To be a part of a high performing team, you must first become a high performing individual. In this episode, author and thought leader, Mike Robbins, explains the importance of team dynamics and creating an environment that provides psychological safety. Learn the foundations that make a winning team and start applying it to yourself and your business for a shot at success. Mike stresses the difference between your role and your job and gives the details of why one is more important than the other. He further shares the correct approach when it comes to feedback, which is asking for it as opposed to waiting. Understand the difference and benefits you gain when you follow this simple step and more as you take a deep dive into this insightful conversation.
We have Mike Robbins here. He is a best-selling author of many books like We’re All In This Together. This guy has the culture thing down. He has written many great books. He’s been featured in The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, you name it. I’m looking forward to this. He’s a regular contributor at Forbes and has his own podcast. His books have been translated into fifteen different languages.
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The Art Of Winning As A High Performing Team With Mike Robbins
I am with Mike Robbins, who’s the author of five books, including We’re All In This Together. He’s creating a team culture of high performance, trust, and belonging. He’s been a sought-after speaker and consultant. He delivers keynotes and seminars for some of the top organizations in the world like Google, Wells Fargo, Microsoft, Genentech, eBay, Harvard University, Gap, LinkedIn, and the Oakland A’s. It’s just a few of them. You’ve probably seen his work in The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, and everywhere. It’s nice to have you here, Mike.
Diane, thanks for having me on. I’m excited to be here.
I’m excited to chat about your latest work. You’ve done a lot. You have authored quite a bit of different books. I’ve seen some of them like Focus on the Good Stuff, Be Yourself, Everyone Else is Already Taken, Nothing Changes Until You Do and Bring Your Whole Self to Work. I want to get a little bit of background on you. For those who don’t know you, how did you get to the point of being such a successful author?
It’s funny because I never liked to write when I was younger, but that’s a whole other story. I was an athlete growing up. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area where I grew up and I played baseball growing up as a kid. I was good at it. I got drafted out of high school by the New York Yankees. I didn’t end up signing with the Yankees because I got a chance to play baseball in college at Stanford. I went to Stanford and played there. I got drafted at Stanford by the Kansas City Royals and I signed a pro-contract. The way it works in baseball is you get drafted by a Major League team, whether it’s the Yankees, the Royals, or any other team in the Major League. You have to go into the Minor League. There are a bunch of levels of the minor leagues. You’ve got to work your way up to get to the Major League.
I was a left-handed pitcher doing well, working my way up to get to the big leagues. Unfortunately, in my third season, I went out to pitch one night. I threw one pitch, tore ligaments in my elbow, and blew my arm out. My career didn’t end right at that moment. I ended up spending two more years. I had three surgeries on my arm. I tried to come back but I wasn’t able to. I had to retire from baseball at the age of 25 after starting when I was seven. I was personally devastated by the experience as you can imagine. It was tough but particularly by the time I got to college and I was playing professionally, I was fascinated by team dynamics. I was on some team that sometimes had good talent but the team wasn’t good, which was super frustrating.
You figure in sports, if you have the best players, you should have the best team. That is not always the case because of egos, people not getting along, people mad about their position or their playing time or whatever. They would just leave the team. I was on some other teams where the talent was good, not great, but the team was fantastic. We would beat other teams that had better players than we did, which I was like, “How does that work?” We call it chemistry. No one knew what the heck that meant, but you knew when you had it. You know when you didn’t have it. It wasn’t just some warm, fuzzy, touchy-feely thing. It was like, “This makes us play better. Not just the team, but definitely the team plays better.” It was always easier for me to succeed individually when I was on a team with good chemistry.
Baseball is over and I’m bummed. I came home to the San Francisco Bay Area where I grew up. I got a job in the late ‘90s working in the tech world. I’m in sales and I figured, “The business world and the tech world would be super different than sports,” and it was. I realized right away that whole team chemistry thing that I erroneously thought was a sports thing, that’s not a sports thing. That’s a human thing. We just call it culture in business, but it’s the same thing.” It’s all those intangible things that make a team come together, trust each other, bring out the best in each other, and thrive or the opposite.
After working for a couple of startups in the late ‘90s, I started my consulting business. I was curious based on my experience as an athlete. What I’d seen in my few years in the business world was like, “What are the things that leaders and teams need to do to create that kind of chemistry and culture?” That’s been the quest I’ve been on for many years and this book We’re All in This Together, is a combination of many years of my life and the research I’ve done. Also, the stuff that I’ve seen getting a chance to work with a lot of those great companies and teams that you mentioned.
I had looked at your website through your background and watched some of the stuff that you’ve put together. I imagine going through that loss of thinking you’re going into baseball and then deciding that that’s not going to go. It’s got to be a challenging thing for people who have this idea of what they want to do. I’ve had a few athletes on my show who tend to go in this direction because you do learn so much from working on a team like that. I love the picture of you throwing the baseball, by the way.
