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Turning People On to Teamwork

June 9, 2022

My recent posts explored what it means to be a team, the five levels of teamwork, how to build performance, the four major team player types, and the four stages of team development.

It’s important that leaders set the proper context—the atmosphere—for teamwork. Remember, teamwork is not an end to itself. It’s built around the need to accomplish something. A common purpose, mutual accountability, interdependence of effort, and trust serve as the foundation to building a strong team.

In building a strong team, it’s vital in the early stage that people learn about themselves. They need to understand their own strengths and weaknesses and what they need to do to respond to the latter. They must develop their own personal visions of what they want to achieve in their lives and how they’re going to realize this. And a key component of this is people taking responsibility for their personal growth and development. This is achieved best by adopting a lifelong learning philosophy, one in which the team member strives to continually improve himself or herself.

Following this approach will enable a team’s members to transcend to team learning. In essence, this is not just about sharing information. More importantly, it’s about the existing boundaries among team members. Interpersonal learning takes place when the members must depend on one another for their own rewards. Of course, this raises such issues as resolving conflict effectively, solving problems collaboratively, and running productive meetings.

Turning people on to teamwork means creating those conditions that allow people to meet their personal needs by performing the work themselves. Instead of motivation, what drives people forward is commitment, in which their energy is directed towards a goal. To build commitment is less a matter of changing the person as it is creating the right conditions.

The team leader requires special skills if he or she is to be successful in fostering team learning and in setting boundaries for the team. These essential skills include: leading the team towards creating a common vision and team goals, communicating clearly and concisely, running productive meetings, and solving problems quickly, as well as anticipating them.

A great deal has been written on leadership, to the point where it is used loosely without a clear understanding. The distinction between a leader and a manager can be explained this way: One is given management responsibilities–power and control over people and things. Leadership, on the other hand, must be earned.

In a team setting, this requirement to earn the privilege of being the team leader cannot be overstated. The leader’s purpose is to inspire and mobilize the team to higher levels of performance. The leader achieves this by enabling the team’s members. And this can only be done if the leader gives up control. This is one of the most difficult challenges many managers will experience in their careers. Yet it’s essential if the members of a team are to assume greater responsibility and ownership for their work.

Abraham Maslow made this poignant comment on control and authority, and one that should be heeded by aspiring leaders: “When the only tool I have is a hammer, I tend to treat everyone like a nail.”

Don’t forget that an effective team isn’t just concerned with getting work done but also with how it gets done. Process (how decisions are made) is critical. Strong teams with solid leaders don’t compromise or vote. They operate by consensus, guided by their common vision and purpose.

In teamwork, silence isn’t golden, it’s deadly.
— Mark Sanborn

Connect with Jim on Twitter @jlctaggart and LinkedIn

The Four Stages of Team Development

May 26, 2022

Today, we’ll look at the four stages of team development and incorporate the four team player styles that were presented earlier. (Reading What Kind of Team Player Are You? is helpful to understanding this post.)

  1. Forming: 

This occurs when people are first brought together to form a team. They begin to get to know one another and set out to establish the appropriate rules and behaviours that will govern the team. The members look to the team leader for direction. Interactions among the members are somewhat formal and polite during this phase.

During forming, the Doer wants to know where he fits in and his specific role. He can be helpful by being a catalyst to action and getting the team to move ahead. The Visionary helps by encouraging the members to share their visions and to set goals. The Feeler wants to be accepted by the others and to help people to get to know one another. Moreover, she wants the team to understand its diversity. The Boat Rocker wants openness and the team to have a clear purpose and direction.

2. Storming:

The members are getting comfortable with one another. They start disagreeing and challenging each other. If this stage is missed, the team won’t be as strong because it hasn’t yet learned how to deal with conflict.

The Doer is getting impatient because he wants results. He can help the team by urging it to move ahead. The Visionary worries that the team is getting distracted from its goals. She can assist by promoting the common good and being open to ideas. The Feeler functions best during this stage. He wants to help his teammates be productive by using effective listening skills. And the Boat Rocker thrives here because it involves high energy. She can help by showing the proper way to challenge people and when to put an issue to rest.

3. Norming: 

The members know each other and have developed rules of conduct. They want the team to be successful. Trust is being established, and the members are having fun.

The Doer in this stage is excited because the team is getting down to real work. He plays a key role here. He can help the leader set standards (e.g., quality) and promote accountability and the effective use of resources. The Visionary wants to be reassured that the team is moving towards its goal. She may be concerned with camaraderie. The Feeler is happy that the team has reached this stage, but wonders if all the baggage has been discarded. He encourages the team to do some reflection. And the Boat Rocker becomes concerned that members are getting complacent and not challenging one another.

4. Performing: 

In this final stage, the team has a clear, common purpose and direction. The members appreciate their diversity and are building on it. Synergy is taking hold.

The Doer is worried about the team not being aware of external changes. He can be a catalyst to setting new standards. The Visionary becomes bored and wants the team to seek out new challenges. She can help by encouraging the generation of new ideas. The Feeler is happy with the team’s progress and wants to celebrate. However, he’s concerned with the potential for regression. He can help by encouraging the team to celebrate and to air problems. The Boat Rocker thinks that the members are not challenging each other enough. She can help the leader by raising external changes that may affect the team.

