How Happiness affects High Performing Teams

A recent article in the Chicago Tribune discussed the topic of happiness.  Based on research by Jack Bauer, associate professor at the University of Dayton, the article provided some interesting tips for those interested in happiness.  In this post, we look at those tips for pursuing happiness and we apply those to leading high-performing teams.

Happiness is an elusive emotion. How do we go about being happy?  Is that a choice, that is, can we simply choose to be happy instead of feeling sad or angry?  If so, the question for many of us is this “why can’t we just be happy?”.

Which is a great question.  Why can’t we just be happy?  The research by Jack Bauer and others indicates that happiness is not something that we seek directly, but that we achieve indirectly through other things.  Here are some of the key findings from the research:

  • Happiness flows from engaging in activities in which we are totally immersed; when we lose ourselves.
  • Happiness is rising to a challenge that we have the capacity to meet.  When we tackle something difficult and our skills are up to the challenge, happiness tends to flow.  It is when we are working toward personal mastery, rather than performance.
  • Happiness is more likely to to be experienced in community with others, rather then when we are alone and isolated.  This was an overarching theme of the research.
  • Happiness was more likely when people were doing things that were personally meaningful or for the greater human good, rather than for our own personal goals or for material goods.
  • The research also showed something that many have heard before, having more money doesn’t necessarily increase happiness.  Interestingly enough, the opposite is generally true.  Happy people tend to make more money for a variety of reasons including because of others like them and their work, they are more creative and optimistic. (There is actually a book that has been around for a while called, Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow, which is based on this premise.)

I looked at these lessons from a personal perspective at first, then began to think through the lens of a project manager or leader.  What can we apply from this research to help our teams perform at the highest possible level?  Here are my conclusions:

#1 Know the strengths and weaknesses of your individual team members and align them with it.

If we want to align people with the right work, we need to know them inside and out.  That will help us to get people into those positions where they are doing work they like and are good at and where they are stretching themselves to meet a challenge.  Likewise, we need to avoid placing people in roles where they feel overwhelmed or not up to the challenge.  We want to be pushing people to stretch themselves in roles where they feel challenged, but not necessarily overwhelmed.

This can be a bit tricky and may require taking some risks.  On a recent program, we put a junior PM into a role leading a large outsourcing effort.  She had little PM experience and no prior experience with outsourcing and she quickly began to feel like she was in over her head.  What she overlooked was that she was very familiar with the teams that were affected, and the tasks and specific products that were being outsourced.  It was because of her unique prior experience in these areas, and her good relationships with the impacted teams that made her capable of rising to the challenge.

#2 Challenge Team Members at their Growth Edge

When we know the strengths and weaknesses of our team members, we can also push them to perform at high levels.  We can challenge them in those areas where they are up to it but need to be supported to increase their performance.

This is something I have personally experienced and written about here and in my book.  I do some of my best work when I have a mentor or coach who is supporting me, challenging me, and yes sometimes pushing me beyond what I think I can do.  It has been one of the most important things that has fueled me, encouraged me, and has resulted in the most personal growth.  My mentor Rich will often say something like, “my vision for you Anthony is that you are…”.  He holds the bar high for me when I am not able to do it for myself.

#3 Prevent Individuals from working in Isolation. 

I recognize that it is a natural tendency for many people to want to isolate and work alone.  There is an attraction for many of us to think that if we were just left to work alone, we would be happy.  (Hey, that’s exactly why I became a writer!)  In fact, people are more happy and engaged when they are working as part of a team.  So while there is a tendency to isolate, and certainly there are some tasks that naturally need to be performed by a single person, we want to avoid this if possible.  We want people working together.  As leaders, we need to build a sense of community and help team members to stay connected to the greater team.

Building community can help with happiness and actually speed the progress toward the team’s goals.  I recently had a virtual team of developers working to create programs to convert material from one format to another.  This team had a consistent track record of missing every deadline and milestone. Working together with the leader of the team, we implemented twice weekly standup calls.  What we discovered during our standup calls was a little shocking – each developer was working in near perfect isolation; they didn’t talk to each other!  While there was some level of email between them, they were largely isolated in trying to solve the collective challenges.  Our standup calls quickly became their forum for communication and they started performing as a group and actually hit a few deadlines.

#4 Help people to connect their work to the goals of the larger organization or the company. 

This is something that is important but not done very often.  People don’t get inspired by working each week for a paycheck.  They might get inspired by being part of a team that is making an impact inside their organization or out.  It is important that team members understand the bigger picture of your team goals and how their task or activity contributes toward that.  When people see the connection, they see it as for the greater good and not something that they have to do for you.

