For nearly 13 years I had a job that I could not leave. The work was satisfying. I was recognized for my effort. But the pay wasn’t great. In fact, the organization was struggling, and in the last half-dozen or so years of my employment there, my salary decreased each year. Every employee would work harder than the year before as we’d try to keep the doors open, and each year we’d receive word that we’d have to take a furlough week or two—essentially an unpaid vacation. The promised retirement account sat unfunded. Emails would circulate at year-end stating how the leadership team had taken pay cuts and letting us know that health insurance contribution would increase, and there’d be no raises. And yet almost no one left.
I felt so bonded with my teammates that even though I’ve not been employed there for over 10 years, I still say “we” when talking about the organization. I belong to a private alumni group on Facebook comprised of those who have left. I’ve spent Christmas with former colleagues who married and started a family after leaving. And I cross the country to go to the alumni reunions whenever I can. I have collaborated with former colleagues who’ve brought me in to consult at the companies where they have landed.
Why was the bond so tight that I didn’t want to leave a company like that? It wasn’t a lack of opportunities. I stayed, as did most of my peers, because we bonded as a team. We were in it together, working side by side, as comrades, to win the war that was sustainability.
I’ve come to realize, both through the literature on employee retention and through my own experience as a business consultant and trainer, that the bonding that happens when individual employees are working as a team is the glue that increases commitment and decreases turnover.
But that bond can either be made of crazy glue or a flexible luminescent thread running seamlessly through the company. You get to pick which.
Let’s examine some differences.
In a crazy glue organization, the staff is tightly bonded generally in spite of and frequently against leadership. Small factions or silos develop, and alliances shift easily. You are never quite sure who is with you or against you. Trust is low or nonexistent. There is a scarcity mentality, and siloed teams compete tooth and nail for resources. Leadership meetings are mine fields of manipulation and include back door negotiating for budget dollars to advance their own department.
I was talking to a former C-level executive from a large media corporation who told me that when he walked into his leadership team meetings, he had one agenda and that was to grab as many resources for his department as possible, in any way he could. His job depended on the success of his team. His survival depended on it. If he put his guard down for even a minute, his peers would attack like sharks going after weakened prey.
His team was tight. They knew he had their back. They knew he was fighting for them to get as much of the budget pie as possible. This knowledge bonded them, and they lined up to support him whenever possible. They also built an invisible fortress to keep the other teams out.
Teams that are held together by the crazy glue bond are depending on fear and scarcity. They are teams in which drama and gossip is rampant. Venting is a time and energy suck. They spend more time speculating about who or what is to blame than they do reflecting, learning, and creating proactive solutions.
Their members are similar to the dysfunctional family you may know who gossips about their siblings, but lord help you if you join in! They will turn on you in a heartbeat.
Crazy glue members often develop a story that the organization could not survive without them. Often, management buys that story. “They would never survive without me” or “Good luck to them to get someone who works as hard as me” are the battle cries of crazy glue members.
Crazy glue members take business decisions personally and become resistant, defiant, or otherwise resist accountability. They use sarcasm, avoidance, or pouting to gain the attention and sympathy of others or to manipulate specific outcomes in their personal favor despite what is good for the whole.
Crazy glue members withhold information to prove their individual importance to the organization. They believe their thankless hard work entitles them to watch others struggle for the same learning.
Crazy glue members resist change and frequently chew up and spit out new ideas like rotten eggs for breakfast. They mantra is, “We’ve tried that 5 years ago and it didn’t work” or “You just don’t understand how things are around here.”
The crazy glue bond is firm but not flexible. It can become brittle under strain and stress. It doesn’t take well to changing conditions and climates.
Flexible, luminescent thread
Organizations whose teams are bonded with a flexible, luminescent thread are ones in which teams are clear on the organization-wide goals and the roles their team members play in achieving those goals. And when those goals are achieved, everyone feels an intrinsic sense of achievement.
The flexibility of the luminescent thread means that there are not silos battling for resources because they trust that leadership is able to have healthy dialogue and identify the best application of resources. Because individual strengths are understood and valued, they aren’t resistant or territorial when they are called to support other work groups.
In this organization, people are confident. They ask clarifying questions and participate in healthy conflict as a tool for efficient and effective problem solving. They trust that the decisions made are in the best interest of all. There is no need for gossip or backdoor negotiations because everyone knows that asking for information is appropriate and valued.