I’m focused and quite young on those days. It’s funny because you live in Arizona. That picture was taken when I was at Stanford and pitching against Arizona State in Tempe. Of the many things that I learned in addition to the team aspect of sports, one of the other things is an odd thing to think about. Even as we’re dealing with this pandemic and all of the uncertainty, chaos and challenge of it, sports, baseball in particular, taught me how to lose and fail, which I didn’t like losing and failing. There’s a ton of failure in baseball. It’s just the nature of the game. You think about the team in 2019 that won the championship, which we somewhat arrogantly called the World Series, although it’s just Major League Baseball, which is 29 American teams and one Canadian team. They won the World Series with the Washington Nationals. They lost 69 games in the regular season and they lost another five games in the postseason. They lost 41% of their games and they won game seven of the World Series in Houston on the road to win the championship.It’s okay to fail a lot so long as you learn from the experience. Click To Tweet
That’s a lot of losing for what ultimately ended up being the best team in baseball in 2019. For me, all those years playing baseball, even though I was good, I failed and lost a lot. I learned that experience. Even at the end of my career, as painful as that was, it was a huge life change that I did not want and like. I’m finding myself when I’m talking to leaders and teams, as everyone’s trying to navigate this chaos, uncertainty, and the challenge of what’s happening, things changed, we’re at home, the economy’s changed, what’s going to happen, we’re laying people off or furlough. There’s a lot of significant impact of all this. At the same time, one of the things we can all do, particularly when we go through any type of challenge, is think back to other challenges we’ve faced in the past. I’m not a big dwell on the past kind of guy, but I do think it can be helpful when we look back and say, “I’m a lot stronger than I give myself credit for.” We’re a lot more resilient maybe than we think we are, our team, family, and community. We as human beings are incredibly adaptable and resilient.
One of the things when we’re in the midst of a challenge and we don’t know how it’s going to play out, we know how every other challenge in our lives individually and collectively is played out. We made it through and we learned something. Maybe we had a few scars from the experience, but it gave us some character, perspective, and wisdom. The challenge is then to bring that wisdom and that perspective into the present moment. Not to minimize the moment because it’s big, but also to remind ourselves, “We’ll figure this out. I’ll figure this out.” We collectively will somehow figure this out because we have that capacity.
You were talking about that loss and failure and some of that. I wrote my dissertation on emotional intelligence, which led to my interest in assessing things. When I wrote my assessment on curiosity, one of the four factors I found that inhibit curiosity is that fear of looking dumb, failure, and many things. Fear can hold you back from many things. What I like about your book is that you write about much of the things that helped build this important culture. For me, culture begins at the top. You’d have to have leaders buy into the need for this and they have to emulate that. Your book is about building trust. It’s also about collaborating and a lot of that requires curiosity. I love how it ties into what I’m interested in. You wrote about four pillars in your book and I want to talk about those. Let’s go through them one at a time because they’re important.
Your work on curiosity is super important. You’ve been studying it for all these years and you’re such an expert, but it does lead us when we can come from that place of curiosity. You know this way better than I do. It can lead us into many different places, both mentally, emotionally, personally, but also collectively because the first pillar in my book is about creating psychological safety. Psychological safety is group trust. One of your colleagues in the world of studying these things, Professor Amy Edmondson at Harvard Business School, I had a chance to interview on my podcast when I was working on the book. Her work has been foundational and pivotal in understanding psychological safety.
Google did a study called Project Aristotle years ago. It got a lot of attention in the press and they spent three years trying to study what are the conditions necessary to create high performance for teams. After spending three years studying this, their findings came back. The number one by far the most important element that they found in their own research was psychological safety. It means that the group is safe enough for people to take risks, speak up, and make mistakes. You can disagree and be the outlier. You know all those things can happen and you’re not going to get kicked out of the group, get shamed, get ridiculed, and have some negative retribution.
In a lot of ways, I would imagine based on your work too, it’s the freedom and safety that we can be curious with each other and try different things even if they don’t necessarily work out. As simple as that sounds, it’s not all that easy to create. There are a lot of things we do consciously and unconsciously, both as leaders and as human beings that don’t lend themselves to creating that sense of psychological safety, so it’s important. One of the things I did in my book and what I always try to do is talk about concepts but then first talk about why these things are hard. They’re easy to understand, but they’re hard to practice.
Let’s talk about some things that make it hard. One of the things that makes it hard in business for there to be psychological safety is most business environments are competitive. I learned this as an athlete early on that it was like, “I’m competing against my teammates.” That’s weird. We compete against each other for an opportunity and then we’re supposed to go out compete with each other against the other team, but which is it? Therefore, what ends up happening is that we don’t often operate with as much authenticity and vulnerability as necessary because of that internal competition. If you’re in a competitive environment and you and I might be vying for the next job or the next opportunity. Even if I liked you and respect you, it’s like, “I’m going to protect myself against Diane. I don’t like to give her any extra advantage for how she might be able to get it.” That’s the nature of life in business.
