How To Get Out Of The Way Of The Success Of Your Team

Team SuccessIn 2000, I arrived in Switzerland. I had paid to go through a ten-day, simulated humanitarian crisis. This was a training held by the humanitarian organization, Medair.

It was also a screening. A long job interview, actually.

We found out that only 20% of us would be offered positions, with Medair, immediately. Another 20%-30% might be offered positions later. Usually, if new criteria were met.

For the remainder, the process made it clear that disaster relief wasn’t going to be a good fit. Better to discover that in the Swiss Alps than in Afghanistan.

The position we’d be offered? A one-year volunteer position. No pay. Possibly no running water or electricity at the job site either.

Not only was the work volunteer but we’d have to pay for our own airfare.

Who was attracted?

A lot of emergency room doctors and nurses. Quite a few ex-military officers from the US and Europe. A lot of engineers. A few Fortune 500 executives. A couple of oddballs like myself who had built creative enough resumes suggesting that we might do fine in environments that lacked structure.

In other words, this was a solid group of applicants. The kind of people who are very interesting and energizing to be around. People who had already climbed their ladders and jumped their hoops. They didn’t need to go through this stuff again.

I was fortunate to be selected to go to the field as soon as possible. First to Kosovo. Later to Southern Sudan.

I found that our teams were consistently highly motivated, extremely focused, very hard-working. It’s not that we didn’t run into (or create) challenges. But none of our challenges were due to lack of effort or motivation.

How Do I Motivate or Align My Team?

This is one of the top ten (maybe top five) questions that leaders ask me. It can sound like this:

  • How do I motivate my teams to work more when we have fewer resources?
  • How do I keep my people from getting stuck and stopped on problems?
  • What do I do with people who ignore or refuse to cooperate with directions?
  • How do I get my team to work together instead of:
    • Ignoring each other
    • Competing with each other
    • Sabotaging each other

Principles That Create Consistently Highly-Motivated Teams

1. Not Afraid to Set A High Bar

Medair wasn’t afraid to say, “We have high standards.” As a result, people with high standards tended to be attracted. This includes the people who didn’t end up joining. These were the kind of people who were willing to take on challenges, to push themselves, to rise to the occasion.

Many organizations that struggle with employee motivation have also fallen into the trap of lowering their bar. Trying to make it as easy as possible to join the team. As a result, they attract people who are attracted to low bars, low standards, minimal challenges, mild expectations.

Jim Collins, in his classic book, Good to Great refers to getting the “Right people on the bus.” This is part of that process. Create a bus that the right people want to get onto and the wrong people want to get off.

Take-Away: Set performance expectations high. Define and maintain expectations regarding ideal behavior and team relationships.  Identify, screen and recruit for the qualities of excellence. Maintain high accountability.

The high-bar is something that should be seen outside your organization or team. You’ll attract the kind of people who are already motivated. All you’ll need to do is give them direction.

2. Nurture Self-Motivation

A VP of a large company asked me, “How do I motivate someone on my team?”

“You can’t,” I responded.

Only that person can motivate his or herself. What the leader can do is nurture that self-motivation. This is done by directly placing the responsibility for motivation on the individual or team’s shoulders. Then coaching or facilitating their ability to reconnect or revitalize what motivates them.

Leadership expert Marshall Goldsmith recommends asking people to answer these questions on a regular basis because it will do more to motivate them than any employee motivation program:

  • Did I do my best to increase my happiness?
  • Did I do my best to find meaning?
  • Did I do my best to be engaged?
  • Did I do my best to build positive relationships?
  • Did I do my best to set clear goals?
  • Did I do my best to make progress toward goal achievement?

Take-Away: Read through these questions once. What would a day be like if you could honestly answer, “Yes” to all of them? Are you ready for a low-investment, high-yield opportunity?

Take a 21-day challenge. For 21 days, ask yourself these questions at the end of each day.

Set a reminder on your phone, or it print them out and tape them somewhere you will see them – whatever works. It’ll cost you nothing. It’ll take you, maybe, 2 minutes a day to ask yourself these question.

If you really want to challenge yourself – ask what can I do tomorrow to be able to answer this question with a, “Yes?”

See if it nurtures your motivation. My guess is that it’ll kick start something in you.

If so, bring it your team or a struggling individual. Challenge them to take the challenge. See if they do it. See if it makes a difference.

What do you think might happen?

3. Get Out Of The Way Of Success (Or Remove Stupid Obstacles)

A primary responsibility of leaders is not to do the work yourself. If you think it is, you are holding the success of your team back. Your team is there to do the work. You are there to help them be more successful.

Part of this is getting rid of the obstacles our own organizations often create that are just stupid. There are two, common obstacles that I want to point to here:

  1. The Leadership: We hate to admit it. We have great rationales. But most of the organizations I work with could see an immediate increase in productivity if leadership could get out of the way.

By no means am I suggesting that leadership isn’t critical to success. It’s just that too often leaders act in ways that require additional effort from everyone else.

It happens. It probably happens to all leaders. It’s only a big deal if we aren’t willing to acknowledge where we’ve gotten in the way.

2. The Way We Do Things: Structure and Culture

Structure: Organizational Bureaucracy, policy, procedures are all necessary and can be very helpful if designed well But like any fruit bearing tree, they need to be pruned back regularly, or they produce diminished returns.

Otherwise, they start to grow. They become disconnected from the mission. They serve only themselves. A fruit tree becomes a bramble.

Culture: Many organizational cultures develop that prevent success.

“We can’t do that.”

“Why is that?”

“Because we’ve never done that.”

“It looks like a great opportunity.”

“No, we can’t do that. It’s not something we do.”

How is conflict related to in your organization? Because it’ll happen. People will offend, have different perspectives or make mistakes. Do people avoid talking about things openly because of how conflict (real or perceived) is related to?

How is success defined in your organization? Does it mean performing perfectly? Does it mean unquestioning loyalty? Does it mean keeping your head down and off the radar?

How is accountability related to? Is it something for the staff and not for the leadership? Is it a process that is directly tied to advancing the goals and mission of your organization? Does it seem like an HR box that needs to be checked off? Does it feel like a pass/fail test? Is it just avoided?

Take-Away: Team motivation and alignment often are often reflections of leadership. Sometimes they are accurate reflections. Sometimes they are mirror reflections – in other words, everything is flipped.

Pay attention to ways that you might be in the way of your team’s ability to go further, together, than you can on your own.

Pay attention to how necessary structures in your organization grow beyond their usefulness and start to choke motivation and life.

Final Thoughts:

Along with all of this you have the normal stuff of making sure there is a motivating and unified vision, clear goals, etc. But motivation is deeper than what you can pull off in a retreat.

Motivation emerges from:

  • Who your organization attracts and retains (The High Bar). This comes from:
  • What motivates and drives those within the organization (Self-Motivation). This comes from:
  • Close attention to culture and values as expressed by leadership and structures (Getting Out Of The Way Of Success).

Which of these three would benefit from closer attention this week?

Take good care,


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