, rules, guidelines, policies, and training programs to build great (productive) teams. In doing so, we are ignoring the very thing which actually creates a high-performing team: us.

It actually isn’t rocket science: the interactions of the team members, not their individual intelligence, experience, education, or technical skill, is what determines how effective and how high-performance the team will be.

[T]he number one factor in making a group effective is skill at deep human interaction. That’s a remarkable finding in itself when we consider that groups are hardly ever evaluated on that basis. Everyone seems to think that other factors— leadership, mix of technical skills, vision, motivation— are more important. They matter, but not nearly as much as social skills… Social skills were the most important factor in group effectiveness because they encourage those patterns of “idea flow,” to use [Dr. Alex] Pentland’s term. Slicing the data in another way, those three elements of interaction [short & rapid idea generation, “dense interacting,” and turn-taking on idea-sharing and feedback] were more important than any other factor in explaining the excellent performance of the best groups; in fact, they were about as important as all the other factors— individual intelligence, technical skills, members’ personalities, and anything else you could think of— put together. [2]

To put the above a bit more succinctly, the best teams are not characterized by having the most intelligent, most skilled individuals; they are characterized by the quality and quantity of the team members’ social interactions.

There is an incredibly valuable point in this: the traditional focus on an individual’s knowledge, experience, and skills in a technical or process domain is only half of the story in building high-performing teams. The other half of the story is understanding how they perform in team environments and how well they contribute to a team’s overall performance and effectiveness.

Teaming Metaphors

A useful metaphor for the technical versus non-technical and social skills is live theater. Think of technical skills, scholastic education, and work experience as simply foundational elements of your business’ or organization’s ability to perform.

They are the stage, the lighting, the seating, the curtain, the orchestra’s space. Those elements are the theater.

However, the actors’ and actresses’ abilities to perform on that stage, to create something memorable and incredible – those are the social skills, the non-technical “secret sauce” of how the team actually performs together. For that great performance to occur, you need more than just the stage and the lighting – you need the performers and the magic that happens when a great team produces what a great team can.

Or consider the difference between watching a great football player play, and a great football team play. (This applies to both types of football.) A team of individuals with a star or two will never come close to achieving what an amazing team can achieve, regardless of their star power.

As I reported in my Harvard Business Review article “The New Science of Building Great Teams,” my research group and I have collected hundreds of gigabytes of data from dozens of workplaces. What we found was that the patterns of face-to-face engagement and exploration within corporations were often the largest factors in both productivity and creative output. [3]

Learning Social Skills

So what happens when you’ve hired the most technically skilled, scholastically educated people, and their social and teaming skills are virtually non-existent? Fear not – there is great news

Growing numbers of companies have discovered what the military learned long ago, that the supposedly ineffable, intractable, untrainable skills of deep human interaction are in fact trainable… Businesses can’t even begin to get better until leaders acknowledge that these skills are the key to competitive advantage, that methods of developing them may be unfamiliar, and that measuring the results will never be as easy as gauging operating efficiencies. If companies can get past those obstacles, which in most organizations are more than enough to stop managerial innovations dead in their tracks, then they have a chance. [4]

Yes – trainable.

Although it should come as no surprise, due to the fact that we all share the common trait of being – well, human – it is good to know that we can actually focus on and learn those critical skills which enable us to team effectively with other humans.

The military and commercial aviation have been doing this for decades already.

Yes – decades.

The fact that the social and non-technical skills teams need to reach high-performance are trainable and able to be improved upon over time, just as one would improve their knowledge of emerging coding practices or new technologies, is not conjecture or hypothetical experimentation. In fact, it has been operationalized and regularly improved for years.

High-Performance Teaming™

Founded in Crew-Resource Management (CRM) fundamentals, High-Performance Teaming™ provides teams at every and any level with the social, non-technical skills they need to perform at the highest levels. It targets exactly what makes effective teams – the ability for team members to engage in regular, high-quality interactions and input-feedback cycles to build the Shared Mental Models (SMMs) and communication loops which drive team performance and output.