You can be in environments where overtly everyone’s throwing elbows metaphorically. In places like where I live in the Bay Area in Silicon Valley, there are a ton of good positive cultures that are incredibly competitive under the surface. It’s not overt. It’s much more covert. Psychological safety is essential. When I talked to Karen May, who was the head of learning development at the time at Google when they did the Project Aristotle study, I asked her, “Were you surprised by any of the findings?” She said, “We weren’t surprised specifically that psychological safety showed up as important. What we were surprised by is how important it was.” If a team doesn’t have it, it’s almost impossible for them to thrive as a team. You might have a group of individuals who can do well individually, but the team is not going to perform at the highest level if it doesn’t exist. If it does exist, it doesn’t mean that team is going to magically be a high performing team, but they got a chance.
I was fortunate to have Amy Edmondson on my show as well and I was fascinated by her TED Talk because she brings up collaboration and curiosity in how the miners got out from under in the Chilean mining disaster. I was fortunate to meet her at Thinkers50 as well. She’s a rock star and everybody’s following around because this is such an important topic. I don’t think it gets as much attention as it should because there is so much competition. With the mining disaster, there was no competition. We’re all in this together there for sure. I’d like to see more of that. As you were talking about competition, it made me think. I spent decades in sales and all it is competition. You get into these team settings and a lot of people have a hard time going from that. It’s all about me winning to being in a team thing. Some of the athletes I’ve had on the show have said that that was one of the best things they got out of working in the athletic job that they did before. They had to learn to get over it all being about them. I could see that helping.
It’s tricky because it’s yes and no in the sense that we as athletes, and for anyone reading who played sports at any level, you do learn about having to sacrifice for the team and there’s something bigger going on than just your own success. The challenge though is our culture. Think about this not just in sports and in business. Especially here in Western American culture, we reward individual accomplishment and achievement. It’s like, “She’s a rock star. She was the top salesperson.” It’s not that you shouldn’t get recognized for that, but it’s what do we incent.
One of the distinctions that I talked about in We’re All In This Together is a simple but profound distinction of great teams. It’s understanding the difference between our job and our role. Our role is what we do. It’s our title. It’s on our résumé, LinkedIn profile, business card if we still have it, and email signature. In your case, you’ve got a PhD. You earned and spent an enormous amount of time getting to the level that you’ve gotten and published what you’ve published. As defined in different ways, whether we go the academic route or otherwise. It’s not that those things aren’t important. Our role is important, but what’s more important if we’re part of a team is our job.
Everyone on a winning team and a high performing team understands that everyone on the team has the same job. Your job is to help the team win. That’s your job. If we put our role above our job, “My sales quote is more important than the team winning. My getting the next promotion is more important.” Even senior leaders that I talked to. If the head of engineering who talks about my team and what he means, and it’s usually a he in engineering, unfortunately for better or worse, he’s usually talking about his team of engineers or product people in the technology organization inside the company. All of a sudden, he’s now fighting with the head of sales or the head of legal. I’m like, “Aren’t we all on the same team?” Even if I’m a senior leader and I manage thousands of people, it’s this notion of everyone’s job is to help the team win.
Our roles are whatever they are, but if our role becomes more important than our job, then what we’re interested in is, “I’ll go out on the baseball field. I want to have a good game. I want to have good stats. I want people to think I’m good. If we win or lose, I don’t care. I just want to look good.” It’s usually not quite that overt and brutal, but the culture that we live in and the way things are rewarded tend to be that way. That can be when things are going well as it was economically, people are looking for the next job or the next thing. When it turns the other way, people are scared for their own jobs and their own safety and survival. It becomes this battle of the fittest. “I’ve got to make sure I survived for myself.” In either case, that’s problematic to the collective.
There’s that take one for the team mentality that sometimes they’re giving up something instead of looking at it the overall big picture.
On that same note, one of the things that I did learn in sports, and this is true in business as well, being on a winning team or successful team is beneficial to us personally for a couple of reasons. First of all, winning and success are contagious, just like losing and failure. When we’re around other successful people, we’re more successful. We’re relational creatures. If you put yourself in an environment, it’s a mindset shift. The other thing that happens is we become more valuable in the market if we’re part of a winning team. Even inside of a big organization. I’m working inside of Google, Microsoft, Wells Fargo, or these big companies. If you’re part of a team or division within the company or you’re leading that team and that team is doing well, all of a sudden, you become more internally valuable if you’re looking for potential other opportunities.
You work for a company that has a strong brand and has had a ton of success. You think about leaving and wanting to go somewhere else. It’s like being associated with the sports team that won the championship or the university that’s one of the tops in the world. It all of a sudden elevates your personal brand and your value for better or worse. I see this in sports all the time. The team wins the championship, they’re all incredible if they’re professional athletes, but relative to sports, the mediocre player on the championship team is more valuable than that same player on another team. That athlete is going to sign a bigger contract the next year based on the fact that they were on a championship team versus not.
