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Tool Box: Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams

Tool Box: Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams

One of my recent clients, whom I’ll call Mary, complained that she couldn’t count on her team to produce the work she needed from them. She said that every time she gave them an assignment (for example, producing the budget reports she needed for year-end reporting and planning), she wasn’t satisfied with what they delivered. The whole team would agree to the work in a team meeting, but then would individually miss the deadline, or come back with questions that Mary thought had been addressed in the meeting. Then, when she finally got the reports themselves, they didn’t include the information she had asked for, or weren’t in the format she needed to satisfy her own boss, or spelled out results that were a surprise to Mary.

As we worked together, Mary realized two things. First, she was stuck in a pattern with her team. As she said it, “I tell them my expectations, and nothing happens. So I tell them my expectations again, and nothing happens.” Second, she began to see how she contributed to this pattern. Because, when her team didn’t meet her expectations, Mary would inevitably step in and do the work herself. She would spend hours re-doing the reports in the way she wanted them. And next time, the pattern would repeat itself.

This story illustrates unilateral control, one of the two basic approaches to leading teams that Roger Schwarz describes in his book Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams: How to Get Unstuck to Get Results. In Mary’s case, her unilateral control approach to her team led to repeated poor results. In his book, Schwarz explores both the unilateral control and the mutual learning approaches to leading teams, and makes a strong case that the capacity for mutual learning is indispensable for any team that wants to produce excellent results over the long term. This book is a practical and thought-provoking tool for team leaders at any level of an organization.

Essentially, a unilateral control approach to leading teams rests of the assumption (conscious or not) that there is one leader in the room. While there’s no denying that the formal team leader is ultimately the one responsible for decisions and results, a “one leader in the room” approach invariably leads to a situation where everybody, the formal leader included, assumes that she or he is the only one responsible for leading discussions, resolving conflicts, holding people accountable for performance, and raising tough issues. Team members get to just show up; and, if things go badly, blame the leader.

This is exactly what was happening with Mary and her team. She assumed that the responsibility for both holding people accountable and transforming the pattern they were stuck in was hers alone. As a result, she actually expected little from her team, and that’s what she got.

learningMutual learning, on the other hand, rests on the assumption that everybody in the room is a leader and has the responsibility to engage in leadership behaviors that support the success of the team. This doesn’t mean that the formal leader is no longer on the hook for results, nor does it mean that she or he abdicates decision making responsibility. (Schwarz does a good job of describing what a mutual learning approach can look like even in situations where the formal leader makes an executive decision.) It does mean that every single member of the team sees himself or herself as personally responsible for the success of the whole, and is committed to doing everything possible to bring that success about.

Schwarz clearly describes and compares the values, assumptions, and behaviors that combine to produce either a unilateral control or mutual learning approach to team challenges:

Unilateral Control

Mutual Learning

  • Win, don’t lose
  • Be right
  • Minimize expressions of rational feelings
  • Act rational
  • Be transparent
  • Be curious
  • Create informed choice
  • Share accountability
  • I understand the situation; those who disagree don’t.
  • I am right; those who disagree are wrong.
  • I have pure motives; those who disagree have questionable motives.
  • My feelings and behavior are justified.
  • I am not contributing to the problem.
  • I have information; so do other people.
  • Each of us sees things others don’t.
  • People may disagree with me and still have pure motives.
  • Differences are opportunities for learning.
  • I may be contributing to the problem.
  • State my views without asking for others’ views, or vice versa.
  • Withhold relevant information.
  • Speak in general terms and don’t agree on what important words means.
  • Keep my reasoning private; don’t ask others about their reasoning.
  • Focus on positions, not interests.
  • Act on untested assumptions and inferences as if they were true.
  • Control the conversation.
  • Avoid, ease into, or save face on difficult issues.
  • State views and ask genuine questions.
  • Share all relevant information.
  • Use specific examples and agree on what important words mean.
  • Explain reasoning and intent.
  • Focus on interests, not positions.
  • Test assumptions and inferences.
  • Jointly design next steps.
  • Discuss undiscussable issues.

He also outlines the results that each approach is likely to produce in terms of the performance, working relationships, and individual well-being of team members. And, no surprise here, a mutual learning approach yields much better team results, including higher-quality decisions, greater innovation, shorter implementation times, increased trust and commitment, and reduced costs.

What I find most interesting about Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams is that everything in the tables above seems so obvious. Who wouldn’t immediately adopt a mutual learning approach to leading teams? And yet, it wasn’t that easy for Mary. Schwarz does a good job of pointing out the extent to which all of us can so quickly fall into the trap of unilateral control, and not even necessarily know it.

