Author Archives: David Burkus

About David Burkus

Dr. David Burkus is an organizational psychologist and best-selling author. Recognized as one of the world’s leading business thinkers, his forward-thinking ideas and books are helping leaders and teams do their best work ever. David is the author of five books about business and leadership and he's been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, CNN, the BBC, NPR, and more. A former business school professor turned sought-after international speaker, he’s worked with organizations of all sizes and across all industries.

Five Challenges All Teams Face

Five Challenges All Teams Face

GUEST POST from David Burkus

Teams face a lot of different challenges. Leading a team involves leading through many challenges. You’re given performance objectives. You map out a plan of execution with your team. But pretty quickly, you will run into challenges—both seen and unseen. And while most of these challenges are unique to the work being done and the team doing that work, some challenges are universal for teams.

These challenges all teams face are less about the work and more about teamwork and collaboration. That’s what makes them so common. But because they’re so common, they can be anticipated—and overcome.

In this article, we’ll outline five challenges all teams face and offer some insight on how to overcome them.

1. Finding Direction

The first challenge all teams face is finding direction. Most teams in most organizations don’t get to decide what specifically they get to work on—it comes with their collective job descriptions. However, they still get to make decisions as a team about what the priorities around all their tasks are, and sometimes even who is going to do which task. This is the initial challenge of finding direction. But keeping direction in a changing environment can be just as challenging as well. Priorities often need to change or be rearranged. New tasks are assigned. New changes in the environment happen. And that could mean slight shifts in the direction need to be made.

As a leader, one of the easiest ways to find and keep direction is through a regular “huddle” or weekly meeting. In that meeting, give the team a chance to review what they’re focused on, what they’ve completed, what potential roadblocks they face, and who needs assistance. These weekly meetings help review the large-scale direction and provide space to make any small-scale shifts in direction as well.

2. Improving Communication

The second challenge all teams face is improving communication. Communication is the lifeblood of any relationship, including the relationships on your team. The challenge of improving communication arises because everyone has slightly different communication preferences. Some people prefer to talk in person, some on the phone, some in email. Some people write short, quick emails, others write five paragraph essays. These differences in communication preferences can lead to a lot of miscommunications as well. Many conflicts on a team happen because one person assumed their preferences were shared by everyone else, and they were not.

As a leader, taking the time to have conversations about communication preferences can go a long way toward improving communication. Outline the communication tools the team has available and discuss when the team would prefer to use each one, for what type of communication, and any best practices the team can think of for that tool. Ideally, this leads to a set of group norms around communication and communication tools. Those norms can be revised from time to time but should be done so collectively. Otherwise, everyone goes back to their typical preferences.

3. Building Trust

The third challenge all teams face is building trust. Trust is a core component of teamwork. We need to trust the competency of our teammates—that they’re going to do what they say they’re going to do. But we also need to trust the character of those teammates—we need to know we can admit failures or request help without being demeaned or ostracized. Teams need a climate of trust so that they can safely disagree with each other and engage in task-focused conflict that ensures the best ideas rise to the top.

Research suggests that trust builds through a reciprocal process. So as a leader, the way to build trust on a team is to step out and signal you trust them. The most powerful way to do this is to be vulnerable. Leaders need to share certain vulnerabilities they have. They need to be willing to admit they don’t have all the answers all of the time, and that they need help from the team as well. Lead with vulnerability and teammates will follow, which over time will lead the team into greater levels of trust.

4. Keeping Diversity

The fourth challenge all teams face is keeping diversity. To be fair, many teams still struggle with finding enough diversity, but most leaders and team recognize that diversity on a team is a worthy goal. That creates a new challenge, keeping diversity. Ideally, diverse teams are formed because people with diverse backgrounds bring a diverse set of experience and perspectives to the team. However, as the team works together over time, they start to share the same experiences and perspectives. Eventually, if a team works together long enough, their ideas and opinions will start to become really similar. They may still look like a diverse team, but they act like a monoculture.

As a leader, this means rotating the roster of your team more often than it might seem necessary. It means being comfortable with the idea that people leaving the team can be a net positive as new members, and new perspectives join. It could also mean looking for small scale additions to diversity such as inviting members of different teams into group discussions or encouraging the team to seek out new cross-functional colleagues or new sources of ideas and inspiration.

