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If they self-organize, what is our role as team leads?


“If they self-organize, what is our role as team leads?”

This is one tough question my managers asked me when I proposed we give eXtreme Programming a try. At the time, this question made me feel very uneasy, and I had a hard time providing some good answers. 15 years later, I think I finally have finally come to terms with the tough issue of management and self-organization.

There are many responsibilities you still have as a leader in an agile organization, one such role is growing high-performing teams. High-performing teams typically do not spring into creation all by themselves. Take a bunch of individuals and lump them together to form a team, and by default, this is likely to evolve into chaotic anarchy or submissive apathy. Usually a mix of these.

Okay, so how does one “grow high-performing teams,” you ask? Read on for some pointers to get you started.

The first area to zoom into comes from a research Google has conducted on its workforce, whose aim was to figure out what affects team performance. The basis of team performance is… (drumroll please)… something with the rather academic name of Psychological Safety.

Psychological Safety means that, as a team member, I don’t need to think twice before I admit to a mistake or a weakness, or before I ask for help. I can say “I don’t understand, please explain” or “I’m not sure”.

They could have asked Patrick Lencioni, who calls it “Vulnerability-based Trust”, or Amy Edmondson from Harvard, who determined that Psychological Safety is a key aspect of team performance in her groundbreaking research of medical teams in hospitals, way before Google asked itself the question. Google doubts research conducted elsewhere and has the deep pockets to invest in those doubts.

From here on, I’ll just call it “Trust” (although trust is a wider concept).

So the big question is… what is the level of trust in a team? And if it’s not high, what can you do to increase it?

Assessing trust in a team

You cannot manage what you don’t measure. So you first need a way to measure trust in a team. The easy way is to just ask your team to rate the following statements on a scale of “fully agree” to “fully disagree”:

  1. Team members are quick to own up to mistakes, and give credit for achievements to other team members
  2. Team members frequently ask for help from other team members
  3. Team members know one another on a personal level, and have no problem discussing their personal life

I prefer to ask team members to answer anonymously, so we can get a more honest assessment. A live session with Kahoot works great. Just ask them to sign in using a fake name. With Kahoot, you see the answers immediately and can discuss them right there and then.

Once you have your assessment in hand, assuming the results are less than perfect, you will want to invest in beefing up that trust. Just don’t forget to re-assess the level of trust after a few months to see if it has improved.

Here are a few things you can do to actually improve the level of trust.

Model vulnerability:

Yes, Mr. Perfect, I know you have some weaknesses too, and let’s admit it, you do make mistakes once in a while, don’t you? Well here’s your opportunity to use those blemishes in your shining armor to build trust in your team. It’s called “going first”, or “setting a personal example”, and it’s one of the most powerful things you can do as a leader to increase trust. You just show your team that it’s okay to be vulnerable, thereby setting the tone for others in the team. You can be spontaneous about that, but if you are like me and this is not in your nature, you may need some preparation: At the end of the day today, take 10 minutes and ask yourself:

  • What help do I need from the team in order to complement my weaknesses? How could I translate this into a request for help?
  • Where did I fail recently and what I have learned from that? Can my team learn from my failure as well? Do I feel comfortable sharing it with them?

Now all you need is an opportunity to bring this up with the team. It can be done in a special meeting, for example, a retrospective. Or you could use a practice some teams at Google have adopted and start each weekly team meeting by going around and sharing some risks you have taken this last week. Google being Google, they have measured that this practice increases trust in teams by a few percent.

Increase intimacy

I’m a definite introvert myself, and intimacy and the workplace are not something I naturally warm up to. Still, I recognize that the better the team members know one another on a personal level, the more they will empathize with one another, and feel comfortable opening up, asking for help, and admitting mistakes. Teams tend to take an expensive approach to create intimacy, by taking the whole team for a fun day or a team-building outdoors, but you can get similar results on the cheap. There are many short exercises you can use. Here’s an easy one that takes just a few minutes and can be used as an ice-breaker to get a meeting started: Ask participants to whip up their shiny new smartphones and skim through the pictures gallery. They should pick a picture that tells an interesting personal story about them. Could be family, friends, trips, hobbies, fishing, piercing, or anything (that’s safe for work). They then share that picture and the story that goes along with it. If you are a small team, people can share with the whole team. If it’s a larger team, this can be done in smaller breakout groups. Fun, quick, and mostly harmless.

Create a no-blame culture

To err is human, but to blame someone else is divine. I’ve had my share of blaming others, and of being cynical and I am trying to do better today. Everyone can agree that blame has a devastating impact on trust. But blame can sometimes be subtle. It rarely takes the form of “it is your fault!”, although I’ve seen a lot of this as well. Ignoring someone’s comment or cutting her off, shrugging or raising an eyebrow, or making a cynical comment, all these are some of the many forms of blame. Teach your team to recognize blame, and stop it short. You can just hold a short discussion with the team on blame and ask for examples of blame. Or perhaps play the blame bingo:


Hand out printed sheets of the above image to all team members, and ask them to tick the behavior they spot. Once they completed three in a row, they can shout “bingo!” and explain to the team how they got there. This will help the team recognize blameful behaviors.

For extra cookie points, to raise awareness of how we naturally tend to blame others’ behaviors on their character, you can also discuss the fundamental attribution error, and how it naturally biases our behavior.

Share goals

I was once a member of a management team. Our level of cooperation was as poor as it was critical to our success. One simple change made a big difference in our level of mutual trust. We started sharing our personal goals. Your company probably has a performance management process for individual employees, where goals are set. When team members share those goals with one another, they can identify dependencies, and opportunities to help one another, this can help change the game from a zero-sum game like poker to a more cooperative team game like a quest. Once every quarter, hold a team-wide goals-sharing session, where you and your team members can share progress and plans.

Create working agreements that preserve trust

Having explicit agreements about what behaviors we do want, and don’t want to see in our team, can make a difference. You can discuss what you would need to see (or not see) in meetings if your trust level was high. Pick a few of those and create a list of things you can agree to do (or avoid doing). Display that list at the beginning of every meeting to ascertain that the team remembers it, reconfirms it, and sticks to it. Refer to it, improve and refine it.

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