It’s all interesting to look at how the team analogies and some of the things that you learn from the experience that you had. You go on to write about fostering inclusion and belonging. Is that something you also learned from working in the sports realm?You’re actually a lot stronger and resilient than you give yourself credit for. Click To Tweet
The second pillar is about inclusion and belonging. It’s been a journey for me over the course of my life with that. Some of it comes from growing up. I grew up in Oakland, California. There’s a lot of diversity, both in playing sports and going to school. Here I am. I’m white, straight, and male, but I was raised by a single mom. I went to school, especially by the time I’m in junior high in high school, with most kids who didn’t look like me. They had different backgrounds, races, and ethnicity. It was interesting that I was super curious as a young kid about all the differences.
For white people in America, most of us don’t have the experience of being a minority in the environment where we are. Some of us do, but not that often. I didn’t realize how unique that was until I went to college. I was like, “I had a different experience than most of the other kids at Stanford who looked like me for a variety of reasons.” One of which was the sports teams I was on, the schools that I went to, the place, the environment, and what the cultural norms were. What that did for me was it had me oriented in a way.
In general, most men don’t pay as much attention to their gender as most women do. That’s a generalization. As I walk around the world as a man, I don’t have to think about myself as a man as much as most women that I talked to. Their life experiences are more defined by their femaleness than most men, generally speaking. It’s like, “I have to navigate the world in this way.” In a non-dominant group, if I’m gay or a person of color in any way, those things are going to define more of my identity of who I am than if I’m not.
That said, what we now know that a lot of research shows is that diverse leadership teams and diverse organizations outperform ones that aren’t. It’s in everybody’s best interest that we create as much diversity as we can on our teams and organizations. It’s not only more representative of our customers and of the world, but it makes us better because you have a diversity of thought, skill, thinking and perspective. The thing that’s interesting is as we start to wade into some of these issues, they get sensitive, emotional, and even get political. It gets tricky how we navigate through this especially in the environment that we’re in collectively.
What I looked at in my research for this book specifically was some of what got me thinking about belonging and thinking about Maslow’s hierarchy. The need to belong is a fundamental human need. It’s not reserved for any particular group of people. We all fundamentally have a need. It goes from physiological to safety to belonging to esteem and then self-actualization in Maslow’s hierarchy. It’s not easy to do. Teams that can figure out how do we create enough diversity so that we can be as successful as possible? How do we have people feel as included as they possibly can and ultimately create an environment where people feel like they belong irrespective of their background, seniority, age, race, gender or whatever it is?
If you think about the best teams and groups you’ve ever been a part of, all of us, there was a sense of like, “I belong here. I am a full member of this team.” It doesn’t mean that there isn’t still some hierarchy, someone’s in charge, someone’s been here longer, and someone produces more results in some way. We all get that as adults, but if people don’t feel like they belong, they’re not going to fully engage and they’re not going to perform at their highest level by any stretch of the imagination.
You said that you studied at Stanford. I’m curious about what you studied, by the way.
I got my degree in American studies with a specialization in race and ethnicity. It was 1992 when I graduated from high school and the riots in LA happened that spring. I was this white kid going through an inner-city school in Oakland. Issues of race and of what was happening in the country were important to me at that time and I didn’t know what I wanted to study. I wanted to play baseball and I wanted to get my degree. I thought maybe I’d get a degree in psychology, but I took some psych classes and there was a lot of focus on the brain and sciency, which didn’t resonate with me. I thought maybe communications but the comm classes at Stanford were all in the afternoon because the communications department didn’t like that all the athletes were comm majors. I was like, “I’ll just take a bunch of classes that are interesting to me for my first year or two. When I have to declare a major, I’ll do so.”
I sat down with an advisor towards the end of my sophomore year and I said, “I don’t know what I want to get my degree in.” He said, “You’re more than halfway down in American studies.” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “This is interdisciplinary, history, pol sci, and ethnic studies. It’s all the things you’ve been taking.” I was like, “I should probably do that.” It wasn’t with any real career aspiration in mind. It was more like I want to learn things that are interesting. “This is what I’m curious about and let me follow that curiosity.” Ultimately, my sense was unless I knew I wanted to go to law school or to med school, which I did and I wanted to play baseball, I don’t think it matters exactly what degree I get. That was the approach that I took. The irony in some ways about my education and the way I grew up is getting into this work many years ago. What I first wanted to do was focus my work on diversity, but I was young when I first started.
At that time, my thought process then and for many years was I’m not sure if anyone wants to listen to a young, straight, white guy talk about diversity. It was more out of respect. I thought, “There are people who have way more lived experience than I do about a lot of these topics and issues.” On the surface, even though I paid a lot of attention to this over the course of my life, I had a unique background and got some education at least as an undergrad and some of this stuff. “I was like, “I don’t want to be harshly judged and criticized and/or I don’t want to be disrespectful to people who are practitioners of this work.” I stayed away from it for a long time. I started to realize based on changes in our culture, what’s going on, and also from a pure performance and culture standpoint, “We can’t opt-out of these conversations and in addressing these issues anymore. It doesn’t work.”
