Competence: Back to the Basics (+ Recognition)

14 January 2011

How can one great team transform an entire organisation? As the slow economic recovery demands that organisations find new sources of bottom line results, the key may be "breakthrough teams" argue New York Times bestselling authors Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton in their new book The Orange Revolution. In this exclusive excerpt for CEO, they address how great teams have an expectation of personal

Imagine it's a quarter past the dawn of time and early man is out hunting. The fellow (perhaps accompanied by an equally hungry relative) spots a woolly mammoth. A tussle ensues; a dozen spears are launched at the huge, menacing animal. Finally after exhausting all but the last javelin, our hero places its point between two of the mammoth's ribs, piercing the heart. Lucky early man is able to take the meat home to roast on the cave fire.

That image, for years propagated by anthropologists, has been replaced with a different vision. Most likely our ancient ancestors were no more able to wrestle to the ground a huge beast than we are; but they did excel at running. It appears that we are evolutionarily predisposed to run long distances.

The new theory is that a team of early men had to work together. Personal competencies were maximised for the good of the group. Those with heightened tracking skills spotted the spore or prints. Others with leadership abilities positioned the men to surprise the animal in an advantageous location.

Those with the most accurate arms would wound a beast with their spears and scare it into a run, while the rest of the team would take up the chase-pursuing the animal for hours or even days until it dropped of exhaustion. The hunt took much more teamwork, over a longer period of time, than we had ever imagined. That's a protracted way of saying that as a species, we're team people. We live in communities for a reason.

"That's a protracted way of saying that as a species, we're team people."

Yet we are also bred to exhibit very unteamlike behavior. It would be easy to lay blame here on those who can't get along and work collaboratively, but the hard facts are that there really are a hundred reasons not to bond with our co-workers.

Top among them is our natural tendency to compete at the expense of others.

According to an Office Team survey of senior executives, nearly half said they believe employees are "more competitive" with each other than a decade ago. And an additional 12% described the rivalry as "significantly more competitive."

This inbred enmity became increasingly clear to us while meeting with one sales organisation. Turnover among the senior sales staff was virtually nonexistent, while more than half of the junior sales group quit annually. The reasons weren't hard to fathom.

As we talked with senior team members, they admitted that compensation and reward systems encouraged them to hoard leads and compete directly with their up-and-coming talent, hire only underwhelming subordinates who would pose no threat to their jobs, and even blame their associates if they lost a deal. All of this created an environment of increasing risk for the company- an aging senior staff with very few qualified individuals to replace older workers as they retired.

Employees in this organisation were obviously lacking in the first quality that we found in abundance in breakthrough teams-a heightened sense of esprit de corps and the tendency to value team members above others. But there was something more.

Great teams have an expectation of personal competence: they hire for it, they nurture it. This sales organisation did everything possible to undermine personal competency in the junior members of their staff. It's one illustration of how conflicted we are as organisations and as human beings: We understand the innate importance of working together, but our culture of competitiveness, not to mention our negatively designed corporate structures, can pull us apart.

So how on earth do you as a team leader, team member, or senior executive get people to buck the insidious forces that can make our teams dysfunctional? The answer will take us deep into our research to identify the Orange characteristics that promote personal competency and allow a group of qualified individuals to band together to create a breakthrough team.

We're hoping that you will experience a bit of an 'aha' moment. After all, most of us assume that success in business comes from making our numbers or meeting our quotas, performing our duties well, showing up on time and staying late, and so on. Those are important ingredients, but they are just part of the story.

Personal competence

With high unemployment and fierce competition for good jobs in the current economy, we might assume that personal competency would be a given among today's workers. Yet it's estimated that worker incompetence and mistakes cost businesses up to 25 percent of their revenue each year. And while a comedy of errors may make for great theatre, in business employee error hurts us all, especially in mistrust.

"To achieve breakthrough results, each team member must first establish a level of personal competency."

After all, we don't often pass to a team mate we think will bobble the ball; we wouldn't assign a solo to a musician we don't believe could hit the notes. Most of us will go to great lengths to avoid collaborating with a co-worker who has a reputation for shoddy work. It is ludicrous to expect team members to value co-workers they don't respect. It would be equally impossible for those same team members to achieve transformational results without the requisite skill sets.

It follows, then, that to achieve breakthrough results, each team member must first establish a level of personal competency.

After all, the extra effort involved in rerouting around the weak links of our groups slows productivity and reduces the time we can devote to the projects that create the largest impact. Within any organisation, at least 80 percent of our days are spent maintaining the status quo.

It's the additional 20 percent, the above-and-beyond efforts that move us forward. If our spare time is monopolised by repairing errors rather than doing what matters most, it is impossible to move ahead.

Adrian Gostick. Chester Elton and Adrian Gostick are consultants at the O.C. Tanner Company, internationally recognised for their expertise on the business benefits of recognition. They have written several books, including the New York Times bestseller The Carrot Principle, and have been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, "Today", CNN, CNBC, Fox, MSNBC, and NPR.
Chester Elton.