A friend of mine recently underwent a major medical procedure. Understandably, he wanted to make sure he’d get the best treatment possible and so he researched and met a number of surgeons until he found the right one for him. Well-published, highly experienced, and respected by her peers, the surgeon he found is clearly excellent. But as good as the surgeon was, my friend’s current good health owes as much to the team around the surgeon – the pre-op team who prepared him, the theater team who assisted the surgeon, the post-op team who nursed him back to health, not to mention the physician who diagnosed him, the technicians who ran his tests, and so on. In all, probably more than a hundred health professionals were involved in his care.

Is my example a little dramatic? Perhaps, but the same principle applies to every business: when it comes to great outcomes, it’s the collective effort of a team that counts in the end. But in most companies, compensation is heavily based on individual performance based against yearly goals. So how do you get employees to team and collaborate properly? Whether it’s running a restaurant chain or managing the finances at a Fortune 500 firm, the outcome is only as good as the team.

Most businesses do make collaboration and teamwork a key priority; some espouse it as a core value. And it often looks like a good deal of collaboration is going on. Long meetings are held, stakeholders are copied into emails, and shared areas on the IT system are widely available. But on closer inspection, these are usually far from truly collaborative. Meetings are often public ceremonies, or rambling affairs that may provide some useful team bonding, but from which nothing much ever emerges. The emails are copied to stakeholders to make sure the writer has ‘covered’ their back. And it’s not just individuals, different functions and units compete for resources and recognition and a ‘silo’ mentality dominates many interactions across the organization.

Human Nature or Organizational Nurture?

Some claim that that putting your interests first is just human nature: we are simply inherently competitive and leery of collaboration.

The ‘Prisoners Dilemma’, a celebrated decision-making game, seems to bear this out. It’s a simple set up: if both parties cooperate over a decision they both come out fairly well, but if one cooperates and the other defects, the defector usually wins big and the cooperator loses badly. Generations have played the game and the results are predictable: Most people defect, putting their own gain first. Of course, a few choose to cooperate, but, on average, 90% defect.

The key to understanding how people behave often lies in the situation they are in. Social psychology has taught us that most of our behavior is triggered and shaped by the situation we are in rather than our personality – around 70%. That’s counterintuitive in cultures where we place a great deal of emphasis on individual attributes and personality. Our tendency is to see behavior – both good and bad – as a product of the individual and sometimes we may be right. But when, as in the prisoner game, we create an environment in which one individual’s interests are set against another’s, we should not be surprised if the two compete rather than cooperate, if they are short termist in outlook rather than taking the long view, if they are tactical rather than strategic.

The Employee’s Dilemma?

But the prisoner’s dilemma is just an exercise played by game theorists and psychologists. We don’t create a workplace that discourages cooperation and teamwork, do we?

Most every CFO has a detailed job description that tells them exactly what their job is, and, implicitly, what it isn’t. You have personal targets and goals that you must meet. Your supervisor emphasises personal responsibility and accountability and you are judged by the company’s financial performance. And yet your clients’ ultimate satisfaction requires that the whole business pulls together – even if that means we sometimes neglect our “job” to support a colleague. Many of our standard business practices encourage us to put our own personal interests above the team, forcing us into the “employee’s dilemma.”

And the results of the employee’s dilemma are predictable: unhealthy competition, silo mentality, territorialism. But worse, our individual agendas can get in the way of true collaboration. In a period where CFOs see margins tighter than ever, and where businesses are struggling to differentiate themselves and add value in the marketplace, we need to harness as much of the collective intelligence, energy, and diversity that our people offer.

‘Red Teaming’

 One modest way in which a CFO might start to redress the balance between the individual and the team is to develop and instil a truly collaborative decision-making processes. The evidence of poor group decision-making is well documented. For example, in addition to our personal agendas, we have a tendency to fall prey to the confirmation bias – we don’t correct each other’s errors, we amplify them. There is an unconscious convergence: We build on each other’s ideas, creating a more homogenous outlook, becoming “more of the same.” There is, too, our tendency to focus on what everyone knows already, not what we don’t know – again, often as a result of placing individual interests over the team.

The practice of “red teaming” offers a practical and effective way for a CFO to break through individual agendas and create truly collaborative decision-making. Originally a military decision-making tool and now used extensively in defense and security circles, Red Teaming is essentially a set of contrarian techniques that force decision-making groups to challenge their assumptions, interests and motives. It separates egos from issues – a difficult thing to do when so much of our personal interests can become locked into specific projects or initiatives.

I believe that developing a culture of collaborative decision-making is the key for CFOs in unlocking so much of the potential that lies dormant in businesses. As such, it ought to be at the heart of both leadership and management development programs. But even more importantly, collaborative decision making tools should be embedded into “business as usual,” as environments are created where the diversity of perspective, experience and opinion can be applied directly to the issues at hand. This will go far in helping CFOs to find a balance between individual rewarded performance and teaming.

Dr. Ian Stewart is head of leadership and organizational practice at Kaplan Leadership and Professional Development and is based in London.

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