What’s important to remember is that a team will typically move back and forth between certain stages as it develops. This is normal and should be expected.

Here are two questions for you to think about: what stage is your team at, and what role are YOU playing in helping it move forward?

A boat doesn’t go forward if each one is rowing their own way.
— Swahili Proverb

Connect with Jim on Twitter @jlctaggart and LinkedIn

What Kind of Team Player Are You?

May 8, 2022

In my last post I talked about building team performance. Today, we look at what kind of team player you are.

An effective team needs diversity in its membership, a combination of work and personality styles. The following four team player styles are not intended to be absolutes but rather preferences that people have towards how they work with others. Each style has a brief description of its strengths and weaknesses.

1. The Doer is very task-oriented and action-focused. Give him a job and he’s happy. The Doer is good at research, reliable, meets deadlines, and produces good quality work. He operates by priorities and pushes the team towards higher performance. He can be effective at teaching technical skills.

The Doer dislikes uncertainty and ambiguity; is impatient; wants results immediately; can be too focused on data; is impulsive; strives for perfection; and tends to avoid risk. If the Doer is the leader, he must be must be especially careful of these weaknesses. One major problem can be a lack of trust in the team’s members. Moreover, he must be aware of others’ feelings and work at interpersonal and communication skills.

2. The Visionary sees the big picture and likes ideas and concepts. She lets the team’s vision and mission be the driver. She doesn’t like getting bogged down in details, leaving these to the Doer. She believes strongly in teamwork and is good at helping others understand where they fit in to the larger picture.

The Visionary is a creative thinker and stimulates others in thinking about the future. She takes a cooperative and flexible approach to working with others. However, she must pay attention to her weaknesses. She has a tendency to ignore work in favour of conceptualizing and dreaming about the future. She can get hung up on process instead of results. And she may over-commit the team to setting too many objectives

If she’s the leader, the Visionary has a lot to offer the team, especially in the area of long-term strategic thinking. But she must be aware of her weaknesses.

3. The Feeler is a very strong context person, making sure that everyone is on board before proceeding with a task or project. He’s very aware of how others feel and is an excellent listener and facilitator. He’s skilled at resolving conflicts and won’t let stronger members dominate team discussions.

The Feeler must be careful not to push the soft stuff too hard (i.e., listening and feedback skills) if the team gets bogged down. He believes that interpersonal skills will solve all problems. And he can become a process fanatic, driving the others to distraction.

If he is the leader, the Feeler creates a participative atmosphere. But his people approach can be over- bearing and he must not lose sight that disputes are normal and healthy for teams.

4. The Boat Rocker is open and direct with the other members of the team. She regularly challenges the team on such issues as methods used, goals, and team values. She won’t hesitate to disagree with the team’s leader or with management. She likes to take calculated risks. However, the Boat Rocker must be careful not to use her style for non-productive use. It’s necessary at times to let an issue drop. Moreover, she shouldn’t push the team to take unnecessary risks.

As the team’s leader, she’s good at promoting an atmosphere of trust and openness; innovation; and continuous learning. However, she needs to watch out for being too argumentative.

The Challenge
Each of us has a personality preference to how we approach work, establish relationships with co-workers, and engage in collaborative learning. In the context of team players, the challenge is for each of us to understand our preferred style and to use it effectively. This means being constantly aware of the shadow (weak) aspects of our preferred style. Moreover, we must strive for balance by using all four styles in the appropriate settings.

Interdependent people combine their own efforts with the efforts of others to achieve their greatest success.— Stephen Covey

Connect with Jim on Twitter @jlctaggart and LinkedIn

How Do You Build Team Performance? (Very Carefully) 

April 17, 2022

In my last post we looked at The Five Levels of Teams: Where Are You on the Team Performance Curve? We’ll now move into the really challenging part of creating teamwork. Are you ready?

There’s no ideal approach to building a team. A team must learn as it’s developing a preferred approach to how it will function in getting the work done. What’s important to remember is that performance is at the core of building a strong team. Performance serves, in effect, as the compass to moving a team up the performance curve.

Here’s an eight point framework for moving a team up the performance curve (adapted from Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith, (The Wisdom of Teams).

1. Create a sense of urgency
Everyone on the team must believe that the team has urgent and worthwhile purposes. The greater the urgency and purpose, the more likely that a real team will emerge.

2. Select members by skills, not by personalities
Effective teams need complementary skills. The three broad types of skills are: technical, problem-solving, and interpersonal. What’s critical for the potential team is to achieve the right balance in skills. But it’s not necessary for members to have all the technical skills immediately. Instead, the key is to have the needed skills at the team’s start-up and the ability for members to acquire additional skills later on. Key skills that should be learned at the start-up include interpersonal, problem-solving, and team skills.

3. Give sufficient time to initial meetings
This is a vital time in a team’s development. The first few meetings involve members getting to know one another. Assumptions are either confirmed or destroyed. Members watch the leader to determine if his or her actions are consistent with what is said. Is the leader control-oriented or flexible? Is the leader sensitive to how members react to his or her style? Can the leader change behaviour?