5. Maintaining Motivation

The fifth challenge all teams is maintaining motivation. Staying motivated as a team, especially when the work gets difficult is a huge challenge for any team. Motivation and engagement happen when the work people are asked to do challenges them just enough to engage their full skillset—but not so much that it seems impossible. It also requires those challenges to be connected to a broader mission or purpose. People want to do work that matters—and teams want to know why their team matters.

As a leader, this requires looking at motivation both individually and teamwide. Individually, pay attention to the task-load of each member of the team. Ensure that they’re being challenged, but not overwhelmed. This may require moving some assignments around to different people on the team. Teamwide, make sure the team understands how its mission and objectives fit into the larger purpose of the organization. Be ready to draw a clear and connecting line between the work the team is asked to do, and the way that work serves a bigger purpose. Perhaps the best way to convey this purpose is by answering the question “Who is served by the work that we do?” and then building in reminders around that “who.”

These five challenges are ones every team faces eventually. But they aren’t the only challenges teams face. However, teams that proactively work to overcome these challenges work together better—and are better able to overcome those new, specific challenges. All teams face these challenges, but the answers to these challenges are how any team can start to do its best work ever.

Image credit: Pexels

Originally published at https://davidburkus.com on January 23, 2023.

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Five Questions All Leaders Should Always Be Asking

Five Questions All Leaders Should Always Be Asking

GUEST POST from David Burkus

Leaders don’t need to have all the answers.

That sounds counterintuitive. There is a lot of pressure on leaders to have the right answers and to solve problems that team members can’t solve on their own. In fact, most leaders were promoted into a leadership role because they had many more of the right answers than others in the organization. And the further up the hierarchy you go, the bigger the problems and bigger the expectations for answers.

But the more complex work gets, and the more complex problems get, the harder it is to know all the answers. So, it’s okay if you don’t know all the answers. But leaders should always be seeking out answers. To lead well, there’s a few answers leaders should always be working to find.

Which means there’s a few questions leaders should always be asking. In this article, we’ll outline the top five of those questions.

1. What are our real priorities?

The first question leaders should always be asking is “what are our real priorities?” Teams are tasked with all sorts of projects and objectives. And the reward for getting those projects done well is often…more projects. Doing new tasks well results in people asking you to do more work. And when new tasks come up, many teams succumb to the tyranny of the urgent and focus their attention on the newest tasks assigned. But that can often mean diverting focus from what are actually the most important tasks. In addition, when circumstances change or when new problems arise, it can change what tasks matter most. So, leaders need to be asking—and re-asking—what the real priorities are often and then making that answer clear to their team. That way the team stays committed to what matters—and not just what’s new.

2. Where are our potential roadblocks?

The second question leaders should always be asking is “where are our potential roadblocks?” Once you know what the real priorities are, ask what could derail your team from achieving those roadblocks. The concept of leader as roadblock remover is a simple one rooted in trust. Great leaders trust that, once their people know what they need to do, those same people will also know best how to do it. That means a leader’s job isn’t telling them how to work better, it’s finding the barriers that are keeping people from doing their best work and removing them. If you’ve built trust and rapport with your team, they’ll likely just tell you. But the nature of your role as a leader also means you can anticipate some barriers based on what else you see happening in the organization or your environment. But roadblocks can pop up unexpectedly, so don’t just ask once. Keep asking.

3. What am I not hearing?

The third question leaders should always be asking is “what am I not hearing.” There’s a reason the warning “don’t shoot the messenger” became a cliché. It’s because many leaders shoot the messenger. And even if they don’t, many team members fear of being shot keeps them from sharing openly. (I hope it’s clear we’re using “shoot” as a metaphor here…we do not endorse firearms as a management tactic.) That means there’s likely certain bits of information that team members know that you’re completely unaware of. That can undermine your decision-making and your leadership. And reversing that trends starts by asking regularly what you may not be hearing or by extension who you’re not hearing from. Then take the time to amplify those unheard voices and signal your consideration for what they shared. That not only keeps you more informed in the short term but also makes it less likely you’re not hearing important information in the long term.

4. Who isn’t being challenged?

The fourth question leaders should always be asking is “who isn’t being challenged?” People tend to be most motivated and engaged in a task when the demands of the job match their skills and capacity. Too much of a challenge can lead to stress and burnout. But too little of a challenge can lead to boredom and…burnout. And while members of your team may have entered their role in the sweet spot between demands and ability, many of them have likely grown and improved their skills…which means they might be falling out of the sweet spot and being less challenged. Great leaders are proactive not only in creating new growth opportunities for their people, but also new challenges or new projects to keep them in the sweet spot of engagement.

