As leaders, it can be easy to overthink our performance and our team’s. Something is happening that is causing stress or frustration, so we look for ways to fix it, quickly.
Like complaining. We find the team is complaining a lot and maybe we are too. We want it to stop.
Or we’re stumped and embarrassed when we don’t know or have the right answers. Maybe we’re not getting our best work done but despite working harder and longer, our results are mediocre at best.
Here’s the thing, these “problems” can be utilized in a way to achieve results. Instead of correcting or putting them to a stop, embracing them might be the best step forward.
Most of us believe that complaining at work is inappropriate. If someone complains about something, it is often quickly shut down or dismissed as unprofessional.
Complaining is often seen as unhelpful and unproductive.
But here’s the surprise - high performing teams not only engage in complaining, cursing, and sarcasm, but they find it is one of the contributors to their positive performance. It has to do with the safety they feel with each other and how these behaviors build relatedness within the team, an important psychological need for motivation.
Context is important, however. Complaining needs to be done in a controlled sense (it’s time limited) and it is balanced, even outweighed, with positive behaviors like listening to each other, thanking, appreciating contribution, and sharing new ideas.
(If complaining becomes excessive, it can be destructive and if you need tips for that, read here.)
Harness complaining by using this technique: “Visit Pity City, just don’t move there”. Allow a team some time to vent with no expectation to fix or problem solve. Just complain. Then, get back to work. Teams who do this tend to perform better than those who quash negative emotion. In stressful environments, a 10-15 minute vent-fest could be needed. In others, maybe everyone share one gripe before discussing the topics of meeting.
I first read about this strategy almost 20 years ago in Jeannie Duck’s book and the concept has been proven to be effective in plenty of teaming research before that and since.
Some believe that those who perform at the highest levels must be closer to perfection and that perfection is the only acceptable outcome to get to high performance.
Similarly, some believe it’s acceptable to hide mistakes or imperfections and lead others to believe there are none. The proverbial, “fake it ‘til you make it” mantra.
These beliefs are outdated and off-base. Mistakes, imperfections, and the openness to discuss them without judgement or punishment is exactly the behavior high performing leaders and teams engage in.
Amy Edmondson pioneered the research on team psychological safety (or the sense that it is safe to take interpersonal risks like admitting mistakes and uncertainty). She often tells the story of how she uncovered it as a PhD candidate.
She set out to study the relationship between errors and teamwork in hospitals. She thought that those teams who worked best together also made the fewest errors. Instead, her research found that higher performing teams reported more mistakes. She said, “That forced me to think: Maybe better teams don’t make more mistakes. Maybe they’re more willing and able to talk about them.”
Openness to discuss errors and uncertainty as well as the willingness to hear it from others without judgement are precisely the behaviors that lead to high performance.
Amplify the Unknown
Still, even after decades of research to prove otherwise, some believe that leaders must have all the answers. Experienced and inexperienced leaders alike put this pressure on themselves and others to have an answer, despite uncertainty. For some leaders, it leads to embarrassment. For others, it creates a caustic reflex to make something up in the moment.
Building comfort around the unknown with curiosity, or simply asking great questions, relieves the pressure of having to know. It also leads to better performance. Asking questions and listening results in fewer decision-making errors, more innovation and creativity, reduced group conflict, open communication, and better team performance (Harvard Business Review).
Before your next meeting, arrive prepared to ask questions. Select a few from here to have handy:
Work Less to Get More Done
After decades of research, the Human Performance Institute (HPI) has confirmed one of the ways to achieve the highest levels of performance. It is a process by which we strategically recover from stress, called oscillation. This is to shift between energy expenditure (stress) and restoring energy (recovery).
In the simplest terms, take breaks. Find periodic moments to refresh yourself throughout the day. This means to stop working to get more work done.
It sounds elementary but the research is undeniable. Taking short, intermitted breaks throughout the day enables our body and mind to recover from this energy expenditure. As a result, we make better decisions, think more critically, and prioritize effectively. We are more productive when we take breaks.
Ideally, take one every 60-90 minutes. Make it physical and better yet, go outside or at least look out a window. (Read more about the power of nature here.) Get up, walk around, stretch and breathe deep, or channel Richard Simmons and sweat to some oldies. It doesn’t matter but remaining seated behind a screen (handheld or desktop) does not count.
Counter-intuitive approaches to advancing performance are sometimes the ones that stick. The problems we see might be windows into advancing performance. Not to mention, the surprise effect is fun and sparks curiosity to try. Give one of these a go and see what happens. It’s likely you and the team will find a new opportunity to grow.
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Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training and coaching.
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