4. Establish rules of behaviour
A real team has a set of rules to guide it—call it a code of conduct. Without rules, it’s impossible for a group or potential team to transcend to a real team. At the early stage, rules include: attendance, confidentiality, open discussion, constructive disagreement, and fair workload. These rules encourage participation, openness, commitment, and trust.

5. Set some short-term goals
Doing this helps create some momentum to propel the team forward. It ensures that the goals are reasonable and can be reached fairly and quickly. And it acts as a great motivator.

6. Shake them up with new information
This is especially important for intact teams because they tend to block out new information. An example is a management team that’s given new information on employee attitudes and perceptions from a survey. The team reacts in surprise. Giving a team new information serves as a catalyst to the members to help them refocus on the team’s performance. It’s also dangerous for members to assume that they hold all the necessary information collectively.

7. Interact at work and outside
A team must not just spend a lot of time together at work but also time together outside of work. This is especially important during its early stage of development. Members need to have fun, both at work and outside. This promotes a bonding element. Potential teams are weakest here and must make conscious efforts to include socializing.

8. Recognize team performance
Achieving a high level of performance is a team’s ultimate reward. But before that’s reached, it’s vital to recognize the team for its progress and achievements. Doing this keeps the team’s members focused and motivated.


If I could solve all the problems myself, I would. —Thomas Edison

Connect with Jim on Twitter @jlctaggart and LinkedIn

The Five Levels of Teams: Where Are You on the Team Performance Curve?

April 5, 2022

In the previous post Is Your Team REALLY a Team? Why Instant Pudding Doesn’t Cut It we looked at the six basic elements of what constitutes a team, and specifically the two key ingredients of teamwork: a common purpose and interdependency of effort.

Now we’ll move into understanding the five levels of teams. Using the questions posed in the first post will help a group determine if it’s a team or has the potential to become one. The next step is to understand the degree of teamwork to which a group of people can aspire.

The five levels of teamwork can be plotted on an X-Y axis to form what Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith call the team performance curve. It’s essentially a J-shaped curve, starting on the Y (vertical) axis, then sloping down to touch the X (horizontal) axis, and then bending back upwards to the right. The five levels of teams are located along the curve (diagram below).

1) The Working Group

The members interact mainly to share information and best practices and to make decisions. There are no common purpose or performance goals that require mutual accountability. The purpose of this group is only to specify the roles of its members and to delegate tasks.
Its members only take responsibility for their own results. Therefore, the focus is on individual performance. The key here is there is no significant, incremental performance need or opportunity that requires the group to become a team. Working groups are found throughout organizations, whether in business or government.

2) Pseudo Team

There’s a potential for significant, incremental gain here. The team has not, however, focused on collective performance. The members don’t want to take the risks necessary to become a potential team. They are not interested in creating a common purpose or setting performance goals.
The pseudo team resides at the bottom of the performance curve and is the weakest of the five levels. What is especially dangerous about the pseudo team is that the members believe that they are a real team, yet they produce inferior results.

3) The Potential Team

There is a significant, incremental gain in performance with this type of team. The members are working hard to achieve a higher level of performance. However, the members must work on developing a clear purpose, goals, and common approach. The members must also agree on mutual accountability. This form of teamwork is very common in organizations. This is also where the greatest gain in performance comes, from being a potential team to a real team.

4) The Real Team

This consists of a small group of people who share a common purpose, goals, and approach to work. The members have complementary skills. They hold themselves mutually accountable for their results. The performance impact and results of the real team are much greater than the potential team and working group.

5) The High Performance Team

This has all the characteristics of a real team, but the members are deeply committed to one another’s personal growth and development. They far out-perform all other teams. An excellent example are special ops teams, such was the one shown in the above photo.

The members of a high performance team form powerful relationships. Moving from a real team to a high performance team requires a very strong personal commitment. In effect, what’s needed is a leap of faith.

So where does your team sit on the team performance curve?

Navy SEALS say when you’re under pressure you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training. Train well. —Jon Gordon (Leadership author and speaker)

Connect with Jim on Twitter @jlctaggart and LinkedIn

Is Your Team REALLY a Team? Why Instant Pudding Doesn’t Cut It 

March 29, 2022

Teamwork is talked about widely in organizations, but often with little understanding of what it means. And now with the transformations of the workplace due to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic—changes early in their infancy on how organizations structure themselves and how employees work—the ability of people to work in teams faces new challenges.

Management typically wants immediate results—teams that are formed and ready to go overnight–something like an instant pudding. Well, that pudding will take longer to prepare as a result of organizational transformations.


This post, the first in a series on teamwork, looks at the six basic elements of teams. First, here’s one definition of a team (from Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith):

A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.

Think about that definition for a moment. What’s your reaction?

There are two key prerequisites to becoming a team. One is that the group of people involved has a shared, common purpose; the second is interdependence among the members. Without BOTH of these present the group will never become a team. It’s impossible.

It’s essential that the members of a team be committed fully to their common purpose and performance goals. A common purpose takes time to develop, but it gives the team an identity. Remember this: team purpose = team performance. They’re inseparable.