There are many people I talk to, particularly other leaders inside of organizations who look like me. They’ll say to me earnestly, “Either I’m not paying attention to this enough because it’s not on my radar or when I do, I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to do and I don’t know how to address it. I don’t want people to think that I’m racist, sexist, or homophobic because I’m not.” As soon as I start to open my mouth about these things, inevitably I put my foot in my mouth or I’m afraid I’m saying the wrong thing or not addressing it the right way. I get it and I totally understand. That was one of the many reasons that this book was important for me to write and have this pillar in this chapter in there on inclusion and belonging because it’s super important. Instead of people doing what you teach about being curious about this, we’re afraid and trying to get it right. There’s no way to get it right. All there is to do is to engage, go, listen, learn and try. Understandably, that’s scary for some of us.
In the research I did with curiosity, I found there are four things that kept people from being curious. I made an acronym FATE, which Fear was the first thing. People have this fear of looking dumb and all the things that go along with fear. Also, the Assumptions and the things we tell ourselves, underutilization of Technology and Environment are the other things. Your background is a lot like mine in the fact that I like the psychological aspects as well, even though my degree is in business. I did have the famous Albert Bandura from Stanford on the show and they have a great psychology department there. Going to Stanford must have been amazing.
You said you started when the riots were in LA. I was in LA during the riots. It reminds me of this time because we couldn’t leave our room and there are a lot of similarities. As we’re doing this during the COVID situation, there’s so much to talk about. You’re touching on many of the things that we’re going to be addressing in the third pillar, which is addressing navigating conflict. There are a lot of things that are challenging. With a lot of the things that we’re talking about with why people can’t communicate well. When I studied emotional intelligence in my research and everything, a lot of conflict comes from the lack of interpersonal skills, lack of empathy, and a lot of things like that. I want to know what you include when you talk about addressing and navigating conflict.
This third pillar is called Embrace Sweaty-Palmed Conversations and I call them that because I had a mentor of mine say to me, “Mike, what stands between you and the relationships you want to have with people?” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “It’s probably a ten minutes sweaty-palmed conversation you’re too afraid to have.” He said, “If you get good at those sweaty-palmed conversations, you’ll have fantastic relationships. You’ll build trust, resolve conflict, and get to know people who are different. You’ll talk about the elephant in the room. If you do like most of us and you avoid those conversations because they can be awkward or uncomfortable, or sometimes you say the wrong thing or make things worse, then you end up being a bit of a victim of who you work with and who you live with.” He said, “See if you can embrace those and lean into the discomfort of that.”
Like most humans on the planet, I don’t love having those conversations. I don’t wake up in the mornings and say to myself, “Do you know what I want to do today? I want to have some uncomfortable conversations with people.” I appreciate your work on curiosity because I do think one of the things that can help move us through the fear of conflict and giving or receiving feedback is to be curious about, how do I feel? How do you feel? What’s going on for you? What’s going on for me? You know this better than I do that the place of curiosity puts us into a different mindset and it opens us up. When I’m talking about conflict groups or I’m leading a workshop on conflict or just speaking about it, I will often say, “When you hear the word conflict, what comes to mind right away?” People say things like fight, fear or argument.
The word conflict seems like a hard, harsh word, but I’ll ask a follow-up question and say, “What becomes available when you resolve a conflict with someone?” “Trust, understanding, connection, new ideas and innovation.” There’s all of this. I remember I read about this in one of my earlier books that the Chinese symbol for conflict has two symbols. The first symbol is danger and the second symbol is opportunity. It’s usually written with danger either above or in front of, so the danger comes first and the opportunity comes second. Part of what we have to deal with is, how do we move past the discomfort and the fear of the initial part of having that sweaty-palmed conversation to then get to the opportunity? Some of it is being curious, and I’m curious about your thoughts on this. I wonder how this is going to go.
When I started to study that when I wrote my book about curiosity, I wanted to just write a book initially, and then I realized I had to figure out how to fix it if people were having low levels of curiosity. I did research to figure out these four factors that inhibit it. When you’re looking at this, it’s not just determining what inhibits it. You have to see where you are on that spectrum of this being a problem. The answer is knowing where you are and what’s stopping you so that you can have that to create an action plan of how to move forward. Telling you that your level is low in curiosity, it’s like, “Thanks, now what?” It didn’t help me anyway. I want to improve it and to do that, you have to know where you are.
There’s a conflict when there’s an issue, problem, and disagreement but there’s also feedback. We all know feedback is a gift or we’d all have clichés about feedback. The thing about feedback though is most of us, myself included, don’t usually love getting feedback. What we know even neurologically is that if I come to you and I say, “I have some feedback for you.” Even if you and I have a strong relationship or that’s built into our relationship and it’s all good, you’re going to have an emotional reaction before I even say anything just by bringing up that I have some feedback for you. You’re preparing yourself and you’re going to say, “What’s he going to say?” If you come to me and say, “Mike, give me feedback for me.” All of a sudden, that changes the dynamic and you go into it with curiosity with an open mind. There’s a simple technique that I’ve learned over the years that I use this with teams and with leaders. It’s asking three simple but great questions. It’s a way to elicit feedback, but also even ask people to ask us these questions, so we can give them feedback.
