Continuous Improvement

A bullshit workplace notion. Midway into artistic or athletic activities, jobs, careers, relationships, life, we plateau. Shortly thereafter, energy ebbs, and our performance erodes.

We improve for a bit, we plateau, we decline.

I observed a good second year math teacher today at the independent middle school. Then we conferenced. After listening to him reflect on the pre-algebra lesson, I listed his many strengths. Then I made a few suggestions. Call on Ben as soon as he puts his head on his desk. Give Robin your marker, take her seat, and have her teach everyone her prime factorization method by illustrating it on the board. Have two more students explain and illustrate their methods and then ask, “Which is most efficient and why?” Let the kite string out a bit and “guide from the side” for awhile. Remember, the educative effect is greater when students do something than when something is done to them.

He told me he likes it when I observe because he’s reminded of effective teaching methods that he has let slip. He’s a good second year teacher who has started to plateau because he’s rarely observed, and rarely gets to observe other, more accomplished teachers.

A small number of the very best teachers, artists, athletes, and people continue improving considerably longer than their peers by seeking out expert, critical feedback; by investing progressively more time and energy; and by surrounding themselves by other positive, hardworking people, who are trending upwards.

And the wisest teachers, artists, athletes, and people have a sixth sense for both when they’ve plateaued and when their performance has begun to decline. And then the wisest, most selfless, most financially secure of them, step aside to provide the next generation opportunities to improve, plateau, and decline.

Why is Team Chemistry So Elusive?

Why do so many married couples divorce? Why are so many homeowners’ associations riddled with conflict? Why do so many parents involved in youth sports organizations butt heads with one another? And why is group decision-making so problematic for school faculty and other workplace teams?

Because everyone of us brings imperfect interpersonal skills to our teams. Multiply my social shortcomings and quirks with yours and the next women’s and the next guy’s and it doesn’t take long to understand why positive team chemistry and enlightened group decision making is so elusive. Every team of two or more are dysfunctional in different ways and to varying degrees.

Also, every team has an uneven mix of what I refer to as “Vertical” and “Horizontal” members. Verticals have little patience for processing others’ feelings, talking through differences of opinion, and consensual decision-making. They’re often quite comfortable with someone above them making unilateral decisions. In contrast, Horizontals prefer consensual decision making and the sometimes extended discussions they require. They’re sensitive to other members feelings and often distrust superiors to make unilateral decisions.

When a couple, community group, or workplace suffers challenges that result in hurt feelings, Verticals emphasize focusing on the present and “just getting back to work”. Before returning to work, Horizontals feel compelled to work through what went wrong and attend to team members’ hurt feelings. Trying to negotiate these different orientations becomes another challenge in and of itself.

So every team member is screwed up in his/her own way. And eventually, crises put extraordinary pressure on the team’s decision-making processes. Then some team members want to talk things through, others don’t, and those different perspectives add fuel to the fire. Is it any wonder that lot’s of couple’s divorce, the CIA and the FBI don’t get along, and some work environments turn toxic?

And there’s more. Many teams—whether couples, community organizations, or workplaces—aren’t nearly thoughtful or intentional enough about fostering understanding of one another’s unique contributions to the team effort and the mutual respect that engenders. Instead, a mutual sense of being misunderstood and under-appreciated spreads.

Add to that the fact that teams rarely, if ever, build in time to talk openly and honestly about decision-making processes. Which the Verticals are cool with, but not the Horizontals. For the Horizontals, when there’s little to no opportunity to reflect on decision making processes and surface the occasional hurt feelings, meeting fatigue sets in.

These multi-faceted challenges often overwhelm teams’ collective interpersonal skills. Which results in more resentment. Team members succumb to passive-aggressive behavior, not talking in meetings but complaining bitterly out of them, and walk around with invisible backpacks on, into which they repeatedly stuff hurtful exchanges from the near and distant past. Eventually, in the interest of self-preservation, they retreat to their own corner, cubicle, classroom, office. Making team chemistry even more elusive.

And now I should probably do what all bloggers are supposed to do if they want to grow their readership—help readers. Instead of bullshitting you though, I’m going to be honest. On this Sunday evening, my insights into team chemistry and decision-making dysfunction greatly exceeds my feel for promising fixes.

But I know for a fact that some of you are team leaders who know more about building and maintaing team chemistry than I do. And some of you are members of healthy teams who can offer helpful suggestions on how to maintain team chemistry—whether a couple, a small organization, or a ginormous company. Your turn.