To determine if your group is a team, or has the potential, answer the following questions.

1) How large is your group?
• Is communication frequent?
• Do you meet often, and are discussions constructive?
• Do people understand their roles?

2) Are their sufficient, or potential, skills to achieve your goals?
• Are the three types of skills present: interpersonal, technical, and problem-solving?
• What skills are missing?
• Are people willing to learn new skills and to help one another?

3) Is there a clear and meaningful purpose to which people will strive to reach?
• Is it a team or organizational purpose?
• Does everyone understand it the same way?
• Do people think it’s important and inspiring?

4) Are there specific performance goals that everyone agrees on?
• Are they organizational, team, or the leader’s goals?
• Can they be measured easily?
• Do they allow for small wins along the way?

5) Is there a commonly accepted approach to work?
• Does it maximize the contributions of people?
• Does it allow open interaction among people to solve problems?
• Are new ideas encouraged?

6) Is there mutual accountability among people?
• Is there individual and mutual accountability for the group’s performance and results?
• Are people clear on what they’re accountable for, individually and mutually?
• Is there the view that only the team can fail?

These questions need to be asked and reflected upon to determine whether any elements of teamwork are present in your work setting. Pseudo teams abound in organizations. However, what we’re striving for is a common purpose and interdependency of effort as the key ingredients. The rest will come with dedicated effort.

Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision, the ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results. — Andrew Carnegie

Connect with Jim on Twitter @jlctaggart and LinkedIn

Lessons in Teamwork: Winning Despite Trenchfoot, Leeches and Hunger 

February 24, 2022

Many years ago, I watched Eco-Challenge 2000 on the Discovery Channel (a show that ran from 1995 to 2002), a fascinating event encompassing teamwork and leadership. This was my first experience watching Eco-Challenge, the highlights of which were broadcast over five evenings. I was skeptical at first about what I would get from this program. However, my interest in outdoor learning and team dynamics drew me to it. And even though that show ran two decades ago, it’s still very relevant to the changing workplace, especially with the organizational changes that are occurring as a result of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. 

Eco-Challenge was created in 1995, billing itself as the world’s premier expedition race. The first event was held in Utah, with subsequent ones being held in different countries. In 1996, for example, British Columbia hosted the event in Pemberton. Eco-Challenge 2000 was held in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. The theme was Malaysia’s wildlife. Of particular significance is the very strong conservation ethic that accompanies Eco-Challenge. For example, participants who do not adhere to the event’s strict environmental rules are forced to withdraw. As the saying goes: Pack it in, pack it out.

The event consisted of a brutal 500 km (300 mile) course involving sailing, hiking, biking, swimming, scuba diving, rappelling, and canoeing in indigenous craft. People from around the world participated, for a total of 76 teams. Canada sent four teams. Each team consisted of four people, with at least two females. For a team to have officially completed the race, it must have remained together throughout. If one member withdrew (e.g., injury), the team was disqualified. This set the stage for a high level of teamwork if all of the members were to succeed. Of the 76 teams, 44 completed the race, but of these some were disqualified for various reasons. However, they were permitted to continue in order that they could experience the course.

The top finishers completed the course in six days. However, many teams took up to 12 days to reach the finish line, the last of which was a 40 kilometre open-sea canoe paddle. Of special note was the decision to allow for the first time what could be called “non-professional” teams to participate. In the past, the participants were individuals who engaged in extreme sports, and who were “ranked” in terms of the likelihood of their winning an Eco-Challenge. Consequently, the mixing of neophyte and experienced teams in this event provided some illuminating contrasts and lessons.

It’s amazing what the human condition can endure in incredibly difficult circumstances. Virtually of the participants suffered from trench-foot, some horribly. Persistent and aggressive land leeches proved to be one of the most taxing factors contributing to the mental stress of the participants. While physical conditioning and preparation was obviously a critical factor to the success of teams completing the course, perhaps more important was the mental stamina of the participants and how they supported one another.

This leads me to share seven key lessons that I saw emerge from Eco-Challenge. These lessons have direct application to the effective functioning of organizations. Here they are:

1) Park your differences; focus on what needs to be done.
Those teams that ranked in the top few that completed the course in six days refused to argue among themselves, even when the stress became almost overwhelming. They parked their differences and focused on the task at hand. This contrasted with many teams, some that were new to this type of event and others with some experience. In these cases, differences of opinion or viewpoint emerged, along with interpersonal conflicts. This led to these teams wasting time arguing and bickering. For example, at the check points, the high performing teams spent only a few minutes before moving on. However, other teams sometimes spent up to several hours deciding how to proceed.

2) Take time to share in the joy of your experience.
Teams that let themselves get sidetracked through in-fighting not only performed poorly (in some cases dropping out of the race) they also lost the opportunity for sharing the positives of their experience and in learning as a team.

3) Don’t criticize other team members behind their back.
In some cases, shown through one-on-one interviews with the participants as the race unfolded, team members criticized a particular team member. A case in point is Carlo, who constantly whined about his foot blisters (which were actually mild compared to most participants) while one of his team members became very ill for a few days. This led the three other members to ostracize Carlo and speak negatively about him. But it didn’t appear that the three members made a strong effort to bring him into the team and re-orient his behaviour.

