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Bad Eggs! Nothing is as bad as it seems…it’s usually worse!

The positive thinking brigade are having a tough time of it lately. Not much to be positive about. Hard to keep the spirits up. But that’s not such a bad thing.

It can be comforting and strangely liberating to think that no matter how bad things seem at the moment, they are probably much worse than we realise.

 

I’m not advocating mass suicide or global depression to accompany the global recession. I just think that a new kind of caution is required in these heady days; a caution that urges us to assume the worst and plan to avoid it.

It seems to me that there’s so much more to be revealed about what the banks and governments and newspapers have been up to, and yet we seem to be proceeding on the basis that it’s all out in the open now.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist kind of guy: I’m not sure people are always clever enough to dream up complex global conspiracies.

 

I do think that the mess is akin to a whole load of bad eggs that fell off a lorry and somehow got scrambled on the main carriageway. It’s impossible to separate them out and we are all skidding about in the glutinous albumen.

The thing about bad eggs is that they stink. So maybe we should take our nose pegs off and get the full olfactory experience. Let’s assume that there’s more to come, and that it’s going to get worse. And then we might just start taking things seriously.

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(Let’s Get) Cynical! Just a Little

It’s a strange thing, but perhaps if we had been a bit more cynical in the first place, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are today.

Perhaps if we’d been more minded to say…

 “Hang on a minute, if I buy this property today, it will be worth twice as much next year? Are you serious?”

  …or

  “If I take on a mortgage that’s 8 times my salary, won’t I get into financial difficulty at some point?”

…we might have found ourselves in a very different situation.

So I’m going to think the unthinkable and argue that perhaps it’s time we re-branded Cynicism.

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Now I can hear the cynic in you thinking, “But this flies in the face of everything we’ve ever been told. Aren’t we supposed to be positive and look for the good in everything?” And do you know what? I think you’re absolutely right, on both counts. But looking for the good doesn’t need to preclude looking for the bad, or the ugly, or the just plain wrong!

Let’s take a look at the opposite extreme. Blind positivity is as bad (and arguably at lot more dangerous) as sticking your head in the ground and refusing to budge. Unbridled positivity can be as damaging as cynicism in full flight.

If you’re heading for the cliff edge it’s no good saying, “Don’t worry folks, maybe this car has wings like Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang!” No, what you do is put the brakes on!

Alternatively, if you’re standing at the altar about to get married, it doesn’t help to convince yourself that your partner won’t turn up just because all the others didn’t! Better to focus on all the reasons why they fell for you in the first place.

But I’m not interested in extremes. The trick is getting the right balance: just a smidgeon of cynicism goes a long way.

Take a moment to think what a little more cynicism might give us.

  •  It might just prompt us to stop and reflect for a few seconds longer than it takes for the salesman to sell us his grandmother
  • It might stop companies hurling themselves into futile and catastrophic ventures based on some dodgy data that at first glance looks very convincing
  • It might just prevent organisations introducing a wildly optimistic new HR system, or repeatedly re-organising teams and departments
  • It might just reintroduce a little bit of sanity back into the workplace.

But…. (Ah, there’s always a ‘but’! Of course there is, that’s what being cynical is all about.)

Here’s the rub. This re-branding isn’t a licence for all the ‘after the horse has bolted brigade’ to sit smugly on the side-lines saying “I told you so”, when in fact they had simply sat on the fence, not committing to anything other than stasis when the plan was being conceived.

Let’s face it cynicism has received a bad press. It’s been usurped by the doom mongers and naysayers: the people who have turned being curmudgeonly into an art-form. And our reaction has been to brand all cynicism and scepticism as negative..

So for cynicism to work, small and well-measured doses are better. A fixed stare is scary, whereas occasional eye-contact can be reassuring. You can have too much of a good thing.

So for all of you who are now thinking, “Great, now I have a perfect excuse to be a thorn in the side of my team, because Tim Lambert says so”, read on to find out why that wouldn’t be the appropriate response.

Cynicism can work, and we have a right to use it but, as we all know, with rights come responsibilities.

 

Responsible Cynicism – the New Black

So, what’s the responsible way of being cynical?

