“Everything would be great if I didn’t have to deal with so many people problems!” As an executive coach working with rapidly evolving organizations and their leaders, a common problem leaders work through in our sessions is helping their teams adapt to change. Here’s what you’d hear if you could be a fly on the wall.
The first step is to understand what’s really happening. In leading a team through an adaptive challenge, a leader must first take a step back and really see the challenge or conflict for what it is. This involves depersonalizing the situation and not taking sides, and seeking to understand all the moving parts. This can be done by taking time away, talking to advisors, or simply attending a meeting to observe and learn, rather than participate.
What type of problem is it? Is it a technical/process or adaptive?
Understanding what kind of problem exists can help a leader match leader strategy to the situation.
It’s a skills/technical problem.
A skills problem is a problem that is clearly defined. Usually the problem can be solved with better utilization of the organization’s existing resources or by the leader themselves by providing direction. When it cannot, it is often because a person within the organization doesn’t have the right level of experience or knowledge. If time and resources allow, finding the most efficient way to acquire the knowledge, either through formal learning or external resource is needed. If an employee’s skills can’t level up fast enough to catch the organization’s growth curve, hiring additional staff, or in extreme cases making the difficult decision to part ways with an employee, may be needed.
It’s an adaptive problem.
A sure sign something is an adaptive problem is if emotions are high or people need to learn new ways of doing or thinking about things. These kinds of problems a leader cannot change alone or with outside expertise; they need their team mates to come along for the solution. When these sorts of challenges occur, we look for these four common types of challenges occur:
There’s a gap between what an organization says it values and its actions. People’s BS meter is high. No one gets away with this one. We once had a client whose stated values were candor and feedback, but whose CEO would become angry when receiving feedback. Situational values don’t count. Culture is defined by the worst behavior we tolerate.
Competing goals. Often, as organizations scale, we see competing priorities. A desire to hire quickly but include lots of interviewers. A desire to promote internally but lacking internal candidates. Wanting to drive sales while keeping expenses low. Give people priorities or they’ll hesitate or make up their own.
Low psychological safety. Lots has been written about candor and tough conversations; when “untouchable” or reality/problems cannot be openly addressed, adaptive problems rear their heads. Does your team have meetings outside of meetings? Is there something “everyone knows” but no one says? Psychological safety is low and people aren’t talking.
Refusal to try new ways of working. Employees stay where they are comfortable, defaulting to old ways of working and thinking. A common thing we hear is “but we agreed and then people went back to doing whatever the heck they wanted!” The language is often more colorful on this one.
Four ways to drive team evolution: What should a leader do?
Normalize the friction.
A key strategy for a leader helping a team adapt is to normalize the conflict. We often tell teams, “Good news! The baby’s not ugly! Your team is storming! Now let’s get to it!”
Creating a space for a team to solve and process the problem is key to successfully driving adaptation. During times of organizational change, individuals experience stress and insecurity. A leader must help moderate the pace of change, frame the change, and provide direction and guidance to the team as it works to adapt. Successful leaders not only provide direction, but also help mitigate conflict, help establish productive ways of working, and clarify roles and expectations.
Many teams do offsites or have team meetings and believe the problem is fixed. Change is hard and going back to comfortable behaviors and mindsets is easy. Adaptation and change is a process, and in a rapidly growing company, a continuous one. A leader must drive focus and attention to the continuous need for evolution, to productive behaviors, and to desired outcomes, not just in meetings but in day-to-day interactions. Without focus, teams default back to less-than-productive behaviors to avoid change. These can include questioning authority, questioning work and direction, and infighting on teams, among many other behavioral challenges.
Let people do their jobs.
As quickly as possible, a leader must push the work back to those they are leading. If a leader has gotten involved to help drive change, they must pass the new process or way of working back to the team quickly. If prior patterns re-emerge, leaders need to drive focus and then push the change back down. The faster and more often people practice the new approach, way of thinking, or process, the more likely change is to accelerate and stick.
Listen. Protect the naysayers.
One of the most common underestimated challenges leaders face is understanding what’s real and what isn’t. Often those closest to the leader, in the leader’s “in group” tend to overly agree or paint a rosy picture of reality. Those with opposing views, or on the margins, are labelled as complainers or problem children. A leader who’s focused at driving change must listen carefully as these out-group members often voice the nuggets of truth a leader needs to truly drive the organization forward.
Leading a rapidly scaling business isn’t for the faint of heart, but when a leader can help a team adapt and thrive, it can be an extraordinarily rewarding career experience and lead to powerful outcomes.
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