These types of incidents contributed to a high level of team disfunctioning and very hard feelings. Whatever joy and team learning that could have occurred was overcome by a high level of negativity. The team members not only had to endure the toughness of the course but also the stress caused by their behaviors.

4) Commit to the team.
Although some teams were disqualified during the race (e.g., getting lost and then found, injury, and illness), many decided to complete it for both personal reasons and commitment to one another. This was the real learning in Eco-Challenge. While it was impressive to see, for example, the team from France finish in the top few, it was the novice teams that most impressed me. They refused to let the many hardships and obstacles they faced diminish their spirit. This meant carrying a team member on one’s shoulders at times because their trenchfoot had become so severe. And what’s remarkable is that these teams were not attempting to rank in the race. Their shared purpose was for the entire team, all four members, to complete the course together, even if it took 12 days.

5) Maintain a sense of humour, even when everything seems lost.
The teams that maintained a sense of humour were able to deal with the adverse conditions they faced. Although they suffered from dehydration, diarrhea, trenchfoot, sprains, hunger, and aggressive leeches, they still managed to laugh. Team members found humour in their situations, cracking jokes. Humour helped them to ease the pressure they felt, which was often overwhelming.

6) Celebrate your wins, however small.
Teams celebrated their small victories along the way, such as reaching the top of a mountain after a gruelling climb, or after making it through white water rapids without capsizing. Celebrating served to create the necessary energy and resolve for the team to tackle the next challenge.

7) Support one another, in both good and bad times.
When a member became ill or was injured, the others on the team supported him or her, both physically (carrying extra gear) or mentally (words of encouragement). Moreover, team members hugged one another when a member was having a particularly bad day. These effective teams did not criticize the sick or injured members. Poorly functioning teams, in contrast, did not provide the necessary support to those members who needed it. The consequence was that it became much more difficult for these teams to regain their spirit, sense of shared purpose, and collective energy.

Of important note was the presence of shared leadership in the well functioning teams. Although each team had a designated leader, leadership was indeed shared at the appropriate times. One case in point was when one of the team leaders, a male in his fifties with many years of experience with Eco-Challenge, was unable to walk due to severe trenchfoot. The team’s members rallied around their leader, sharing the leadership. While the team was eventually forced to withdraw from the race because of the seriousness of the leader’s condition, they persevered until the end.

Leadership in a well functioning team is not a dictatorship. Leadership must be shared. And when placed under pressure it is remarkable from where leadership often emerges from a team’s members.

Final Thoughts
The lessons learned from Eco-Challenge have clear applications to organizations: how people learn, collaborate, share leadership, achieve results, and celebrate. The team from France, one of the top finishers in the race, could be called a high performance team (characterized by two key traits: shared common purpose and inter-dependence of effort). The members of this team were focussed through a shared purpose and inter-dependence of effort, two cornerstones of strong teams. They were well organized and prepared, committed to one another, cared for one another, and enjoyed themselves (but intent on winning the race).

For those teams that didn’t enter the race to win but rather to have the experience of pushing themselves to their limits and to share in the joy of completing this odyssey together, Eco-Challenge proved to be the ultimate challenge.

Some questions for team reflection

1. What can we do to bring joy back into the workplace, where laughter and smiles prevail? And how is that done in what is becoming the post-pandemic hybrid workplaces?

2. What can we do to ingrain a deep sense of commitment to one another, not only in the sense of accomplishing our work but also in our learning and the fulfillment of our personal growth and development?

3. Connected to #2 is how do we begin to show a mutual caring for one another, especially in times of stress and crisis (a hallmark of high performing teams)? Take note of #1 and hybrid workplaces.

4. How do we reestablish what is important in our work, with respect to value-added to citizens, and get off the treadmill of “doing” and move into the realm of “being?” And from there, how does this contribute to our achieving mastery in work-personal life balance?

5. From the above, how can we begin to translate this into team and organizational learning, and subsequently into the creation of new knowledge that is then diffused throughout organizations?

Finding good players is easy. Getting them to play as a team is another story.
— Casey Stengel (Baseball outfielder and New York Yankees coach)

Connect with Jim on Twitter @jlctaggart and LinkedIn

Accountability and the Role of Leadership: Are You Sharing the Power?

February 10, 2022

Accountability has become one of those words used in organizations that make people wince. Many years ago, when I was getting initiated to the leadership field, it seemed that almost every second word emanating from people’s mouths was ‘accountability,’ tangled up with another popular word: ‘empowerment.’ The two became almost brother and sister, rolling off people’s tongues as if to signify their enlightened understanding of leadership. However, if accountability is to have any substantive mean in organizations, a lot of work is needed to restore its credibility.

To begin with, we need to understand just what is meant by the word accountability. Perhaps we need to reposition it in the vocabulary of organizations. In some ways it’s become a pejorative word. When organizations introduce initiatives aimed at empowering employees while ensuring that they are accountable, they’re in effect bureaucratizing the effort to foster initiative.

To engage the hearts and minds of people requires, among other things, the creation of an environment in which they want to take initiative, be creative, and accept the consequences for their actions. This points to the dominating factor in organizations, and it is leadership: how it is espoused and practiced.

