Better Team Dynamics Make for Better Thought Leadership: 3 Tips

It is a truth universally acknowledged that most work today is team based. A recent Harvard Business Review study was predicated on the proposition that “teamwork is . . . a key to organizational success.”

Producing thought leadership is also a team effort. Subject matter experts can’t always communicate their ideas in ways that will command attention; they often need writers and editors to help them shape and articulate their insights. Editorial directors and marketers need writers and experts who, in turn, need directors and marketers to publish and promote articles in ways that will profit the individuals and their firms.

Teamwork is critical to success. It always has been. But now teamwork, and optimizing it, has become a thing, a popular subject for academic study. And everybody has a theory. The Six Sigma folk say the key is “enthusiasm and dedication” and “fun” (along with a whole lot of process). Managers-Net says team success depends on (what else?) good managers, and support from the top. Even the U.S. Office of Personnel Management has weighed in, emphasizing “the satisfaction [the team’s] members derive from that work as individuals.

But is any of this true? How would one know? How would one find out?

Google – with its 61,000 employees, and hundreds of initiatives running simultaneously – desperately wanted (and needed) to know. So it turned its Big Data guns on the problem of how to improve team performance. Or, as described in a recent New York Times Sunday Magazine article, how to “build the perfect team,” optimized for performance.

Google, as is its wont, began by measuring everything it could to divine what made the best teams tick. After compiling mountains of (big) data, and spending a small (for Google) fortune, it found . . . not much.

Google was baffled. Some successful teams were composed of people who socialized during and after work; other successful teams barely knew each other’s names. Some underperforming teams were managed hierarchically; some underperforming teams were happy little democracies. But no clear pattern emerged from the data to nail down what made for an optimally functioning team.

After about three years, Google concluded that it didn’t matter who was on a team, or how it operated (top-down or flat). What mattered was that the team members – whatever their Myers-Briggs personality type or degree of expertise – respected one another, and felt safe enough to speak openly and emotionally.

How does that translate to the team producing thought leadership?

In brief, it’s up to the editorial director – or whoever is in charge of the process – to create that safe environment.

This sounds suspiciously like “tone from the top,” and my colleague, Tim Parker, recently noted that “tone from the top” is a business shibboleth. That’s no doubt true in enormous organizations. But teams – such as those that produce thought leadership articles – are small enough that the leader can and does have a huge impact. So how can a leader create that zone of what Google called “psychological safety” in which creativity and productivity will flourish?

The New York Sunday Times article went a little vague on that question. It pointed to one leader who told his team that he had cancer. That, the article suggested, created a safe zone for people to talk about their own problems, and the team’s performance improved measurably. But that’s a tad dramatic, and a leader can help create a psychological safe zone without putting his or her life on the line. Here are three suggestions for how to do that:

  1. Make it personal. In thought leadership content development, the team is always changing. You have different subject matter experts for each article or study, and often different writers, internal or external. But one of the insights Google gained was that teams that saw each other as individuals outperformed teams that did not. So begin conversations by discussing something that’s not about work. If you’re speaking with an expert or a writer on the phone (as is often the case), ask where they are. Ask about the weather. If you hear a dog barking in the background, ask about the dog. If you’re speaking with someone in Boston, ask about the Red Sox, or the Patriots. (Bostonians are weird that way.) The same applies to writers speaking with experts, and to experts speaking with writers. You can afford to take a few minutes to get to know something about the person you’re working with. Investing just a little time so that everyone on the team will see the other people as human beings – not just work widgets – will improve outcomes.
  2. Make fun of yourself. Nothing creates a safe zone better than the boss pointing to his or her own quirks. That allows your team to do the same. Soon, every team member will begin seeing each other as human, with all the foibles every person has, and feel safe enough to joke about them. That’s important. In thought leadership development, the writer is at a disadvantage with respect to the topic; the expert will always know more. Make a funny about it. (I often ask SMEs to explain issues to me as if I were a 12-year-old. Okay, that’s not hilarious, but it acknowledges the asymmetry of knowledge twixt writer and expert, while simultaneously defusing any resentment said expert may have by being forced to speak with someone who knows a lot less than he or she does.) Joking, in general, generates a positive, easy-going environment in which work becomes more pleasurable. People who enjoy working tend to do it better than those who don’t. 
  3. Offer respect. Presumably, your experts and writers are the best. That’s why you’ve picked them to produce and publish your firm’s thought leadership. Say so. Build up the writer to the expert, and the expert to the writer. Encourage them to see each other as professionals, working together, in some sort of equal relationship – a partnership, if you will. If they do, the writer will feel safe enough to test the expert’s thinking (thereby improving it), and the expert will feel safe enough to push back while remaining engaged (thereby expanding his or her own thinking). Ultimately, this will produce better thought leadership, which will make you, and your firm, look good.

None of this is outlandish; none of this should come as a surprise to good managers and professionals. However, it never hurts to be reminded that work – especially thought leadership – not only is accomplished by people, but that people are not entirely cerebral about work. Even the production of thought leadership, which sounds cerebral as all get out, has emotional and psychological components. That may be a truth not yet universally acknowledged, but it should be.

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