How Your Top Team Can Achieve More By Doing Less

"Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do, are in perfect harmony."

-Mahatma Ghandi

Mahatma Ghandi's quote is often mentioned in the context of personal development but it also has relevance -- perhaps more relevance -- when applied senior leadership team functioning.

Great performance, as well as happiness, ensues when the team thinks about its planned actions.

From my own experience and in looking at the business literature, it is apparent that many teams do not even stop to think more than superficially about their actions.

Business is often thought of as action, action, action.  The ‘ready, shoot, aim’ or ‘just do it’ mentality.

Increasingly, the notion of reflection, especially at a team level, gets more attention as the pace of change and a dynamic business environment requires more than simply meeting goals. It's a lot easier to consider operations and the logistics of implementation than standing back to question the assumptions that lie behind those decisions.

The extent to which teams reflect on their behavior and modify it accordingly is called reflexivity. As more and more business functions are managed by teams, the ability to think deeply about issues, including the functioning of the group itself, becomes increasingly important. Rather than simply being focused on specific goals and behavioral outcomes, teams need to be able to stand back and reflect.

According to Michael West a leading British thinker in organisational psychology, reflexivity is defined as "the extent to which group members overtly reflect on, and communicate about the group’s objectives, strategies (decision-making) and processes (communication), and adapt these to current or anticipated circumstances."

And compared to individual reflection, group reflection involves open and tangible discussion.

Reflexivity has consistently been positively related to a variety of measures of performance. For example, one study by Carter and West (1998) found that reflexivity predicted team effectiveness amongst BBC production teams.  Another found that team reflexivity was an important variable in team performance, commitment, and satisfaction (Schippers et al.,  2003).

So, how do you establish and maintain reflexivity so that the team remains vibrant and innovative?

About ten years ago, the first studies emerged looking at a leader's influence on reflexivity.  Some studies have shown a positive relationship between a facilitative leader and team reflexivity resulting in higher customer ratings of team performance(Hirst et al., 2004)  and increased innovation (Somech, 2006). Earlier theories suggested that a leader who focused on the shared vision, values and goals of the team could encourage reflexivity and innovation.

The leader obviously has a key role to play in the development of reflexivity.  The right culture will need to be established if a team is going to be continually in open conversation about their thought process. This requires some behaviors that are characteristic of transformational leadership in which the leader encourages team members to work for the good of the group rather than just themselves. A culture of openness in which team members' displaying authenticity and vulnerability are not frowned upon but rather encouraged.  And where speaking up is the norm.  All these facets set the scene for reflexivity.  This openness applies to the leader, too.  He or she needs to communicate effectively: about the shared vision, about roles, about decision-making and the effectiveness of the group itself.

The act of reflexivity isn't just a function of a shared, dynamic culture, it helps to establish and reinforce it, too. A culture is defined by what people within the organization actually do, not what they say they do or aspire to do in a mission statement.  If open, authentic discussion is not part of the culture then either one or two select individuals are the only ones thinking through the systems, processes, goals or strategies, or no one is.

A leader who introduces team reflexivity but then ignores the outcomes of such efforts is likely to antagonise team members, reducing their engagement and potentially generating the perception of hypocrisy. The bottom line is:  if you respect and value the reflexivity process then you must respect and value the outcomes, too.

Senior leadership  teams we introduce to team reflexivity comment on how refreshing it is.  As one executive team member once commented: “We now feel we are all being heard and making better more informed decisions”.  However if it is a concept that is currently alien to your action-focused team then perhaps remove some of the non-priority items on your next team meeting agenda, and allocate time to think, and reflect on the bigger meatier issues your company is facing.  You might just find this simple act of reflecting as a team will help you achieve more by doing less.

References:

Carter, S.M. & West, M.A. Reflexivity, effectiveness and mental health in BBC production teams. Small Group Research, 1998, 29,  583–601.

Hirst, G., Mann, L., Bain, P., Pirola-Merlo, A. & Richter, A. Learning to lead: The development and testing of a model of leadership learning. Leadership Quarterly, 2004, 15, 311–27.

Schippers, M.C., Den Hartog, D.N., Koopman, P.L. & Wienk, J.A. Diversity and team outcomes: The moderating effects of outcome interdependence and group longevity, and the mediating effect of reflexivity. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 2003, 24, 779–802.

Somech, A. The effects of leadership style and team process on performance and innovation in functionally heterogeneous teams. Journal of Management, 2006, 32, 132–57.

West, M.A. Reflexivity, revolution and innovation in work teams. In M.M. Beyerlein, D.A. Johnson & S.T. Beyerlein (Eds), Product development teams, Vol. 5. Stamford, CT:  JAI Press,  2000,  pp. 1–29.