Chances are you spend 80 percent of your workdays with the same four to eight people. And regardless of what your company’s org chart says, those people are your true team.
So if you want to better your work life, begin by bettering your team — and how you work together. Or what author-expert Charlie Gilkey calls your “team habits.”
Before becoming a start-up entrepreneur, Gilkey served as a joint force logistics officer in the U.S. Army while also working on his Ph.D. in philosophy. Today, in addition to writing books and delivering keynotes, he heads his national coaching and training company — Productive Flourishing — which specializes in the areas of leadership, productivity, and teamwork.
Gilkey recently sat down with Young Upstarts to discuss his latest book and the power of team habits in the new workplace.
Your latest book is “Team Habits: How Small Changes Lead to Extraordinary Results“. Who did you write the book for — and why now?
I wrote “Team Habits” for people who want their work team to be more agile, cohesive, and productive. That includes everyone from corporate leaders, managers, and individual contributors to entrepreneurs and small-business owners. My goal was to provide a counterpoint to the feelings of disengagement and disempowerment that people express about their ability to work better together. Too many, however, think it’s not their job to improve their situation when, in reality, the joy of teaming is what individuals can do when they come together and create something that none of them could do alone.
And why now? That’s easy. The chaos and challenges of the last few years, precipitated by the pandemic, have exposed the myriad cracks in how the world approaches work and collaboration. So the question is, since we already need to build a new normal, why not build it back better? That is especially true as teams navigate new dynamics around remote or hybrid work, artificial intelligence, generational shifts, and more.
What do you mean by “team habits”?
Team habits are the recurring behaviors and routines that dictate how a team operates on a day-to-day basis. Think of them as the building blocks of a team’s culture, including how the team communicates, makes decisions, conducts meetings, and creates a sense of belonging. Also, just like personal habits, team habits typically occur on autopilot. Yet they also have at least three unique aspects:
First, team habits are unspoken agreements between members. And when those agreements are on autopilot, each habit is reinforced, over and over again, every time it’s practiced.
Second, team habits are contagious. What one team member does, others often will follow suit, simply because someone else was doing it.
Third, team habits are a social activity. That means changing any habit, whatever it may be, has social — and emotional — aspects. No one, not even the team leader, can create change without affecting everyone else on the team.
Those three aspects explain how (and why) teams, as well as organizations as a whole, get stuck in bad team habits. Team habits are at once slippery and sticky.
Your book spells out eight categories of team habits, with many different small and simple habits in each category. Share one of those categories and one of its team habits.
A pivotal category in “Team Habits” is decision-making. And within that category is the specific habit of understanding and applying the three levels of decision-making in order to discern who in a team can make which decisions and when. Level 1 represents decisions that team members can make independently. Level 2 represents decisions that require informing people, such as someone in management or someone else in the team, when a decision has been made. Level 3 represents decisions that need prior approval by management.
Ideally, about 80 percent of decisions would fall inside Level 1, which not only empowers team members to act within their scope, but also escapes endless (and counterproductive) decision loops. It’s also a great way for an organization to build or bolster its leadership pipeline.
In terms of teamwork, why do small improvements win the day, especially in a “go big or go home” business world?
The preference in the business world for bold, grand changes is understandable; they are big and exciting, and seem to seduce people with the idea of significant transformation. But research tells a different story about the effectiveness of such changes. For example, McKinsey & Company reports that roughly 70 percent of corporate change programs fail to achieve their goals.
Generally, such disappointments are due to the complexities of implementing large-scale change programs, the inherent resistance they collide with, or the dearth of high-level leaders available (and perhaps able) to champion top-down initiatives.
In contrast, my focus on making small, incremental, and achievable changes is driven by its proven manageability and an increasingly high rate of success. Moreover, making small improvements is less intimidating to people, easier to integrate into their daily routines, and allows for continuous adjustments and improvement. It’s also more sustainable because it evolves with a team’s changing needs and role.
You say that most teams want to address their “people” problems when in reality they have “habit” problems. That seems paradoxical since teams are made up of people.
The perceived paradox there is resolved when people realize that teams aren’t merely collections of people; teams are made up of people plus their team habits plus the larger culture or work environment in which they actually perform their roles.
Consider how many times individuals enter and exit a team while the team’s performance and behaviors virtually stay the same. Changing people is, and always will be, a tall order — an unreasonable and difficult demand. Changing team habits, on the other hand, is exceedingly easier and simpler. What’s more, focusing on team habits depersonalizes the challenge. People don’t want to be changed; they are, however, open to changing how they do things.
You started your business 15 years ago and lead a thriving team today. What team-habit category — even now — can still trip you up?
Admittedly, the category of goal-setting and prioritization can still throw me for a loop. Part of that comes from assuming that my teammates will be as effective as I am when they don’t have the decades of context and experience that I have. It also comes from not properly accounting for how much time I realistically have — or don’t have.