To advocate accountability among employees while in the same breath not modelling the necessary behaviours undermines management’s efforts. When employees truly believe that they’re able to share power and decision-making, there will be the beginning of a torrential release of creativity and innovation.

People cannot be empowered; instead, people empower themselves. Creativity and innovation will only happen when people feel safe to experiment and take calculated risks to improve work processes and serve clients and citizens better.

It’s important to underscore the distinction between empowering people and people empowering themselves. Too often, we hear about staff being empowered by managers. But are people really ‘empowered?’ Or is it a process of self-initiation, in which the individual personally assumes the responsibility to take initiative and to motivate herself? Managers set context, an enabling environment. This is a cornerstone role of managerial leadership.

In his book The Oz Principle: Getting Results through Accountability Roger Connors presents a definition of accountability:

“An attitude of continually asking ‘what else can I do to rise above my circumstances and achieve the results I desire?’ It is the process of ‘seeing it, owning it, solving it, and doing it.’ It requires a level of ownership that includes making, keeping, and proactively answering for personal commitments. It is a perspective that embraces both current and future efforts rather than reactive and historical explanation.”

The essence of what he’s saying is that we need a mental shift in how we approach accountability. Trying to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions only leads to further frustration and stress on the part of everyone. Management becomes frustrated with how long it’s taking to change behaviours and to see results. Staff are suspicious of new initiatives, riding them out until new ones come along. Middle management feels torn between the two groups as it tries to respond to the needs of both. The consequence is stressed out middle managers.

To transcend to a new state of co-creation means that the culture of victimization must end. Connors describes this culture as the refusal to take ownership for one’s behaviour and actions. Excuses are the norm, with blame being attributed to wherever it flows the easiest. There’s a creative tension between the rights of employees, which is well established, versus responsibility and accountability, which is less well developed.

Until we collectively achieve a common understanding of the issues surrounding accountability, it’ll be very difficult to realize the creation of strong learning cultures in organizations. Here are six questions that will contribute to the dialogue that’s necessary in organizations. Of particular importance is to approach such a dialogue from an integrated perspective, in which the elements of the learning organization are included.

1. How do we get off the turntable and begin to collectively co-create organizations that are founded, in part, on the principle of personal responsibility and accountability?

2. If we fail to embrace the idea of individual accountability, what is the impact on service to customers and clients?

3. What are the long-term consequences of not paying heed to this and initiating a dialogue and action to make change?

4. What is the role of managerial leadership in this regard. In particular, what are the consequences when managers abandon their staff who take risks but who make mistakes?

5. How do we distance ourselves from a culture of blame and embrace a culture of learning from mistakes?

6. How do we transcend from the level of personal accountability to one of mutual accountability (i.e., among teams)?

As we proceed along the path towards personal and collective enlightenment, we need to continually remind ourselves of the interconnection among the many elements that are affecting the future of our organizations. Accountability is intertwined with the components that form the basis for the creation of learning cultures. Of importance is that we must constantly remind ourselves that accountability is not a thing; rather, it’s about people. And as such, accountability needs to become part of this important conversation.

“Accountability:” It is not only what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we are accountable. — Molière (French playwright and actor)

Connect with Jim on Twitter @jlctaggart and LinkedIn

The Aspirational Class as Tomorrow’s Leaders

January 18, 2022

The human race is an odd species. Adaptive to immediate threats and catastrophes, we as humans have also time and again shown ourselves to be slow learners. Whether it’s the sickening loss of life from war (eg, Vietnam, Iraq-Afghanistan), hurricane disasters on America’s East and Gulf coasts (rebuilding in flood plains), or financial crises (eg, 2008-09), people keep repeating the same behaviours. We’re poor learners as a species.

One of Western society’s characteristics is the human propensity for material fulfillment. However, that quest to climb the aspirational ladder has proven to be an exercise loaded with conflicting results: material acquisition accompanied by growing consumer debt levels; a middle class with stagnant incomes; and a disenfranchised, low income stratum of people.

In his book The Affluent Society, Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith talked about how the economic growth model of the United States was flawed and no longer useful as the means to lift people out of poverty. Inequality prevails, and indeed the income gap is currently growing between rich and poor. Galbraith’s book was released in 1958. Fast forward to today and his core message is even more relevant. 

Yet, the beat goes on as people strive to improve their material well-being and status in society.

Witness the steady increase in middle class people with modest family incomes buying huge, expensive houses (accessorized with quartz counter tops, hardwood floors and high-end cabinets); luxury cars (eg, BMWs, Audis and Porsches) on lengthy instalment plans; vacations to tropical resorts. The list goes on.

Meet the aspirational class.

Someone who has researched this subject is University of Southern California professor Elizabeth Currid-Halkett. Her recent book The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class provides an intriguing tour from British economist Thorstein Veblen’s work on conspicuous consumption and what he called The Leisure Class in the late 1800s to today’s growing class divide, fuelled by the Aspirational Class and its efforts to reproduce wealth and upward mobility. She looks at what has changed in the intervening century in society. In particular, greater accessibility to material goods to reflect social status has improved, in turn weakening its power. The consequence is a shift towards more discrete spending that portrays status and knowledge.