New initiatives and changes are shared early. Everyone understands the context and the potential gain. Communication meetings are held regularly, and all parties are able to share, inquire, and clarify. Members are encouraged to proactively bring snags and challenges into the light for discussion. Perhaps not everyone agrees, but as decisions are made, the team agrees to move forward in unity. If someone just can’t get on board, they are provided with support to make a healthy decision about what is next.
With this flexible thread of teamwork, everyone understands that they are part of the stewardship of the organization or company for however long they are employed there. They know that they are valued and that there are also many others who have both similar and distinctive talents who could step in and do well when they are ready to move on.
Flexible thread organizations value and plan time for cross-training, information sharing, reflection on lessons learned, and mentoring. Their members believe it is their job to plan for succession and want to make sure their predecessor is set up as well as possible.
I frequently get called in to deal with the symptoms that manifest from crazy glue teams. I hear statements like the following:
- “We’d like to hire you to help us deal with gossip and drama.”
- “We’d like a workshop to break down silos.”
- “We are having a big problem with accountability.”
- “We are afraid of what would happen if the Director leaves; no one could possibly replace her.”
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could come in for two or three hours and fix whatever presenting symptoms you are noticing? Yes it would. But the truth is that if you want to transition from a crazy glue team to a team connected by a flexible, luminescent thread, we need to start at the foundation level.
Starting at the foundation level means that we need to focus on the following:
- Break down stories and myths.
- Shift the competition for scarce resources to an environment where everyone is focused on the good of the whole and understands how their strengths play into supporting that.
- Foster an environment where healthy conflict is practiced as the quickest and most effective way to come up with best solutions and where team members understand their own strengths and the strengths of others.
- Create an environment where people who resist change and accountability are supported to change and grow or exit without disruption.
There are many ways to begin loosening the negative bonds and building positive ones. For many organizations who are short on budget and time but who feel an urgent need, I recommend starting with a team development day. Team development is different than what team building has come to mean.
What comes to mind when you think of team building? Perhaps something as simple as a pizza party or as adventurous as a fire walk? I’m talking about neither.
A team development day results in:
- Understanding and acknowledgement of strengths.
- Communication of norms and expectations.
- The ability to switch from unhealthy to healthy conflict.
- Increased team and individual accountability.
- Movement toward trust.
- Will a day-long program provide your organization with enough to shift the culture permanently? No. But it will it start to move the needle? Absolutely. Will it demonstrate what is possible? Absolutely.
The executive I mentioned above left the organization and started his own company. He created the environment he desired, a place more like the luminescent thread than the crazy glue.
I left the company I worked for. I entered another one closer to the luminescent thread. I could so clearly see the difference in the culture, the success, the positivity, and the quality of the team that I decided to make it my life’s work to understand and consult on creating more companies with the latter.
If you see the benefit of making such a shift, or if you’ve made a shift and want to take it to the next level, check out the description of my team development workshop and then email me or call to begin.
Introductory Team Development Workshop – The first step in transforming or improving teams and workgroups.
An integral first step in improving culture, climate, retention, and goal achievement, Beth will communicate with you in advance to ensure that the goals and culture of the organization are understood and incorporated in the design.
The workshop is then intentionally designed to be meaningful and relevant for your participants.
Groups of 6-30 participants from all levels of your organization will take a confidential online strengths or work style assessment in advance of the workshop. During the workshop they will participate in fun and engaging activities, dialogues, and spot coaching to advance understanding and effective use of the both individual and shared strengths.
Throughout the workshop they will explore cognitive shortcuts, triggers, and the how’s and why’s of resisting accountability and collaboration. Through the lens of brain-based research and emotional intelligence, they will begin to debunk common myths and challenge their own long-held thinking errors that stifle collaboration and clear communication. The experiences of the day will help them to begin to unpack silo and scarcity thinking and develop a strategy for moving forward with improved unity and trust.
Following the workshop Beth will provide recommended next steps and resources for continued team development.
Recommended time frame: 6 hours, including a 45-minute lunch break.
Suitable for executive teams, mid-level teams, cross-functional teams, departments, or virtual workgroups.
To learn more and schedule this important workshop at your site with your group, click here.
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