Your Secret Weapon – Interpersonal Skills

The Principle of the Critical Few – A Survival Lesson for Team Leaders

Summary of article written by James M. Parry, OD Practitioner; Vol. 38; No. 1; 2006

“Many people in the highest performing teams said they were safe to say what they honestly felt, without judgment. Social mistakes were forgiven. Integrity was the norm in the high-performing environments…”

The quality of interpersonal relationships within an organization may very well be the greatest single influence and predictor of overall success and high performance for that organization. How are those relationships formed? An interesting discovery was made about the ingredients of those ideal relationships in organizations during interviews with more than 600 employees over a twelve-year period. Since the employee comments remain essentially the same over this extended period of time, the trends that surfaced merit a leader’s close attention.

The data in this study suggest that “interpersonal relationships” may have more overall impact on team effectiveness and efficiency as a catalyst for achieving high performance than any other single influence within an organization. This observation is based upon the close examination of pre-intervention data gathered from forty formal work groups or teams over a twelve-year period. The teams in this extended study were comprised of a combination of Florida state government employees and diverse segments from the private sector. There was no discernable difference in the overall team performance assessment between the public and private sector workforce. The geographical region covered the State of Florida and included a wide variety of professional environments. Employees had very diverse individual backgrounds as well.

For the purpose of this article, the data were compiled in a summary format, and then translated into visual charts to reveal what surfaced as interesting relationships between the following dimensions:

Plans and Goals – the level at which an organization develops formal plans and goals, ensures goals are clearly communicated and understood, establishes priorities, and actively involves the workforce in determining the best way to achieve common objectives.

Roles – the extent to which organization members are clear about how their individual contributions relate to the big picture, know what’s expected of them, and understand the structural interdependence within the larger context of the organization.

Operating Procedures – how well the majority of common operations and essential group processes are carried out on a daily basis, i.e., communications, conducting meetings, formality, flexibility, decision making, problem solving, evaluating performance, providing recognition and rewards.

Interpersonal Relationships – a measure of how well team members show that they care about and get along with each other, display trust, respect, support, friendliness, reveal honest feelings, morale, satisfaction in belonging, team spirit.

Individual Strengths – unique knowledge, skills and abilities are recognized by others and fully utilized to gain the greatest overall good and value for the team.

General Effectiveness – the extent to which the team achieves program results and objectives, productivity, how overall performance compares to other similar teams or work units.

A formal structured interview was conducted with each individual team member in order to provide qualitative information about how they felt their respective team was functioning.

A few work units exhibited “High Team Strengths”, while a majority of the units were in the “Medium” range and a few work units fell into the “Areas Needing Improvement” range. Two of the teams were nearly dysfunctional. When asking the question, “What accounts for the difference between these teams?” In nearly every case, it appears that the quality of the Interpersonal Relationships in the high performing units is responsible for the difference.

Five of the six highest scoring teams (83%), had “Interpersonal Relationships” as their highest scoring performance dimension. Of the six lowest performing teams, all six had “Interpersonal Relationships” as their lowest performance dimension.

That good relationships among team members should have an apparently positive impact on team performance makes intuitive sense. However, this article is meant to reinforce just how critical interpersonal relationships may be for an organization’s success, and to provide several recommendations on how to create them. Also, special emphasis is placed on the critical role that the team leader plays in shaping these relationships.

Over six hundred personal interviews were conducted using the same twelve carefully selected questions. The objective was to gain each employee’s perspective on how and why his or her unit was performing as it was. Their candid responses to the interview questions made it relatively easy to use this interview data to make some inferences about the patterns of team scores.

The common factor found in the highest performing work groups was the frequent clustering of certain words heard in response to the questions that probed the nature of the relationships with their coworkers. The words heard most often from members of the highest performing teams included some reference to how well they trusted each other, respected each other as individuals, and showed appreciation for each other’s contributions toward accomplishing shared goals. Team members also used other descriptors to characterize what brought them special satisfaction from belonging to a particular work unit. However, the three attributes heard most frequently – trust, respect, and appreciation, in that order – surfaced as a trend in what appeared to be the greatest influence in separating the high performing teams from those that were troubled. To underscore this finding, employees in the low performing teams frequently mentioned the absence of trust, respect, and appreciation within their unit.