It’s, what do you want me to start, what you want me to stop, and what you want me to continue? What can I start doing that I’m not doing that you think would make me more successful or effective in managing you or working with you or being married to you? Whatever the heck it is. You let them say that they’re not telling you what to do, but they’re giving you suggestions for things you could start doing that maybe you hadn’t thought of or would be important from their perspective. What can I stop doing? What am I currently doing right now that you think is getting in the way of my success or making it more difficult to work with me or communicate with me or be married to me?Diverse leadership teams and organizations outperform ones that aren't. Click To Tweet
That can be the hardest thing to do.
What can I continue doing? Start, stop, continue. If you and I are friends or we work together and I come to you on a regular basis and say, “Tell me some things that I could start doing. Tell me some things you think I could stop doing. Tell me some things I could continue doing.” What I’m getting is some helpful feedback and insight. I don’t have to take what you say like it’s the absolute truth even if you’re my boss, wife or best friend, but I’ll take it as an important data point like, “Diane thinks I should start this. She thinks I should stop this and she thinks I should continue this. Let me integrate those.”
If I’m asking a few other key people for that same type of feedback, I will probably start to see some themes. If I create an environment around me, this is a great exercise. I do this sometimes when I come in and work with teams. There are two different ways to do it. One is much safer and easier. I do it with the group and at the end of the session, we’ve had a whole menu I’ve done with them for an off-site. As a team, what could you start, what could you stop and what could you continue? Maybe they’ll break up into small groups and brainstorm a little and then we’ll chart it.
We’ve got a good list of, “Here are some things the team can start, stop, and continue doing as an action plan moving forward.” The scarier but even more valuable ways we do it is I usually ask permission beforehand, particularly to the leader, “Can we do this in real-time with each other, and are you willing to go first?” Some individual leaders and some teams aren’t quite ready to do that, but if the session has gone well and I’ve created enough psychological safety in the moment. What we start with is like, “We’re going to spend some time here giving each other some feedback for this significant purpose. The primary purpose of let’s make everyone the best versions of ourselves we can possibly be. You all worked together for a while and you all have insight into each other. Is everyone open and willing to take some feedback here that might potentially benefit them?” Most people might be a little scared, but they say yes.
We start with the leader and he or she is now on the hot seat, but then everyone starts to hit, “What do you think are some things this person could start doing?” They take some notes and listen. I say, “Don’t spend a lot of time defending yourself. If you don’t understand something, you can clarify,” but mostly just take in what they could stop doing and what they could continue. People offer some things and then we start going to everyone on the team. I’m mindful of wanting to do it in a way that’s empowering and supportive. It’s got to feel right. Usually what happens after the conversation is people are empowered and it’s like, “That wasn’t as bad as I thought. I got some good feedback and most of that stuff I know anyway or I thought about, but it was good to hear.” Everyone walks out of the room with a list of things that they can now do and they can check back in with each other. What we realize is it’s a way to practice.
We’re all in this, not just this team, but this life thing together. We’re all doing the best we can. Most of us have some strengths and some challenges. We could lean on the people that we work with and the people that we live with so that we can support each other to be the best versions of ourselves possible. It’s not coming from an arrogant and condescending place. It’s not coming from like, “I’m right and you’re all wrong. I’m good and you’re all bad.” If that’s where it’s coming from, it’s not going to land and it’s not going to be valuable, but if it comes from an authentic place, people can take it in.
You brought up so much that’s key to improving the whole overall atmosphere in general because if we have leaders buy into the need for it and people can emulate what they do, that’s important. I want to get to your last of the pillars. I know it includes high expectations and empathy. What are you titling your fourth pillar?
The fourth pillar is called Care About and Challenge Each Other. This means both at the same time, caring and challenging. On my podcast, I interviewed a man named Dean Stotz who was a pitching coach at Stanford. He coached at Stanford for 37 years. He since then retired. He’s become a dear friend and a mentor of mine. He was at our wedding. Dean and I are close. Dean said this great thing when I interviewed him, “My philosophy on coaching for all those years was simple. I always believed I had to love you hard, so I could push you hard.”
I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “I knew that if I was going to be able to push and challenge you to try to in whatever way, crack the code of how do I get the most out of you, the first and most important thing I had to do was let you know that I care about you. Be it an individual, the team collectively, and any of the players that I coached for all those years. Until you knew that I cared about you, you weren’t going to let me push you. Once you knew I cared about you, you’d give me permission that I could push you hard.” I said, “Dean, that’s what a great leader does. That’s what great teams do.”
