I shared Amy Edmondson’s four key leadership behaviors for managing complex teams in a recent blog post. They are:
- Build an engaging vision
- Cultivate psychological safety
- Develop shared mental models
- Empower agile execution
In this blog I will explore developing shared mental models. When a group of people come together to form a team, they bring their differences. These could be personalities, beliefs, experience, skills, etc. Taking full advantage of this diversity of talent is necessary to maximize a team’s performance. When the team first forms, it is a group of individuals with their own ideas of how things should be. Everyone is usually being nice to each other, but underneath it is still a group of individuals. Over time, the differences between individuals start to surface leading to conflict.
Harness conflict to build shared mental models
If the conflict is left unmanaged, it leads to dysfunctions such as breakdowns in trust. If that conflict is managed positively, shared mental models of how we behave together emerge. Over time these strengthen into beliefs about how we do things on the team. They become so strong that nobody challenges them, they are how we behave. When new people join the team shared mental model of what is normal is usually challenged and may evolve. In effect, this is an ongoing process as the environment around the team changes. This is the essence of what Amy Edmondson describes as shared mental models. You might also recognize the stages of the Tuckman model in my description of the team’s evolution. They are Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing. Changes in team composition happen frequently on a complex dynamic team.
A team leaders role is to manage its conversations
We now have a simple understanding of what is happening within a team. But, how do we manage it to put the team’s diversity of talent to good use? One of a team leader’s key roles is to continually manage the conversations of the team. Managing this process and the related conversations is crucial. The leader needs to role model inclusivity by using active listening. Stephen Covey coined the phrase ‘seek first to understand and then to be understood’. This is active listening in action. Understand the other person’s perspective before you try to explain your own. This behavior is a critical part of establishing a psychologically safe environment, as described in a previous blog.
How the leader shows up, on the fly, in every conversation is important. They can also plan interactions to encourage these behaviors. Here are some practices that encourage free interchange amongst team members:
- Establish an inclusive decision making process. In the process, include an opportunity for each person on the team to share their opinion. I recommend a round robin process. Move from person to person in an orderly manner to gather their insights. Unstructured ‘free for all’ conversations usually favor the outspoken members of a team.
- Bring teams together face to face for interactions requiring a high level of collaboration. Once a shared understanding has been gained on a topic, the team can more effectively work on it remotely.
- Form small sub-teams with diverse expertise to discuss critical topics. Keeping them small encourages full contribution. The addition of a coach or skilled collaborator can maximize the sub-team’s value and help them learn collaborative skills.
Are you encouraging full participation on your diverse team?
There are many ways to encourage your team to share freely and take full advantage of its diverse talents. This can only happen if, you the leader, recognize the diverse talent on your team and commit to encourage full participation.