Back in 2003, I was lucky enough to get involved with a large program that was implementing systems to support education reform in the country of Qatar.  It was fascinating to me how many people wanted to join the team to be part of that work.  We capitalized on it by providing lots of information about the country of Qatar, the state of education, and the people that would be impacted by the program.  People got it, and it helped to fuel their performance.  We had a very high-performing team because everyone understood, and bought into the larger goals of the organization. We worked some incredibly long hours and met some goals that at the time seemed unachievable.  We even adopted the team slogan ‘Inconceivable!’

I am sure there are other takeaways from a leadership perspective.  As always, I am interested in your thoughts.  Cheers!

Anthony

 

Tips for Leading Agile Teams with Emotional Intelligence

As I noted in my last post, I am working on the second edition of Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.  Thankfully, I was able to send the manuscript on time today, so that is no longer hanging over my head!

The second edition includes a new chapter on Success with Agile Teams.  Anyone who has used Agile methods though will attest to the fact that leading Agile teams is not the same as leading traditional teams.  Agile teams are expected to be self-organizing. This doesn’t mean there are no leaders,
but it requires a style of leadership that is less prescriptive and more supportive.  It is often called Servant Leadership, and it requires a lot of emotional intelligence.

I ended the new chapter in the book with the following 9 tips for leading Agile Teams with Emotional Intelligence.  I’d love to hear your feedback on these.

  1. Evaluate your level of Command and Controlism.  Take a step back and really evaluate the ways you use command and control.  Are you holding back the teams you lead by trying to control them?  If you are having trouble seeing it in yourself, note whether you see it in others.  Or, ask those you trust to provide you with accurate feedback on your behavior.
  2. Proactively step back and let others step up.  Try stepping back and letting others decide what to do.  Spend less time trying to force your will on others, or to manipulate them to do what you think they should do.  Trust that whatever they do, they will learn from their behavior.
  3. Say less; a lot less.  Rather than always being the first to speak up, trying shutting up and listening more.  Really tune in to what others say, rather than your own internal chatter, or simply waiting for your chance to speak.  See where the leadership comes from when you don’t hog all the airtime.  Try the empathetic listening techniques we’ve discussed in the blog and in Chapter 5 of the book.
  4. Practice some form of daily mindfulness.  This is important for all PMs, but it is especially important for leaders of Agile Teams.  Whether you use meditation, prayer, journaling, or some other technique, establish this as a daily practice that you do to be clear with yourself before you engage with the team.  Put to use some of those Self-Awareness techniques discussed in this blog.
  5. Get underneath your fear.  Most of us who feel the need to control do so out of fear and many of our fears are irrational or unwarranted.  Look below the surface to see if you can determine what you are afraid of.  I know for me this is usually a fear of failure.  I am afraid that the team will fail and that it will reflect poorly on me.  Some of us also fear a loss of relevance.  After all, if the team can do great work or come up with great ideas without me, what value do I have?  Dig deep into what your underlying fears are so that you can understand how those are affecting your behaviors within the team.
  6. Use Jedi Mind Tricks – When it comes to decisions, put the decision back on the team rather than jumping in and making the decisions for them.  Try holding back on your own opinion even when asked.  Take time to pause and to ask the team, “What do you think we should do?”.  You might be surprised at what they say.  Or you might say, “Is anyone else feeling the pressure to decide right now besides me?”
  7. That’s a Great Idea! – Some of us are so hungry to be affirmed, that we often find it hard to accept new ideas or perspectives from others.  We’re used to saying things like, “that is a good idea BUT it won’t work because of… “.  To overcome this type of behavior, practice saying “That’s a great idea!”, and then look for every opportunity to say it. It may not come easy.
  8. Use Positive Regard with Everyone – See the team at its very best, not necessarily in their worst moment.  Know that the team will rise to the occasion when they need to; that they will learn from their experience, and that they will get better over time.  Hold each member of the team, and the team as a whole, with high positive regard.
  9. Be a Servant Leader – Agile team leaders, Program Managers, and Functional Managers all need to support the agile team.  They frequently need to serve as a buffer between the Agile team and the rest of the organization.  Tune in to the organizational norms that run counter to Agile and run interference for the team.  Help streamline mandatory documentation or other PMO requirements do that the Agile Team can be empowered and self-organizing.

I’ve mentioned this before, but a great resource for Agile project managers, coaches, program managers, and functional managers is Lyssa Adkins 2010 book, Coaching Agile Teams; A Companion for ScrumMasters, Agile Coaches, and Project Managers in Transition. Lyssa provides many ideas for supporting Agile teams, overcoming command and controlism, and leading ourselves.

I’d love to hear your comments, whether you are an agile project manager or one who is using more traditional methods.

Cheers!

Anthony