People’s personalities and their styles might be different, but in general, when you think about the great teams we’ve ever been a part of or the great groups, it’s that sense of these people have my back. These people care about me. They value me as a human being, not just whatever my role is. At the same time, they don’t let me off the hook. We hold each other accountable and we expect a lot from each other in a healthy way. We don’t expect perfection and we don’t shame and ridicule each other. We’ve got to have that psychological safety, but we’re willing to call each other out in a positive and productive way.
One of the examples I use in the book is I’m a former athlete and I’m a sports fan. As much as I love baseball and I played, I’m also a huge basketball fan. The team that I grew up rooting for passionately, although they were terrible forever, is the Golden State Warriors. For the last few years, they’ve been the best team in basketball, which has been remarkable for all of us who rooted for them for a long time. They were not only not good. They were terrible for a long time.
They have an incredible amount of talent and an incredible level of chemistry and culture on their team. One of their best players is a guy named Draymond Green who’s super passionate. If you aren’t a Warriors fan, he’s the guy you hate when he’s on the other team because he’s yelling and screaming. He’s demonstrative and we all love him. He’s the heart and soul of the team but he’s the guy on the court that gets right up in everyone’s face at times. You’ll see it on TV that he’ll just start barking at somebody and he does it in this way that you think, “That seems rough and brutal. I’m not sure if I would like that,” but most of the time when he barks at his teammates, you can see there’s a sense that they love and care about each other so much. I don’t know the Warriors and I haven’t worked with them specifically. He’s built the relationship that his role on the team is to be the enforcer. It comes from a place of like, “We have this high level of expectation for how we play.” If he sees someone falling short of that, he’s going to make sure to let them know in a specific way.
What I assume, have read about, heard about, and can see is what’s built into that is a level of care and of love for each other and a commitment to success. It doesn’t mean we have to walk on eggshells around each other like, “Maybe you could try a little harder.” It’s like, “This is how we operate. This is what we expect of him.” In some ways in sports, it’s forced upon us because the environment is intense and the competition is high. In life and in business, there’s a way and I’ve been around some real high performing teams where that is the environment. There’s a notion that I talked about in the book, too, about being divided together and united apart. Meaning we get in the room and we close the door.
Nowadays, we get on Zoom and Skype or whatever. We’re going to let it rip respectfully with each other. We’re going to disagree, challenge each other, and push each other. When we leave that call or that meeting, and we walk out into the world, we’re united and we’re aligned. We’re not throwing each other under the bus. We’re not talking about each other. We talk to each other. That’s the way that we show our care for one another. If you and I have an issue with each other and we’re on the team, we deal with that issue directly or we bring it to the team, so it gets dealt with. We don’t go outside of the team and then say, “Diane gets on my nerves and she’s bugging me.” That’s a normal thing that people do and that becomes problematic to the team. Ultimately, if it’s a leadership team, it becomes problematic for the whole organization.One of the things that can help move us through the fear of conflict or giving and receiving feedback is to be curious. Click To Tweet
You’re a keynote speaker, you do these workshops, executive retreats, and things. I’m sure you get a variety of people who are interested in what you write about and talk about. I know being a culture expert in the things I deal with that I get a lot of requests for soft skills, culture, and generational kinds of things. How have you found this impacts different generations in terms of the culture? Have you seen any difference of people being more open to what you talk about and write about based on their generation or is it across the board?
You would know this through your work too. Generationally, think about how the mindset of a Baby Boomer. Baby Boom generation is a span of eighteen years and the Millennial generation is a span of twenty years. I’m a Gen X member myself, which the span is a little bit shorter, fifteen years. When we grew up and how we were raised in general, but also how we got into the business world and what was focused on, one of the benefits of people who are a little bit older is more wisdom and perspective. They’re walking around on the planet longer, so they’ve seen more stuff. That said, talking to Baby Boomers and people who are a little bit older about vulnerability, sweaty-palmed conversations, and some of these things that we’re talking about. They didn’t grow up being trained in emotional intelligence as a real core competency of leadership in the business. That’s not to say that there aren’t incredibly emotionally intelligent Baby Boomers. Of course, they are. It’s just that was not what was given to them as they got out of school and got to they’re professional lives.
If you go to Gen Xers in general, there’s this, “Maybe I’m 45 to 50 years old and I’ve been around a little bit. I learned some stuff.” The evolution of some of these things, the open-mindedness to some of these things, maybe you talk to Millennials. There’s a big debate understandably about Boomers versus Millennials. Some of us here in the middle, the Gen X, are left out of that. We don’t feel like we belong in that conversation. What ends up happening with a lot of Millennials is I find that the younger people are more open to this. This stuff is not foreign. It doesn’t seem weird. It doesn’t seem strange. The challenge is the younger we are, the less perspective and wisdom we have. There are a lot of Millennials as we’re going through these crazy times of chaos that have never been through any economic downturn or recession or whatsoever. They don’t know what that looks and feels like. They’re going to probably understandably struggle a bit as they go through this process because they don’t have any reference point. Most of us don’t have any reference point for what’s happening collectively.