It’s important to note that her book is based strictly on U.S. data. However, there are lessons to learn from her analysis and observations. Two broad trends may be distilled from her work. First, conspicuous consumption is declining among the wealthy, now that most of American society is able to do it. Second, what she calls “inconspicuous consumption” is becoming the new conspicuous consumption.

Currid-Halkett makes a number of astute observations in her book. Here are some samples:

…in the twenty-first century, social status emerges not simply from cards and watches but from inaccessible cues, information, and investments. For the aspirational class these signifiers are… more subtle, less materialistic forms of conveying status, particularly to others in-the-know.

…the lower gradient of the aspirational class [are] hipsters—those young, 20-something-year-old urban denizens working in film or screenwriting or publishing—who barely make enough money to pay the rent, let along attend the parties with the Queen of England or the head of Citibank.…information about what is cool or in the know is all they have and thus they too engage in non pecuniary means of inconspicuous consumption that allows them to define their social position. Much of aspirational class shared experience is based on information that costs money, even if it is materially invisible.

America’s aspirational class has rejected many of the material means by which status has been historically revealed. They eschewed materialism, aspiring to what they believe is a higher social and cultural platform….this dominant cultural elite prefers to engage in conspicuous production, conspicuous leisure, and inconspicuous consumption, all of which produce much greater class stratification effects than the acquisition of material goods.

As we understand what motivates how and why we consume, we also learn more about humanity, how and where it organizes itself, the implications and limitations to these decisions, and, finally, what matters to us as individuals and society as a whole.

Along a somewhat similar path, Rachel Sherman conducted indepth interviews with 50 affluent ($250,000 plus annual incomes) Millennial parents in New York City on their perceptions of wealth. Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence is a compilation of these interviews. Of particular interest, the findings include these parents perceiving themselves as being hardworking and responsible, in contrast to the undeserving wealthy who are lazy. Indeed, the guilt these Millennials have concerning their purchases prompts some of them to remove the price tags of expensive items (from food to home furnishings) so that their nannies and housekeepers don’t see them. They see themselves as middle class, despite being classified as part of the one percent, and being “comfortable” and not rich.

That’s the New York City experience, and only a subset of a large country of some 335 million people. However, the findings of Sherman’s research are interesting.

When it comes to those outside of the one percent, Millennials (ages 24-40) face a number of issues. Their plight with job insecurity and absence of pension plans (whether defined benefit or defined contributions) have long-run implications for the economy. Their aspirations to own a home (even just a small garden, starter home) is being shattered by run-away real estate prices, as witnessed through 2021.

Hipsters (23-45), the target of gentle gibes from social commentators, come in different shapes and sizes: some have the jobs and incomes to live an upscale life while wannabe Hipsters live a pretend affluent existence. At the heart of the aspirational class concept, or what some have called affluenza, is one word: Status. It’s all about people seeking—aspiring—to become something they are not, and perhaps never will be.

The key point that many social commentators and journalists miss out on is the long-term consequences of North America’s infatuation with consumer excess, whether you have the necessary income or not. And that’s something called aggregate demand, of which consumer spending plays a key role. In Canada, consumer spending drives just over 60% of the country’s economy. In contrast, such spending is responsible for almost 70% of the U.S. economy.

For the past several decades, consumer indebtedness, fuelled by insane credit card growth, enticing automotive financing deals (ie, low interest rates and very long payment plans), and extremely low mortgage rates, has reached epic levels. Canadian consumers owed $1.73 of debt for each dollar of their disposable income in 2021 (Statistics Canada). Canadians increasingly live paycheque to paycheque, with 35% feeling overwhelmed with their level of indebtedness. One third of the respondents stated that their mortgages are the most difficult to pay down, while one quarter said the same of credit card debt. The Covid-19 pandemic has only fuelled the debt problem.

Outside of North America, other countries are in on the aspiration-indebtedness game. For example, households in Great Britain owe on average over 150% of their incomes, with three quarters of this in the form of mortgages. The financing of motor vehicles has more than doubled and borrowing on credit cards has risen.

So where does this situation leave us as a society, where the paucity of political leadership—and indeed corporate leadership—is failing to provide the necessary shared vision to propel us forward to address such issues as climate change, socio-economic disparities, women’s rights, immigration, international aid and development, and indigenous people’s rights?

This is all occurring, to extrapolate from Currid-Halkett’s research findings, in a broader societal shift to a stagnant middle class (declining according to some) and an elite wealthy class that is increasingly disconnected from the rest of society. Witness Sherman’s research on trendy, well-off Millennials. What seems to get lost in this trend by politicians and business leaders is that it’s the middle class that is the source—and indeed engine—of a nation’s innovation capacity. The really rich don’t innovate. Nor do the poor. It’s the middle segment of society where creativity and ideas, based on education and knowledge, are applied to benefit a nation.

It’s a sad commentary that a segment of society, typically well educated, is innovating on ways to separate itself from the rest of society through how it consumes products and services, all in the pursuit of enhancing status and power. The implications for leadership are growing in importance as societal divisions grow and as the labour market begins a post-industrial transformation to increased automation and higher skill sets.