According to interview analyses, 78% of the employees that made up the top six teams spoke of “trust” when characterizing their interpersonal relationships, 65% of them pointed out the significance of “respect” within their unit, and 46% mentioned in some fashion having feelings of “appreciation” for their contributions.

When the Interpersonal Relationships dimension was the leading performance factor, all other team functions tended to be correspondingly high. When Interpersonal Relationships was the lowest performance factor, all other dimensions tended to be correspondingly low. It seems that positive interpersonal relationships may provide an essential platform for the members of the highest performing teams to work together more effectively in the daily routine of getting the job done.

Trust was the feature most frequently used to describe the basis of positive relationships. Employees were asked to explain during the interview what they meant when they spoke of trust. Most of them referred to the extent to which they could rely on their coworkers to be truthful about anything they said or did. Coworkers also respected confidential information and would not speak of things to others that they perceived were none of their business. There was no discrediting or discounting of other people at any level, internal or external to their organization. They also described their coworkers as dependable, and they felt able to count on each other to fulfill their responsibilities.

Employees on these teams were also committed to their team leader’s goals and decisions because they trusted him/her. Whenever mistakes were made, people accepted responsibility for their errors and made things right. Grudges were not held. Errors were not fatal. Many people in the highest performing teams said they were safe to say what they honestly felt, without judgment. Social mistakes were forgiven. Integrity was the norm in the high-performing environments, where people consistently behaved in a way that matched what they said or believed. Many employees said, “Without trust, we wouldn’t have a chance.”

Respect was the next word most frequently used to describe relationships by members of these high-performing teams. This word was used to describe a recognition of the personal value and worth of another individual. There appeared to be genuine high regard for each other. A typical response was, “I feel respected, as a person, by my coworkers.” Human diversity was recognized as a positive feature of these teams, and this promoted creativity because there were no apparent efforts to force similarity in perspectives. Employees seemed to respect the different values held by each person, and were not concerned with convincing others why their own values were better.

Appreciation was the third most frequently used descriptor of positive interpersonal relationships. In this team context, appreciation is best described as an expressed awareness, from the supervisor and/or coworkers, of a person’s contributions toward the achievement of common goals and objectives. The team leader frequently said, “Thank you,” for even the most standard, expected actions and routine tasks. Many employees remarked how important it was to hear, at least once in a while, words such as, “I appreciate the really good job you did on the XYZ report.” More importantly, many employees spoke about how special it was to receive a few words of appreciation in a brief handwritten note.

Although an expression of appreciation is simply common courtesy, it also appears to create a powerful motivation for a person to repeat desired behaviors. The appreciation routinely expressed in the high performing units did not seem to be a response to employees who displayed extraordinary skills or talents. Instead, it was typically simply the genuine sharing of gratitude for another person at the human level.

To summarize the effects that trust, respect, and appreciation appear to have on the overall performance of a formal work group, a familiar principle comes to mind, namely “The Principle of the Critical Few”: In any given group of occurrences, a relatively small number of causes tends to give rise to the largest proportion of results.

This principle seems related to the dynamics of these high performing teams. To an observer, the positive correlation in these data suggests that a team leader may do well to focus on creating the best possible interpersonal relationships among team members, working specifically to enhance trust, respect and appreciation, and then having confidence that all other performance dimensions will now be in a better position to flourish as well. This is assuming, of course, that the appropriate work structures, resources, and administrative processes are already in place within the organization for getting the team’s job done.

“How are such relationships created?”

The influence of the team leader created the friendly, supportive climate and feelings of comradeship. Although many specific things can be done to make improvements in each performance dimension, it appears the greatest progress will be made when a team leader works to strengthen interpersonal relationships.

So, what might a team leader do to create positive interpersonal relationships between team members?

While it is true that the relationship climate is greatly influenced by the team leader, team members must also assume responsibility for their own role, and become curious about how each team member’s behavior affects the overall performance of the team. Blaming the leader for a team’s poor performance is often an attempt to escape individual responsibility. Fortunately, team building is not an activity designed solely to support team leaders. It is an intervention that can help sensitize every member of an intact work group to see how their own individual behavior contributes to shaping the team’s culture. Becoming more “aware” is an important first step in the learning process for team members, because they now each have more information that can help them “choose” whether to “change.” Of course, awareness alone does not necessarily influence anyone to change. For instance, after receiving candid feedback from employees about his negative, insensitive interpersonal style, one particular team leader exclaimed, “This nonsense is a waste of my time. I’ve got better things to do than to listen to this babble!” Although this attitude prevailed for some time, it eventually caused the inevitable demise a few months later of that reluctant team leader.

The following is a collection of actual comments, observations, and behaviors culled from the highest performing teams in this study. They also represent possible strategies that a team leader might use to create an environment where positive interpersonal relationships might develop:

  • Trust was implicit
  • People truly listened to each other and respected what each had to offer.
  • There was a pervasive sense of humor
  • Credit for good work was shared, and there was rarely any evidence of blame when things didn’t work out as planned.
  • People looked at errors as learning experiences and simply moved on.
  • Workers were given authority to use their own discretion on how to do a job and were included in problem solving and decision making.
  • The most successful teams invariably had a leader with excellent human relations and communication skills. Many people said, “Our team leader is a good listener!”
  • Work standards were very high, and business was conducted in an ethical manner.
  • The team leader frequently said, “What do you think?” I’d like your input on this,” “How’s it going?” “Nice job,” and “Thank you.”
  • People were kept informed about what was going on, and were unreserved about sharing their honest feelings in all aspects of the quality of life in their workplace.
  • People knew where they stood, what was expected of them, received feedback on how well they were doing, and the right coaching if things needed to be done differently.
  • People had the proper resources and appropriate amount of time to do their jobs.
  • Creative new ways of doing the same old job were encouraged.
  • When changes came about, people were involved in planning for what lay ahead.
  • People were appropriately rewarded for their contributions.
  • Workers looked forward to going to work each day, and described an environment that was “family like.”

Interestingly, experience showed that the higher performing teams were also the ones with managers who were most receptive to exploring ways to be better through the benefits of a team building experience. Conversely, the lower performing teams typically had managers who were reluctant to have their team participate in any type of assessment that would reveal an obvious need for behavioral or process change. Unfortunately, by avoiding introspection these team leaders were also unwittingly fueling their own performance difficulties. As a case in point, a team building session was scheduled and held at the behest of the team leader’s boss, where it became apparent that the authoritarian style of the team leader was demoralizing his employees and slowly eroding the effectiveness of the entire work unit.

When given honest feedback about his interpersonal style, his response was, “I’m the boss…if there is any changing to be done around here it will be all of you! Besides the way I act is what led to my success, and I’m not about to change who I am!” This particular senior manager resigned four months later.

Another interesting trend was noted in the aggregate data. In five out of six teams on the Low end of the scale (83%) the performance dimension, “Individual Strengths,” was the highest score of the six dimensions. A possible explanation for this trend was suggested in the subsequent interviews, where numerous members of these teams mentioned having such personal pride in their own work that they were willing to persevere and maintain their personal performance despite the unpleasant environment and working conditions. However, in many cases, team members also noted that it was often the “best swimmers” in these low performing teams that were the first ones to “jump ship.” For a team leader, this underscores the importance of recognizing the need to re-recruit high-performing team members, especially when overall team performance is uncertain.

Most importantly, building an effective team is not based on an event, which mistakenly connotes a one time, start and finish activity. Rather, team building is based on a dynamic process of building self-awareness, positive relationships, and then a willingness to change, all in the service of continuous learning and improvement.

Fortunately, the results of this study also support the value of using a formal, structured tool to analyze and interpret team performance, as well as training in interpersonal and team skills. Such a process could, it appears, assist a team leader to increase the likelihood of team success by focusing on those factors that lead to higher performance. In this case, the process provided significant insights about the apparent link between interpersonal relationships and team success.

Source: James M. Parry/OD Practitioner/Vol. 38/No. 1/2006
Pamela Hollister
Author, The PEOPLE Process
February 4, 2011

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