What happens is there’s the combination of the generation that someone is in, but also the age that someone is. Those things are happening simultaneously. Being a Millennial, you have certain things that are stereotypically Millennial things, but there are also things that are common to being a 27-year-old of what you think you know or what you don’t know. That’s not to say that in a negative way. A friend of mine named Chip Conley wrote a great book called Wisdom at Work. What Chip talks about in that book is this idea of how do we become both a mentor and intern at the same time? If we’re a bit older, can we both have that mindset of, “I’m this wise elder. I’ve been around, but can I also be open-minded enough to think about what I can learn from the younger generation?” For people in the younger generation, particularly Millennials, can we be open to, “There’s a bunch of stuff that I know, I’ve learned, and I see both about technology and about human interaction. There’s also a ton of wisdom that I can learn from people who are older than me. They can teach me some of the ways of the world that maybe I don’t know yet because I haven’t been walking around the planet for long enough?”
That brings up Carol Dweck’s great work of having that open versus closed mindset. A closed mindset can be such a problem. As awful as all this COVID is, hopefully, it’s making us have something more in common than we ever had to be able to get along in a better way and have more empathy for one another, which is a huge part of emotional intelligence as you know and wrote about.
It’s an equalizer in a lot of ways. We’re all dealing with this differently. Ironically, we’re all physically separated from each other, but we’re also in this experience together. I was on a podcast interview and the host said to me, “Mike, what’s interesting about this experience is I’m not having that FOMO, that Fear Of Missing Out because everyone is at home. There’s not like, ‘So-and-so is traveling here. They’re out to this wonderful dinner.’ It’s weird because I don’t mean to make light of what’s going on, but I know that everyone is home by themselves and/or with their families like I am and we’re all in the same boat.” I remember as a kid, one weird thought that I would have when I would be lying in bed at night and I couldn’t sleep. I would remember thinking and I would look up to all these pro athletes and people that I aspire to be. “They’re probably laying in their bed right now sleeping, just like I am.” It was this weird moment of recognition when I was eleven years old. I’m like, “Everybody sleep.”
There’s something that we have in common.
Going back even to the diversity conversation, some of the reasons why I wrote We’re All in This Together is that on the one hand, we are all unique and we’re different. We have different backgrounds, stories, perspectives, skillsets, challenges and identities. At the same time, as I’ve traveled around the US and around the world. I’ve been around lots of different teams, groups, leaders, companies, places, people and cultures. The further down below the waterline would go on the iceberg for us as human beings, the more we get down to some basic and important human experiences. The joy, pain, excitement, fear and wanting to belong. I feel like what great teams but also for us as human beings understand is we can simultaneously recognize and appreciate all of our differences in diversity and be aware and mindful as best we can of that. At the same time, realize that we’re way more alike than we are different.
I always include that line when I talk to groups because a lot of people have to think about that. There is so much that we have and I can’t think of a better time for a book like yours. The title says it all, We’re All in This Together. I’m sure you had no idea how relevant that would be when you picked that title in many different ways. For people who are interested in getting your book, hiring you to speak, maybe attending a workshop or whatever, if they want to contact you, what’s the best way they can do it?
I know we all are having some of the same experiences. Facebook is a lot more adult to look at, but we are seeing a lot of dogs jumping toilet papers and cats maneuvering bottles, and so on and so forth. Thank you for being on the show, Mike. I enjoyed talking to you and your book is important. It ties into everything that I find crucial, so thank you for sharing.
Thanks for having me. Thanks for the great work you’re doing.
You’re welcome.If you want to push somebody hard, you need to be ready to love them hard. Click To Tweet
I’d like to thank Mike for being my guest. We get many great guests on the show. If you’re looking for more information on Cracking the Curiosity Code book or taking the Curiosity Code Index, you can go to CuriosityCode.com or you can find it at DrDianeHamilton.com, just drop down the Curiosity menu. I hope you enjoyed this episode and I hope you join us for the next episode of Take The Lead Radio.
- We’re All In This Together
- Podcast – We’re All In This Together
- Focus on the Good Stuff
- Be Yourself, Everyone Else is Already Taken
- Nothing Changes Until You Do
- Bring Your Whole Self to Work
- Amy Edmondson – past episode
- TED Talk – Amy Edmondson
- Albert Bandura – past episode
- Dean Stotz – We’re All in This Together Podcast
- Wisdom at Work
About Mike Robbins
Mike Robbins is the author of five books, including his brand new title, WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER: Creating a Team Culture of High Performance, Trust, and Belonging, which comes out May 5th. For the past 20 years, he’s been a sought-after speaker and consultant who delivers keynotes and seminars for some of the top organizations in the world. His clients include Google, Wells Fargo, Microsoft, Genentech, eBay, Harvard University, Gap, LinkedIn, the Oakland A’s, and many others. He and his work have been featured in the New York Times and the Harvard Business Review, as well as on NPR and ABC News. He’s a regular contributor to Forbes, hosts a weekly podcast, and his books have been translated into 15 different languages.
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