  1. Don’t keep it to yourself…cynicism needs a voice so shout it out loud and own it. If you’ve got doubts, give people the chance to hear them. Don’t sit quietly convincing yourself of all the reasons why “this will never work” without affording your team the courtesy of sharing your wisdom with them.  If you articulate it, and explain it, you might realize that you are talking baloney! Or you might realize that you actually have a valid point.
  2. Spread the load. It’s not helpful if you only have one cynic on your team. It just becomes accepted that they will always resist change, so their outbursts are tolerated and quietly ignored. Instead, give everyone a chance to be cynical. In fact, why not take it in turns?
  3. Set Aside ‘Cynic Time’ and Limit it. Make space in your meetings to carry out a ‘Devil’s Advocate’ exercise just before making your final decision. Ask simple questions like, “What if it doesn’t work?”, or “What’s the worst that could happen?”, or “Why won’t it work?” But keep it brief and balance it with time to ask, “Why might this work?”
  4.  Target your Cynicism. Be specific rather than generic. Be precise about the issue or idea you are cynical of, and don’t allow that cynicism to colour your judgement of all the other elements. Evaluate everything on its own merits.
  5.  Keep Your Attention on the Prize. Never lose sight of why you’re even considering doing something new. It’s usually because what you’ve already got isn’t working, or isn’t working well. The role of Cynicism here is to make sure you don’t end up with something worse, not that you stick with the rot you’ve got.
  6. Ask Lots of Questions and Get Your Facts Straight.  Don’t proceed on faulty assumptions. Make sure you probe and analyse with an open mind. People often mistake this for not showing enough commitment, but the alternative is worse.
  7. Don’t apologize for being cynical, but do signal that it is cynicism and not something much worse like sabotage!
  8. Be Discerning with your Cynicism and your Positivity. Use them both wisely and don’t dismiss either out of hand. You can be positive and cynical at the same time…in just the right amounts.

Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it. Be responsible, exercise a little bit of healthy cynicism, and try it out for yourself! After all, “What’s the worst that could happen?”

Keeping it Together

With teams it’s how you behave when you are apart that determines how successful you will be when you are together.

It’s traditional for us to invest in our teams by organising team events. Some of these are adventurous, others are more social. And some of them are all about creating the right conditions for a team to operate effectively.

Taken together, all these forms of team investment are important and valuable. Teams do need to spend time together working out how they will work together.

But what happens when they aren’t together? After all, for many people they spend more time away from their team colleagues than they do with them.

Addressing this challenge (how to maintain effective team working whilst apart) has vexed many teams. And when teams do come together they often have to spend time smoothing over issues that have arisen since they last met.

So it seems sensible to look at how we can keep the relationship strong and the communication lines open when teams disperse.

Is it a Marriage Made in Heaven?

It’s hard to be a really successful team if people aren’t consciously (or unconsciously) thinking and acting as a team member when they aren’t together.

Just imagine a married man who is loving and attentive at home, but as soon as he leaves the marital home it’s ‘out of sight, out of mind’. We wouldn’t think this acceptable and we’d probably have severe doubts about the strength and longevity of the marriage.


It’s the same with teams. During the team meetings (which might be as few as four a year in some cases), team members can be very warm to each other, cover off lots of agenda items, make great plans and commitments.

But as soon as they get back to their local patches, start dealing with the day-to-day issues, and focussing on delivering their personal objectives, it’s easy to forget about the team.

This often results in decisions being made locally and expediently that should have been opened up to the team for discussion, input and team approval because they have team implications.

It’s not a deliberate act of sabotage in most cases. It’s just that the functional responsibilities become more absorbing day-to-day.

It’s a hard reality, especially with global teams, that it simply isn’t feasible to get the whole team in one space together very often. But this doesn’t have to mean that regular contact is severed, nor that people lose sight of their team connection.

I don’t forget I’m married when I go to work. Can you imagine me arriving home and confiding in my wife, “I’m sorry about the affair when I was at the conference, but it completely slipped my mind that I was married”?

So it seems that in order to keep the team strong whilst apart, we need to find something as strong as the best marriages to bind them.

Honey, I’m Home!

You probably belong to a team right now. You might even belong to more than one. Or you were part of a team in the past. Few of us have managed to avoid team membership completely.

But did your team feel like home?

  • Was it a place of safety and refuge?
  • Was it the place you retreated to when the going got tough?
  • Was it the one place where you felt you could be yourself?
  • Was it where you went to recharge your work batteries?
  • Was it your home base?

