Management: Work together



“I lead a team of four employees who occupy supervisory roles. Each of them has been with the company for at least a couple of years. Over the past two years, we’ve made a renewed commitment to operating more effectively. We’ve re-visited our balanced scorecard, adjusted some of the metrics and targets. Top management has begun to share more information with the employees, including financial performance (this is new for us). The reason I write is that I’m being asked to do more planning and analyzing of work processes. I’m trying to encourage my supervisors to do the same. I’d like to see stronger performance along these lines from each of them. I’d also like to see them operate as more of a team, helping one another solve problems and make decisions. Any suggestions?”






The situation you describe is a familiar one in terms of clients with which we’ve been working over the past few years. After organizations have reduced head count to the point where “lean and mean” has become “skeletal and ornery,” attention ultimately has to be turned to performance improvement. A critical question becomes, “How can we cultivate peak performance from our workforce?” 

It is vital for you to set some clear expectations of what you expect from your supervisors as you look ahead. Telling them to make better decisions and be more team-oriented is a starting point, not an end point. You need to help them develop a deeper, more robust tool kit. You need to help them move beyond the silos of their individual roles where they operate as subject matter experts or task-oriented contributors. You need to help them expand their contributions and become process-based generalists. 

To make the kinds of moves I just mentioned, critical thinking is an important skill to be developed, both individually and collectively. Critical thinking is:

  • An attitude of inquiry that involves the ability to recognize the existence of problems and an acceptance of the general need for evidence in support of what is asserted to be true.
  • Self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It entails effective communication and problem solving abilities and is proactive.

Abilities that form the foundation for critical thinking include:

  • Defining problems.
  • Selecting pertinent information for the solution of a problem.
  • Recognizing stated and unstated assumptions.
  • Formulating and selecting relevant and promising hypotheses.
  • Drawing valid conclusions.

At work, the solutions we choose can have serious implications for how we work with others, not just in terms of process, but also in terms of the quality of relationships we forge and sustain. There are occasions where we require solutions that provide new ways of doing things, or ways to create new products or services. Solutions can be costly or involve significant business risks.

Complex problems cannot be solved quickly. When we rush into a decision to resolve a major concern, we usually create more problems. Maybe the wrong issue is addressed. Maybe the main elements are overlooked. Sometimes solutions work on paper, but the human side is overlooked, and the people who are affected by the solutions or responsible for carrying it out are never identified.

Complex problems require a structured solution-finding method. Creative problem solving is such a method. Following such a method will:

  • Force a deliberate analysis of the specific problem.
  • Allow insights from people relevant to the problem.
  • Provide ways to generate/evaluate alternative solutions.
  • Lay the foundation for support and implementation of the solution you identify.
  • Provide a method for evaluating the success of your solution.

Creativity is not synonymous with imagination or flair. Using creativity means finding new ways to do one’s job or go about one’s business. 

Creating cost efficiencies and improving the return to the bottom line appear to be focal points in the questioner’s situation. In order to operate more cohesively as a team of creative, critical thinkers, developing more effective communication must be another area of emphasis. The more people collaborate and partner, the greater the chances of a communication meltdown.

Below are some suggestions to promote effective communication within the team:

  • Analyze team dynamics and address “hot spots” or friction points.
  • Avoid making assumptions without clarification – seek feedback and clarification.
  • Alleviate the fear of reporting true status – cultivate an environment in which team members feel comfortable reporting true conditions, not just what the sponsors (e.g., “the boss”) want to hear.
  • Translate jargon – provide a common language or at least define “technical” terms up front.
  • Recognize cultural and individual differences within the team.
  • Promote team chemistry by pursuing openness and building trust.

Make communication a priority item as you build collaboration and critical thinking within the team. Remember, communication is the glue. Without it, the tough talks that need to be had in order to probe more deeply will not go very smoothly. In fact, they might go rather poorly if, in seeking information and verifying evidence, team members become judgmental. 

When things are going poorly, team members tend to point fingers and engage in other non-constructive activities (e.g., the blame game). What processes are in place so that team members can resolve their disagreements quickly and effectively? Who should team members approach to talk about conflict? How should incidences be documented?  Having a formal communication game plan helps keep the team on track as it seeks to have more hard-hitting discussions (i.e., critical thinking exchanges).

One way to get the process rolling is to set up a formal brainstorming session to hammer out the details of the communication plan. This can build team morale and gives all members a sense of ownership. Your plan should answer a number of questions:

  • Who needs what type of information?
  • When do they need it?
  • How should information be communicated?

To sum up, the message in this column has been to encourage critical thinking and communication in order to develop greater collaboration and participation and enhance team effectiveness. One final caveat is to take the time to develop these skills. Like learning to ride a bike, developing critical thinking and communication skills are iterative process – one step at a time. But, in the end, when things are rolling along, the effort will have been worth it.  

For, as one of my colleagues likes to observe, “Never underestimate the speed of going slow!”

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