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Teams Need Open Leaders

by Michael Maccoby

Printed in: Research Technology Management, Vol. 38 No. 1 January February, 1995. pp. 57-59.

There is no teamwork without considerable openness about sharing information, surfacing criticism, and resolving conflicts. So, if openness is so good, why don't we have more of it?

The simple answer is lack of trust. If I am open, the other guy may take advantage of me. If I am honest about my costs, another person may not be and thus gain an advantage in the budget meeting. After all, we may share company goals, but we are also competing with each other. If I am honest about what I don't know, or admit a mistake, others may think I am out of touch or inadequate. If I criticize someone else, I may make an enemy. If I am open about bad news or openly disagree with the boss, I may be punished.

Only credible leadership can dampen these fears. To achieve openness in the team, the leader must be open and encourage openness in others by establishing and following rules and practicing values of respect and helpfulness.

We should keep in mind that all openness is not useful. In any company, there are initiatives that should remain secret, so that potential deals do not fall apart. In personal relationships, there are truths which if told, are not helpful. Freud criticized "wild analysis" in which analysts made interpretations which caused defensiveness.The patient was not prepared to understand these truths. In the 60's and 70's some companies sponsored "sensitivity groups" in which managers were encouraged to "let it all hang out" and tell others what they thought of them. The result was that for some people, these became insensitivity groups, where barbed comments wounded people. Instead of building trust, some of these sessions provoked rancor, resentment, and paranoia.

Openness requires respect for others, tact, and a focus on sharing information and critical comments that everyone can acknowledge as useful for improving teamwork and organizational performance. There should be a common understanding and acceptance of the reasons why openness is desirable. Furthermore, openness takes time. People must test the waters before diving in.

In working with the executive team of Swedbank (Sparbanken Sverige), I have experienced openness pushed to the limits with positive results. Two years ago, the bank was created by a merger of 11 Swedish savings banks (700 branches), some which were in danger of going under due to the Swedish savings and loan crisis. A new executive team was formed, made of 17 managers from the central bank and savings banks. The CEO, Goran Collert asked me to help the team to define their goals, roles and relationships.

I began the process by interviewing each separately about their views of their roles and each other. They all saw a need to know each other better. Some had critical views about others as team members. They also all believed that this team was too large, and that it was essential for Collert to select a smaller team of 5-10 members which would meet regularly to deal with strategic issues. But what should be the criteria for inner group membership? Teammembers were concerned about being left out.

We had 7 two day meetings held over a period of one and one half years. At each meeting, we increased openness through exercises that asked participants to share their experiences and aspirations and also to evaluate each other's performance.

At one of the early meetings, I led the team in describing the bank as a social system. They then defined the bank's seven S's: strategy, structure, systems, skills, style, shared values and stakeholder values; they discussed how these Ss needed to be aligned in order to achieve their goals. (See "To Create Quality, First Create the Culture, RTM, September-October 1993, pp 49-51)

At the third meeting, we did a priority setting exercise. This exercise caused teammembers to start challenging each other. There was a dramatic encounter in which one executive accused another of being lazy and not using his considerable talent to benefit the bank. The executive accepted the challenge and after the meeting, began to take a more active and productive role.

At the next meeting, we continued the priority exercise and Collert again raised the issue of forming the smaller inner circle which he could work with more easily in shaping strategic issues. The group described the behavior they expected from the inner circle to guarantee that it was not forming a new level of hierarchy.

At the next meeting, the fifth, Collert challenged the group to raise the level of openness. He offered a choice. Either he would choose the inner team members by himself, or the group could participate in the decision by defining the qualities for membership, evaluating each other, and recommending who should be on the team. Although Collert would make the final decision, he promised to be influenced by the group's recommendations.

The group also discussed the ideal qualities required of the bank's leadership. They agreed that the vision of the bank as a flat, decentralized organization required top managers to be synthesizers (see From Analyzer to Humanizer: Raising the Level of Management Thinking). As a step toward selecting the inner team, they brainstormed a list of 14 qualities required for top management. They were:

  1. Concern and understanding of the whole bank as a social-economic system.
  2. Personal integration-social competence, judgement, motivation.
  3. Business orientation and customer focus.
  4. Integrity as a leader - "walking the talk"
  5. Commitment, energy, and ambition
  6. General knowledge and experience of the bank's different units.
  7. Listening and learning "humbleness."
  8. Self-awareness, knowing oneself
  9. Enabling others to succeed, supportive and cooperative.
  10. Generosity and openness.
  11. Intuitive as a strategic thinker.
  12. Wisdom, good judgement, creating trust
  13. Courage
This list, while somewhat redundant, focusses on the combination of business management and personal qualities the group expected from an ideal leader. Two qualities that could have been added are "an interactive change agent" and "a good communicator." However, the list proved useful to begin the process of mutual evaluation.