I’ve asked this question countless times with teams and it’s sad how many of them honestly answer, “No”.

No wonder they seek solace and inspiration outside the team. No wonder they operate largely independently of the team when they are apart from it.

So we have to create the glue that will bind people to the team; glue so strong that whatever they do and wherever they go, their identity is partly defined by their membership of the team.

The Team Pre-Nup or Renewing of Vows

For any team starting out together, and for those teams that have been together for a while without ever really hitting it off, I propose three simple rules that will help to strengthen the team so that it can continue to function even when separated.

Rule # 1: Make Time to focus on the Team & Individual needs rather than just on Outputs & Operational Issues.

Take a moment to think about the team of which you are a member as if it were a marriage.  Now consider this question: who are your children?

Most people have little difficulty answering this one: they can typically reel off all manner of people who depend on them, and who drive their workload.

But what about this question?

How much time do you spend on the marriage?

 This question is trickier, because most teams spend very little time making sure they are strong, fit to lead, and appropriately supported.

They are often so busy servicing others, considering others, and satisfying others that the agenda items are always about operational issues.

There simply isn’t enough room left on the agenda to just talk; to ask each other for help; to get to know each other’s strengths; to coach each other; to share problems and solutions and experiences; to learn from each other and to enjoy each other’s company.

It’s hard to imagine a successful marriage where people don’t make time available to do these things.

So instead of loading the meeting agenda with operational details, reduce the number of items and make space for Team Time every time you meet.

Rule # 2: Wear your team identity with pride.

Most cultures announce to the world their marital status by the wearing of a ceremonial ornament. The wedding band is a symbol of one-ness and togetherness.

Membership of a team can be signalled in a similar way.

The intention is two-fold:

  1. Remind yourself of where you belong
  2. Communicate who you represent to others

The wedding band is spoken for, but other ways of publicly announcing your team membership include:

  • branded name tags
  • team badges
  • team membership certificates
  • team photos
  • team business cards with contact details for every member of the team on one card

Rule # 3: Make contact with every member of the team at least once a week.

Our methods of communication have expanded beyond all measure in recent times. It isn’t necessary any more to travel hundreds of thousands of miles to talk to each other or even see each other.

Whilst these means of communication never quite match the experience of physical contact, they are a pretty good substitute in many cases.

Video links, web-cams, social networking sites, and even the humble telephone mean that we are never very far away from each other.

When teams are located together, much of their communication happens by accident. It’s the ‘bumping into each other in the corridor conversations’, or sharing a coffee that provides the main vehicle for information exchange and relationship building.

But when you are separate, you have to make a conscious effort to connect, even if there is no other agenda than simply ‘keeping in touch’.

When I am working away and I ring home, my wife doesn’t usually say, “What are you ringing me for?” [I’d be quite worried if she did.] Because she knows I’m just ringing to say ‘hello’, or to hear a friendly voice, or to chat about the day. If I had to wait for some important bit of news or a problem I needed to discuss with her, I might not ring home for a week or more.

So making the effort to just ‘keep in touch’ on a regular basis, starts to build a team dependency and a team identity.

The only time this becomes a problem is if we are insensitive or if we over-do it.

  • So if I ring home at the kid’s bedtime, just as my wife is getting them to sleep, I might get a sharp rebuke.
  • If I rang six times a day, I might get short shrift.
  • And if I launched straight into an energetic description of what I’ve been up to, or fell headlong into a great outpouring of emotion about what a terrible time I’m having without first gauging what’s going on for her, I might get the telephone equivalent of a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

In addition, given the global nature of many teams and the access we all have to each other via mobile technology, it might not be appreciated calling at unsociable hours unless pre-arranged and agreed.

The calls needs to be about building and developing the relationship, and that won’t happen if we are insensitive to the needs and demands of our colleagues operating in a different space and time.

 

Partnership

Being a member of a team does not require you to love each other. That’s where our marriage analogy comes to an end.

But it does require you to…

  •  build solid and communicative relationships
  •  keep in touch
  •  share
  •  care
  •  feel a strong connection
  •  set aside time to focus on team needs
  • be sensitive to and supportive of each other
  • create a strong partnership and forge strong links

It might look more like a marriage of convenience than one based on love…but whatever it looks like, it has to work! And that doesn’t happen by accident.

To quote Henry Ford,

 

“Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.”