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Want to Know More About High-Performance Teams?

In this episode, Richard answers the questions from the readers and listeners about high-performace teams, psychological safety, team emotional intelligence, and the Core Protocols.

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Richard 00:11

Hi, friends! Welcome back to With Great People, the podcast for high-performance teams. I’m Richard Kasperowski.

Way back in 2020, we did a webinar on high-performance teams in conjunction with the Scrum Alliance. (Thanks, Scrum Alliance friends, for hosting me!). In case you missed it, we’ll include a link to that webinar in our podcast notes.

We had a ton of questions after the event—people wanted to learn more. I want to make sure we answer everyone’s questions, so that’s what this episode is about: questions and answers about high-performace teams, psychological safety, team emotional intelligence, and the Core Protocols.

To support this podcast, visit my website, kasperowski.com.

Here’s our first question:

Q: When you talked about positive bias as the foundation for great teams, you defined it partly with the phrase “no negation.” But what if a teammate makes a suggestion that is a hard NO—like, what they propose is illegal. How do you handle that with “no negativity”?

A: The foundation of positive bias, including the idea, “no negation,” is a reminder to make space for a wide diversity of ideas, to include everyone on your team in every conversation. It’s not permission for illegal or unethical behavior. You are responsible for always doing the right thing, consistently modeling the desired behaviors for your teammates, and not doing anything dumb on purpose.

Q: Can “Checking Out” be irresponsible?

A: When you check out, it is usually the most responsible thing to do: if you should be somewhere else doing something more valuable, do it! However, if you notice that you’re checking out most of the time, you should probably investigate yourself or check your intentions: do you really want to be part of that team?

Q: Based on what I understand, self-awareness is a behavior that leads to high performance. So, is this a trait to cultivate, or is this a characteristic you look for when deciding who should join a team?

A: I would recruit people who have at least some self-awareness and a demonstrable growth mindset. The minimum self-awareness would be their knowledge that they want to be part of the team. They would be aligned with our goals, and they would be passionate about achieving our mutual goals together.

Q: What is the website reference for Check In?

A: You can find all the Core Protocols at https://thecoreprotocols.org/. Check In is documented at https://thecoreprotocols.org/protocols/checkin.html. It’s all GPLd, and it’s all free. (And for the geekier among us: welcome! This version of the Core is a Git repository, genuinely open source. We welcome your comments, and we invite you to do whatever you want with it, like any other open source software.)

Q: In the emotion check-in protocol, we respond to our teammates by saying, “welcome.” What is the specific reason for saying “welcome”? Are we merely trying to let the person know we are listening, or is there more?

A: In the script for the emotion check-in, teammates say, “Welcome,” after the person checks in. Most people report that “welcome” helps them feel acknowledged and heard. This tiny bit of positivity triggers a feel-good sensation in the body: the body releases serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. We feel more relaxed, connected, and focused. Saying “welcome” is a simple connection behavior that binds us together more firmly.

Q: Is any of this based on VIA Institute character strengths? I’m noticing similarities, so I am curious.

A: There’s no explicit connection between the Core Protocols and VIA Institute. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were similarities: there’s more than one way for people to build high self-awareness, aim for what they want, and have great experiences together. The Core Protocols are one way—there are others.

Q: How do you practice “passion”?

A: What a great question! Is Passion your Personal Alignment? Then I would turn that question back to you: What does passion mean to you—how would you define it? What would it look like if you were practicing it? How could someone observe that you’d been practicing it—what evidence would there be? You might want to fill in the Team Transformation Canvas and see if it helps you with ideas.

Q: Most of us are working from home these days—we no longer work together in physical space. Have you looked at how to implement the Core Protocols in a virtual environment successfully or how we could modify them for virtual environments?