Is the aspirational class ready to lead?

In itself and in its consequences the life of leisure is beautiful and ennobling in all civilised men’s eyes.
—Thorstein Veblen

Connect with Jim on Twitter @jlctaggart and LinkedIn

Constructive Conflict: Advice from the Mother of Modern Management 

January 5, 2022

When we look back to the 20th Century and reflect on great leaders, whether leading nations, organizations or social movements, there’s a tendency to produce a list with mostly male names. However, when one attempts to create a list of who were the great management thinkers during this period, it becomes even more skewed towards males. Names like Peter Drucker, John Kotter, Peter Senge, John Garner, James MacGregor Burns, Robert Greenleaf, Henry Mintzberg and Warren Bennis typically come to mind. But so, too, do names like Rosebeth Moss Kanter, Sally Helgesen, and Margaret Wheatley.

The irony behind this is that the individual who is recognized as what Peter Drucker called “The Prophet of Management” was a woman: Mary Parker-Follett, who was born in 1868 and died in 1933. Because of her foresight and innovative thinking, the effects of which are still being examined today, Follett may rightly be called the Mother of Modern Management.

Unfortunately, Follett’s writings and numerous lectures were set aside for several decades. It was not until the 1990s when her writings and concepts were reinvigorated. I was introduced to her work by my advisor for my Master’s leadership thesis in the late nineties. I was amazed that someone 60-70 years previously was urging such concepts as shared (participative) leadership, constructive conflict resolution through what was called “integration,” and “power-with” opposed to “power-over.” Indeed, my Master’s thesis was on the subject of shared leadership.

Let’s hear a few passages from some of Follett’s writings and lectures. Once you read them, reflect on their relevance to today, especially whether her concepts are being practiced.

1949: (Freedom & coordination: Lectures in Business Organization)
“Some writers tell us that the leader should represent the accumulation and knowledge and experience of his particular group, but I think he should go far beyond this. It is true that the executive learns from everyone around him, but it is also true that he is far more than the depository where the wisdom of the group collects.

When leadership rises to genius it has the power of transforming, of transforming experience into power. And that is what experience is for, to be made into power. The great leader creates as well as directs power. The essence of leadership is to create control, and that is what the world needs today, control of small situations or of our world situation.

I have said that the leader must understand the situation, must see it as a whole, must see the inter-relationships of all the parts. He must do more than this. He must see the evolving situation….His wisdom, his judgement, is used, not on a situation that is stationary, but on one that is changing all the time.”

1925: (Paper first delivered to Bureau of Personnel Administration conference)
“There are three ways of dealing with conflict: domination, compromise and integration. Domination…is a victory of one side over the other. This is the easiest way of dealing with conflict, but not usually successful in the long run, as we can see what has happened since the War.

The second way… [is] compromise, we understand well, for it is the way we settle most of our controversies; each side gives up a little in order to have peace…or that the activity that has been interrupted by the conflict may go on. Compromise is the basis of trade union tactics….But I certainly ought not to imply that compromise is peculiarly a trade union method….

There is a way beginning now to be recognized: …when two desires are integrated, that means that a solution has been found in which both desires have found a place, that neither side has to sacrifice anything.”

Follett gives several examples of how to find integrative solutions to problems. For example, she uses a personal problem she had one day at the library. Seated in the same room with a man who wanted the window open for fresh air, Follett objected because she didn’t want cold air blowing on her. The integrative solution? They opened a window in the adjacent room. The man got his fresh air while Follett didn’t get a draft.

So here are three examples for you to find integrative solutions:

Case #1: Mr. Tuna
You work in a typical cubicle farm. Your neighbour enjoys eating tuna fish sandwiches several days a week. You’ve mentioned on a few occasions that the smell is nauseating, but he’s not getting the message. What would be an integrative solution in this case?

Case #2: Ragtime Blues
You live in a condo high-rise. During the early evening, the person next door pounds out ragtime on her piano. She’s not breaking any bylaws or condo policy. What is the integrative solution?

Case #3: He Shoots, He Scores!
You like your neighborhood where you’ve lived for many years. But there’s a problem. Every fall, the kids set up their nets on your cul de sac and play ball hockey for the next five months. You love your BMW and fringe every time you hear the slap of a stick. What’s the integrative solution with these youngsters?

Be sure to post your solutions for others to see and comment on. And sure, include any humorous solutions. If we get enough, we’ll have a contest to vote for the best one.

There you have it, folks, a few illuminating bits from an amazing woman who was far ahead of her time. What’s unfortunate is that despite so much pain and suffering through the rest of the 20th Century after Follett’s death, and during the first two decades of the 21st Century, we don’t as a society seem to have learned much.

Conflict in the workplace and communities is worse, organized labor and management continue to grab for one another’s throat, and municipal politics is as nasty as ever.

When it comes to the practice of leadership, the heroic mindset still prevails: “Do as I say, not as I do!” Role modelling is in short supply. Exceptional leadership is, as the saying goes, scarce as hens teeth.

The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.
—Peter Drucker

Connect with Jim on Twitter @jlctaggart and LinkedIn