The next exercise provoked controversy. I proposed that teammembers rank order eight executives they would support as members of the inner wheel. Some were reluctant. One said the exercise might be too hurtful to those who were not selected. It might drive a wedge between group members. Others supported the process. They argued that without this exercise, Collert would select the inner team by himself, and they would lose the chance to influence him. In any case, some argued that they needed to raise the level of openness and maturity to work together as a team.

I suggested a compromise. Only Collert, Christer Sandahl, a Swedish consultant and I would see the results, and we would report back the names of those executives who received votes from at least 14 colleagues, 80 percent of the team. Everyone assented to this exercise, and as it turned out, one person received 100 percent while two others received all but two votes.

The group then described the leadership qualities they saw in Collert and the three who had received 80% of their votes. I also asked them to describe concerns they had about these four individuals and the improvements they would like to see in their behavior. This process did in fact raise the level of openness and maturity. By being the first to be evaluated, Collert modeled openness and non-defensiveness. Viewpoints about the four that I had heard in private conversations became open.

At the sixth meeting, Collert announced that he had selected two more members of the inner wheel. One of these had been close behind the top three in the voting and had been scored highly on leadership qualities. The other had not received such strong support, but Collert argued that his competence was needed in the inner wheel. The group openly discussed this executive's strengths and weaknesses. This open discussion had a positive impact on the manager who had heard the criticism before, but had not understood how widely and deeply it was shared by his peers. Open evaluation was now experienced by the group as helpful feedback, and all the other team members asked to have their turn. This proved especially useful for temmembers who were disappointed at not having been chosen and wanted to know why.

At the seventh meeting, the group decided it wanted to continue to focus on long term strategy combined with personal development. One issue suggested was information technology. It was also decided to expand the larger team to include six more top executives who would be introduced to the team by mentors who volunteered to describe what we had done and were trying to achieve. Teammembers recognized that in order to improve teamwork, they could not rely on these quarterly meetings, but had to create smaller projects and to spend time with each other outside the workplace.

How generalizable is the experience of the Swedbank executives?

One question is whether this kind of openness depends on national culture. Are the Swedish managers more open than those in other countries?

The answer is not simple. Probably, it would be more difficult to achieve this degree of openness with such a large group in many other cultures. Even in Sweden, it takes exceptional leadership and skillful facilitation to develop openness. It is true that in many American companies, managers are very "political" and tend to say what the boss wants to hear. But this depends a great deal on the boss and the organizational values he or she affirms. Where leaders practice values of respect for individuals and everyone understands common goals, it is possible to achieve considerable openness. Sometimes this starts out with exercises such as 360š evaluations from the boss, peers, subordinates, and customers. However, where there is insecurity, fear of reprisal and tolerance for disrespectful, humiliating behavior, no one should be surprised that people play it safe.

An article in Business Week (September 26, 1994) describes how top management of Chase Manhattan Bank used a mutual evaluation exercise to start a change process. The unanswered question raised by the article is whether or not this led to sustainable organizational improvement. Unless openness is carefully managed, euphoric instant intimacy does not last very long.

It may be more difficult to develop openness in Asian culture, because of sensitivity about criticizing anyone and causing loss of face. However, when I interviewed technical mangers in China, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, I found them to be very open in private conversation, once they were convinced that my purpose was to strengthen the organization and that they would not be directly quoted. In this, they were no different from technical managers in Europe, the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. It remains to be tested how much openness can be achieved with Asian managers given good leadership. Taiwanese engineers told me they would like to have more open discussion on sensitive personal issues.

In summary, there is always resistance to being more open. Some kinds of resistance are realistic, others are irrational. Both types of resistance need to be made conscious, analyzed, and worked through. Everyone encounters limits to openness; there is only so much of reality any of us can bear. But for the individual as well as the team, stretching oneself pays off in greater awareness and ability to make informed choices.

No leader, in my experience, has suffered from being too open. By sharing knowledge, showing vulnerability and creating a spirit of helping each other succeed, the open leader develops trust and brings out the best qualities in teammembers.

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