Specifically, High-Performance Teaming™ builds the critical social skills teams need in:

  • Communication – the mechanics behind speaking and listening, non-verbal signals and cues, the human factors (culture, language, personality) which influence our communication patterns, and how to affect them through awareness.
  • Assertiveness – the behaviors behind respectfully asserting knowledge and opinion, and how to handle those assertions in a team.
  • Situation Awareness (SA) – the team’s ability to build a shared conception of their environment, and the degree to which it matches reality; requires Shared Mental Models, operational analysis, spatial awareness, etc.
  • Goal / Mission Analysis – the ways in which the team plans, executes, and learns based on their shared model of tactical to strategic goals; driven by alignment, communication, SA, and powers Decision-Making.
  • Decision-Making – utilizing collective intelligence of the team and leveraging the team’s SA combined with Goal / Mission Analysis to build consensus on solutions to complex problems, which in turn will drive execution and directly impact performance.
  • Agility – the ability to remain flexible and adapt to change; resilience in the face of a changing environment and rapidly evolving problem-set.
  • Leadership – one of the critical enablers to team effectiveness in non-flat environments, effective leadership is vital to creating Assertiveness, leveraging team collective intelligence in building SA and Goal / Mission Analysis, and getting to the correct decisions which enable organizational execution in a time-critical manner.
  • Culture – another enabler of team cohesiveness and resiliency; purposefully constructed and monitored through Shared Mental Models, Culture is a powerful contributor to Alignment, which is critical to reducing waste/churn and helping teams remain resilient and goal-oriented.
  • Empathy – the foundational element in every social skill; the ability to recognize and respond appropriately to the thoughts and feelings of others.

If you’ve gone through multiple team processes (traditional project management, Scrum, XP, SAFe, etc.), and you’re still wondering why your teams are not producing and improving, ask yourself if you’ve been solely concentrating on the Technical Skill & Process side of the equation – the side which only effects what processes teams are using to organize and conduct their work.

If you have, perhaps it is time to start giving your teams the social and non-technical skills they need to actually improve how they work together. Scrum (for example) is a great process which sets the stage for the performance, but High-Performance Teaming™, grounded in the science behind Crew Resource Management and team effectiveness, is the tool set your teams need to actually perform.

Contact AGLX Consulting today to bring those social skills to your teams!

 

Chris Alexander is a former U.S. Naval Officer who flew the F-14 Tomcat, and is Co-Founder and Executive Team Member of AGLX Consulting, creators of the High-Performance Teaming model.

  1. Cooke, N. J., Salas, E., Cannon-Bowers, J. A., & Stout, R. (2000). “Measuring team knowledge.” Human Factors, 42, 151-173.
  2. Colvin, Geoff (2015-08-04). Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will (pp. 126-7). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  3. Pentland, Alex (2014-01-30). Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread – The Lessons from a New Science (p. 93). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  4. Colvin, 2015 (p. 204).

Share This:

High-Performing Teams: Writing Code is Not Your Problem

Regardless of the software or hardware development processes used in your business domain, chances are if you are worried about your teams’ performance levels, their ability to write code or build hardware solutions is not your concern.

How do you build teams which are truly high-performing?

Teams which are able to work together toward levels of truly high-performance remain relatively elusive and seldom in most industries. Regardless of which frameworks, methodologies, and tools teams adopt and adapt, their productivity remains relatively average. This hurts the bottom line of the business, which has often agreed to accept certain restrictions on current productivity on the promise of significantly increased productivity once the new methodology or framework is in place and humming.

Sound familiar? This is a situation in which the application of multiple solutions entirely fails to address the actual problem.

Teams do not form around processes, methodologies, and frameworks; they form around the members of the team. Or, more specifically, they form around the social, non-technical interactions of the individuals within the team. When a team fails to effectively bond together, several problems are typically the root:

  1. The level of empathy at the team level is relatively low
  2. The number, type, and quality of social interactions is low
  3. There is low to no feedback within the group

Despite what you may believe, social skills are highly trainable and can be learned. Teams can build their social, non-technical skills in order to team together more effectively and achieve those levels of high-performance.

Moreover, leadership can directly enable these teaming activities by learning about how high-performing teams function and what they can do to enable those teams to coalesce and perform. The secret to leading highly-performing teams is that it actually isn’t that hard – but it does take a level of discipline and rigor which many leaders find exceptionally challenging.

If you want to learn about High-Performance Teaming™ and what you or your organization can do to get to those levels of high-performance, reach out to us at AGLX Consulting today.

Chris Alexander is a former Navy Lieutenant Commander, F-14 Tomcat RIO, software developer, Agile Coach, and Executive Team Member at AGLX Consulting, LLC.

Share This: