Include Me In: How to Get All the Players on Your Team Truly Working Together

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Remember high school? There were the cool kids, the nerds, the fashion mavens, the jocks—all sitting at their own tables in the cafeteria. In business, people can feel like they’re back in high school, not sure how they fit in, where they’re welcome, who’s in and who’s out. When this happens, performance suffers.

The COO of a major consumer goods company told me recently about her frustration with her top team. During meetings, many team members were not fully engaged, seldom offering a candid opinion or a new suggestion. After meetings, though, these same people circled back to provide their private views, solicit her advice and ask her to make decisions. As a team, they never really got to the heart of the matter, she said. Worse, the team’s behavior forced her to micromanage, which she knew was counterproductive.

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We helped her analyze the situation and soon realized that what she had was an inclusion problem. She didn’t have a talent problem; everybody was a strong performer. And the team had plenty of diversity, including people with different backgrounds and perspectives. But when it came to the "litmus test" questions about inclusion—Am I important to this team? Am I competent and in a position to contribute? Am I understood as a person?—the team did not pass. We find that if team members can’t answer these questions affirmatively, the team will not be productive. Team members will never be able to discuss the real issues candidly, and they will never come together effectively to solve problems.

It may sound incongruous for highly accomplished 40- and 50-somethings, who have reached positions of great responsibility in business, to feel excluded. But we see it all the time. We know from working with companies on leadership and team building that, just like in high school, people who feel excluded lose interest and can even become antagonistic. The excluded in business may not sulk and fret that nobody likes them, like an insecure adolescent, but they are bound to develop negative attitudes that hold back the team and, worse, the company’s performance.

For example, an executive who does not feel valued as an important member of the team might approach a meeting thinking, "This is a waste of my time; nobody understands how this topic affects my business or cares what I think." Or if the executive’s competence is not acknowledged and understood, the narrative might go like this: "I know that this project is not going to succeed the way they propose to execute it, but I’m not going to share my truth because they’ll think I’m being political." This kind of mindset is poison to a senior team and inevitably slows growth.

Inclusion is not just about making everyone feel good. It is about building an environment of trust and mutual respect, where colleagues talk honestly and jump in with both feet when they can make a contribution. This behavior can be learned—through recognition, engagement and building commitment to the common good. Teams can become trusting, open and successful by overtly addressing the inclusion problem and finding ways to talk about it.

One of my Bain colleagues tells the story of the time he was asked to run an inclusion workshop with a senior team at a tech company shortly after the CEO was dismissed abruptly. The executives arrived for the workshop still in a state of shock, some grieving, some wondering if they would soon be out of a job. The inclusion exercises, which aim to build trust by making everyone feel valued and heard, had an extraordinary effect that day. A group of people who entered feeling defensive and unsure where they stood emerged as a more unified team. Afterward, members told my colleague that they had never felt so supportive of one another or so determined to succeed.

Inclusion also requires a very different leadership style. High-energy, engaged teams thrive on autonomy. This starts with confident, centered leaders who know they’re in the right place (because they can answer yes to the litmus test questions themselves). As we know from work with teams using agile approaches, the command-and-control style that too many leaders cling to is anathema to creative problem solving and rapid, focused teamwork. Detailed orders from on high demotivate team members and sap their energy. Whether they are using the scrums and squads of the Agile method or simply want to keep up with the pace of business change, leaders need high-performing, cross-functional teams. For such teams to excel, leaders need to let go. Their job is to create an environment where everyone feels included, make clear what needs to be done and then get out of the way.

This is a big ask for top executives. It takes courage to let down your guard and stop pretending you know all the answers—and to let your team members do the learning and thinking. It requires building some new leadership muscles.

My COO client signed off on an inclusion workshop for her top team, but winced when I told her she had to participate, too. The exercises are designed to break down barriers by encouraging people to acknowledge one another. In one part, you have to listen without interrupting or responding as another team member talks for a few minutes about his or her hopes and aspirations. I can tell you from personal experience, it is awkward—at least, the first time—but then something magical happens. I finally convinced the COO that she had to do it. When she felt the energy in the room and heard the positive comments in the debriefing afterward—remarks like "It was amazing finally to be listened to"—she was convinced. With ongoing investment, she has learned that by explicitly focusing on including everyone, and by adopting a management style that telegraphs trust rather than control, she gets better results from her top team.

Phil Kleweno is the managing partner of Bain & Company's Washington, DC, office and a key member of the firm's Retail and Results Delivery® practices.