5. How is our motivation?

The fifth question leaders should always be asking is “how is our motivation?” The attitudes and emotions of a team and its members can change quickly, and so can their collective level of motivation. So, leaders need to be monitoring motivation levels constantly and finding ways to keep motivation inside the ideal range. Especially for teams on the front-lines and in the middle of the organization, the flowery speeches and mission statements that come from senior leadership are not enough to keep motivation high all the time. When the day-to-day tasks get demanding, it’s hard to even remember how one person’s work makes a difference. But this is where team leaders are most important. It’s up to the team leader to make that connection and be constantly reminding the team why their work matters.

In the end, people want to do work that matters and that challenges them to grow. And that’s what makes these five questions so important. Because the answers to these questions, even though they change over time, provide leaders with the knowledge they need to help their team know their work matters and help their team find new challenges. And that helps their team do their best work ever.

Image credit: Pexels

Originally published at https://davidburkus.com on January 9, 2023.

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Five Keys to Leading Creative Teams Successfully

Five Keys to Leading Creative Teams Successfully

GUEST POST from David Burkus

Creativity is a team sport.

It’s been that way for a long time. But the level of teamwork required to solve problems and find innovation has increased over the last decade and even century. Most of the simple problems of the world have been solved, and the ones that remain are too often too complex to be solved by any lone, individual genius.

But not all teams fair equally when it comes to creative tasks, because many team leaders are better prepared to lead teams where the work is simple and easy to define. When reaching team goals is ambiguous and requires more creative thinking it also requires a different type of leadership.

In this article, we’ll outline those differences. We’ll cover five ways to lead creative teams.

1. Show Them the Constraints

The first way to lead creative teams is to show them the constraints. It may sound a little counterintuitive—after all aren’t we supposed to “think outside the box”? But one of the first things creative teams need is an understanding of the constraints of the problem—of the box their answer needs to fit inside. Research suggests creativity is more activated when people understand the constraints of the problem. Constraints aide in the convergent thinking of sifting through ideas that needs to accompany the divergent thinking of generating lots of ideas. You need both. But you need constraints first so that people know ahead of time how to judge the ideas they generate.

2. Support Their Ideas

The second way to lead creative teams is to support their ideas. Nothing stops the creative flow of ideas on a team more than hearing “That’ll never work” or “That’s not how we do things around here.” Leaders need to champion the ideas their team puts forward, at least until the idea generation phase is complete. When people think their leadership isn’t going to consider their ideas, they stop sharing them. Leaders need to not only support ideas when the team is discussing them, but also support ideas when it comes to selling them up the chain of approval needed to implement the idea. Without that support, people just stop trying.

3. Teach Them to Fight Right

The third way to lead creative teams is to teach them to fight right. We like to think of creative teams as fun and cohesive. But the opposite is true. There’s a lot of friction on a creative team. And research suggests that the most creative teams leverage task-focused conflict to generate more and better ideas. But those teams also know how to keep it task-focused and keep it from devolving into personality fights and hurt feelings. And often that requires leaders who can demonstrate and teach their people to fight for their ideas, but not fight their teammates.

4. Test What You Can

The fourth way to lead creative teams is to test what you can. Ideally, teams are going to generate a lot of different ideas. And it’s a bad idea to chase consensus and settle on an idea too soon. Instead, the most creative teams test out multiple different ideas to learn more from what worked and didn’t work, and then combine those lessons into a new and better idea. But too often, leaders facilitate a brainstorming session, circle the idea they like best, and that’s the end of it. Instead, the best leaders test as much as they can as often as they can.

5. Celebrate Their Failures

The final way to lead creative teams is to celebrate their failures. If you’re testing a lot of ideas, your team will fail. But if they fail small on a test, they’ll reduce the chances of failing big later. In addition, failures carry all sorts of lessons that can be learned to better understand the problem and generate even better ideas. That doesn’t happen unless the team understands that failure is part of the process, which is why the best leaders celebrate the risks that team members took and the learning moments their failures generated.

In fact, that’s why all five of these methods shouldn’t be looked at as a linear process. Creativity is an iterative process of ideation, testing, failure, learning, ideation, and more testing and failure. The best leaders know the goal isn’t to get it done, but to keep getting better. And that goes for the creative process, but also the team culture. The goal is to keep getting better until everyone can do their best work ever.

Image credit: Pexels

Originally published at https://davidburkus.com on May 24, 2022.

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