The fire chief is clearly displeased. He angrily upbraids his firefighting team for disregarding his direct order to evacuate a building that was on the verge of exploding. The firemen had their reasons for doing what they did, but in overriding direct orders they put themselves and their unit in added danger. Notably as the chief is chastising the team, he makes it clear that he considers the unit to be among the very best at what it does.
This scene is from Rescue Me, the long-running drama series created by and starring Denis Leary. While the particulars are fictional, the behavior of the chief and the firefighters should be a lesson to anyone in management. Highly performing teams, especially those that have worked together for a while, often abide by their own rules. On the one hand, it is a secret to their effectiveness; on the other hand, when teams ignore directives from their management, it can spell trouble.
Managers of such teams are blessed with effective productivity, but cursed with dealing with attitudes that lead to teams doing whatthey want to do when they want to do it. This makes for good drama in a television series, but causes rifts that can fracture organizational effectiveness. The challenge for the manager is to insist on discipline as well as underscore respect for the team’s abilities and accomplishments. Here are some suggestions for mining the team’s effectiveness but maintaining organizational unity.
Pay tribute. Recognize the team for what it has achieved. Make certain individuals on the team know how much you respect them and their work. Go out of your way to make them feel welcome. Talk up their accomplishments to higher ups. In short, make the team feel special. Compensation should reflect how well the organization regards the team’s contributions.
Instill values. Critical to team success is cohesiveness, pulling together for the greater good. The same applies to teams within the organization. Make it clear that no team is above the company. At the same time, respect the fact that individual members will have greater allegiance to their team members than to members of other teams. A savvy boss will find ways to leverage the team’s cohesion to benefit the entire organization by putting the team into positions where its success will reflect well on the entire organization.
Adhere to policy. High-performing teams like to do things their own way. This is a key reason for their success. Allow the team, as you would individuals, to figure out things for itself and execute its ideas in its own way. However, make it clear that whatever the team does must be done on time and on budget. Above all, hold the team accountable for both good and not-so good results.
Finally, strike a balance between creativity and discipline. You want to challenge the team to think and act creatively because its ability to do things differently contributes to its success. At the same time, its creativity must be in service to organizational strategies and objectives. That is, the team can “freelance” methods but not objectives. Projects it undertakes must complement the organization’s mission.
Let’s face facts. When push comes to shove, a highly productive team should be given the latitude it needs to achieve. Treating this team as a first among equals is appropriate. All teams need to be treated fairly but those that do more than most deserve special treatment. So often it is the collective triumphs of high-performing teams that enable the whole organization to succeed.
Bottom line, a savvy manager will give a highly productive team plenty of room to succeed. Experienced managers learn the boundaries so they can keep all of their teams, not simply the high achievers, on a path that maintains individual team pride and benefits the entire organization.