The High Performing Team: Choosing Status or Expertise

In November of 2009, during a team meeting, Ryan McClure, a young marketing manager at the Institute for Health & Human Potential (IHHP), made a suggestion to senior leaders to investigate financing a virtual platform for our Emotional Intelligence training program. At the time, virtual learning was fairly new. It had potential for bridging geography (among other things) in the training and development field.

What was our response? Not very enthusiastic. I can speak for myself, as the President of IHHP, and tell you that we never really gave it the time of day that it deserved. We were in the middle of the global financial crisis and were feeling, like other training companies, squeezed by a significant drop in client budgets. Although Ryan had vast knowledge of the virtual world and he did push back at us, we ultimately rejected the idea. Luckily for us, Ryan took this decision gracefully!

This story is representative of a trap that, without being aware of it, many teams fall into when they are under pressure. After studying more than 12,000 people and teams over the last eight years and working with thousand’s more in a training and coaching capacity, we have observed the patterns that emerge from the effects of pressure.

Our purpose at the Institute for Health & Human Potential is to help individuals everywhere do and be their best when it matters most. As part of that, I’m going to share a key insight on this blog (with more to come) from the book Performing Under Pressure which I co-wrote with Hank Weisinger. (Published in February, 2015.) Today, we will look at patterns we see in teams under pressure.

Choosing Status or Expertise:

Heidi K. Gardner is a professor at Harvard Business School where she studies how pressure impacts team dynamics. In extensive studies of teams at professional service firms, Professor Gardner saw the same pattern repeat itself: Teams become increasingly caught up with the risks of failure, rather than the requirements of excellence. As a result, they revert to safe standard approaches, instead of offering original solutions tailored to clients’ needs.

She found that when teams face significant performance pressure, they tend to defer to high-status members, at the expense of using expert team members. This would be equivalent to a team of physicians ignoring the expertise of the best surgeon in the group and deferring to another doctor who is not a specialist in the field but because they are senior on the staff. Or a junior member of a team who has a keen understanding of technology not getting their ideas heard because well, they are a junior team member.

Here’s how it develops: As pressure mounts, team members drive toward consensus in ways that shut out vital information. Without realizing it, they give more weight to shared knowledge and dismiss specialized expertise, such as insights into the client’s technologies, culture, and aspirations. They do this because they are getting caught up with the fear of failure, rather than the requirements of excellence. The more generically inclined the team becomes, the more mediocre the solutions they offer.

What To Do:

The key to using this insight to help your team be more effective under pressure is awareness.

Most leaders of teams we work with miss this dynamic. They are not aware of what pressure can do to team members. We certainly missed it.

When I think back to Ryan’s suggestion of a virtual platform, I can see why it was such a good idea. I am certain that we didn’t give it a fair consideration because we didn’t share the specialized knowledge he possessed. He was also a junior member of the team. What’s even more interesting is that years later we decided to invest in a virtual platform and we now have a virtual solution that clients have implemented to deliver our EI training to their employees around the world. What if we would have listened to Ryan five years ago?

So ask yourself: have you ever seen this in your organization? On the various teams you have been part of? What is being lost when pressure is allowed to push people to choose ‘shared’ information over specialized? When status is chosen over expertise?

If this is occurring and you are the team leader, make a point of asking lower status members what they think. Make space for them. Also, pay attention to the team becoming risk averse and choosing shared knowledge as opposed to specialized information. Become aware of this pattern that pressure can have on teams. It can be a very small change that can make a very big difference.

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