We can debate the reasons for this, but all you really need to do is look around at how the leaders, teams, and organizations around you function (and if you’re courageous you can take a hard look at how you function), and you’ll see plenty of examples of unilateral control mindset and behaviors. Schwarz’s insistence, then, on the need to practice mutual learning, and his examples of how to do so, become very relevant.

Here are the things I find most valuable in this book:

  1. Schwarz links all of what he claims about the benefits of a mutual learning approach to existing research on leadership and teams. He’s not just making this stuff up.
  2. He really emphasizes the importance of mindset throughout the book. He defines mindset as the values and assumptions of each approach to team leadership, and argues that mindset is as important, if not more important, than the accompanying behaviors themselves. If you have ever been in a meeting with someone who is asking questions as a leadership technique but is not truly curious about the answers, you know what Schwarz is talking about here.
  3. The book offers many clear descriptions of both unilateral control and mutual learning. Schwarz provides lots of examples of what each looks like, based on his years of experience working with leaders and teams, so you get a very complete picture that’s easy to understand.
  4. Schwarz outlines a clear framework for practicing mutual learning and introducing it to your team. The behaviors associated with mutual learning are concrete, and again there are many examples of actual language that you can use to talk about mutual learning with your team.
  5. He doesn’t ignore the larger context that contributes to team success. In addition to focusing on mindset and behaviors, Schwarz includes a discussion about things like mission, culture, role clarity, reward systems, resources available, and the physical environment, all of which influence the productivity and success of any team. While he acknowledges that teams can’t always influence all of these factors, he makes a strong case that adopting a mutual learning approach will improve results regardless.

The one thing I find missing from Schwarz’s comprehensive picture is any tool to help leaders manage the reason why using mutual learning in challenging team situations is so easy to understand and yet so hard to do: the fact that we are biological creatures whose nervous systems are designed to protect us from threats. Schwarz does acknowledge how easy it is to get trapped in a unilateral control approach, and mentions the fact that we all have triggers. He says, “people generally use a unilateral control approach when they feel challenged, threatened, or embarrassed in some way.” Yet, he offers no tool for managing and shifting out of the physical constriction that happens when you are triggered. Without the ability to do this, no amount of cognitive understanding will help you stay with a mutual learning approach when the pressure rises.

The bottom line is that Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams is an excellent resource that offers practical and concrete tools to help you and your team develop the mindset and skills that lead first to mutual learning and ultimately to improved results. I suggest you read it and, more importantly, practice with the concepts and tools Schwarz offers. (You can find more resources from him at Roger Schwarz & Associates.) Then include a somatic practice of centering similar to what I offer in my coaching programs and Leadership Embodiment workshops (and available from my teacher Wendy Palmer as an iTunes app), and you’ll be well-positioned to apply the wisdom that this books offers, and reap the benefits that it promises.

What about you? What do you and your team do that helps you successfully learn together? What challenges do you face as you work with the mindset and behaviors of mutual learning? Please share your comments below!

2 Responses to Tool Box: Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams

  1. Richard Wilkinson says:

    I appreciate your sharing Schwarz’s views in such a clear and well-organized way. It made me think of my own behavior in leading my team meetings. Here’s the challenge: I have done more and thought more about my discipline–HR and OD–than my staff. My staff is capable, yet have no experience outside this single employer. They are deeply knowledgeable of the ways in which this one employer works; they are not grounded in the theories and principles underlying HR and OD generally. I fear in my enthusiasm to teach them I may be overly dominating the airtime. Yet it is important to me for them to have at their disposal tools and principles that will make them more skillful in serving others. I think I will use Shwarz’s table for a team evaluation.

    By the way, I also appreciated your reminder of the biological origin of controlling behavior. I was puzzling this morning why some people sow sadness in their habitual interactions with others. It is protective. Which is kind of sad, too, that they feel so vulnerable they must harm others to feel safe.

    Keep blogging, Karen!

    • Karen says:

      Thanks for your comment, Richard! It leaves me curious what your team would have to say if you put your dilemma on the table and asked for their thoughts about how to best manage it. How to honor both your greater experience and their capacity to grow? What requests might they have for how you navigate that? I’m glad the post stirred this reflection for you – and I’d love to hear how it goes to use Schwarz’s table for a team evaluation! You also might find the team survey that he has on his website interesting.

      take care!