A: Yes! Every one of these behaviors works in a virtual environment. I wrote the blog piece “Stay Amazing Together When Life Is Hard” to help with this. Take a look at the article’s sidebar, which includes ten tips for remote teams. For example, here’s what Decider and Resolution might look like in an asynchronous online environment:

Q: As a Scrum Master, if you see someone who is distracted in a stand-up meeting, how do you let them know they can Pass or Check out?

A: I like to model these behaviors as a way to invite people to try them—without even telling them that it’s a behavior with a name. I would intentionally model Pass or Check Out at the next stand-up: when it’s my turn, I’d just say, “I pass.” Or if I were distracted, I would check out. I also might investigate my teammate to try to understand what that distraction is about.

Q: How would you encourage a new team, composed of people who just met, to be open to sharing information about each other, to “investigate” each other? Since they just met, people might be more reticent to share information on personal aspects.

A: I have a real-life story about this. I was a member of a criminal jury. I wanted us to be a great team in a day, despite that we had just met. I simply modeled the behaviors, starting with emotion check-in. Everything flowed from there. Try it!

Q: Can ‘error handling’ be used as part of our Retrospectives?

A: Absolutely! The error handling behavior (Protocol Check in the Core Protocols) is an example of how to safely raise an important issue with our teammates: that we had made an agreement with each other, but we didn’t honor it. Being able to confront each other safely is a characteristic of great teams.

Q: At which stage of team development would you suggest we implement the Core Protocols? Would you recommend applying some of them before others?

A: Use the Core Protocols any time you want your team to be more effective, and use them immediately if you want your team to be more effective immediately. 😀

Q: What do you use to evaluate team “friendship”—other than the team’s performance level?

A: We think friendship—connection, general—is one of the most vital indicators of a high-performance team. We’ve been researching metrics for friendship. The research suggests that teammate interconnectedness is a good heuristic for friendship and that we can objectively measure it by looking at the frequency of communication between teammates. We plan to introduce Slack and email tools to help people measure their interconnectedness—to measure the level of friendship in a team. Meanwhile, take a look at our team diagnostics tools.

Q: What to do when the person that is looking at the cellphone is your leader/boss? Is there a safe way to suggest that they either stay engaged or Check Out?

A: When any teammate is disengaged, the first thing I consider whether they are “in” on the Core Protocols. If they are “in,” I protocol check: dear teammate, are you checked in, or should you check out? I investigate and intention check if they’re open to it. Even if they’re not “in” with the Core Protocols, I check in, protocol check, investigate, and intention check. On the other hand, if the person is not “in” on the Core Protocols, well, we’ll just have to settle for a lesser-performing team. 🙁

Q: How do you deal with cultural differences based on people’s upbringing or background? For example, some folks are very shy/introverted and very reluctant to share/participate.

Q: How do we break past real cultural programming that has molded teammates into shy/introverted individuals? Sometimes they complain that they don’t want to engage more with each other. How can I help them come out of their shells?

A: I know what you mean—I’m one of those shy people who grew up in a family culture where we don’t share our feelings, in a region that is less emotionally open. Freedom is the foundation of high-performance teams: everyone gets to decide for themselves whether they want to opt-in. If someone opts out, that’s fine. (And if they are familiar with the research on team emotional intelligence, they know that they are settling for a lesser-performing team.) Also, emotional intelligence isn’t a fixed trait; instead, it’s an ability that you can grow if you choose to. (Proof: despite growing up in a low EI culture, I have developed my emotional skills.) So if someone wants to improve their EI skills, they can.

Q: The company I work in comprises three teams; in my team, there are two of us: my boss and me. Because my teammate is my boss, I feel like I have no psychological safety, and we’re not an emotionally intelligent team. How do I bring this up with my boss?

A: It depends. Would your boss respond to numbers and logic? You might try sharing the research on psychological safety, including its correlation to high team performance (for example, Amy Edmondson’s seminal paper on the topic).

Q: Let’s say you have a group of four people, and you’re pairing people up to connect and team together. Do you then swap the pairs around to team with each other, or leave them alone and let it happen organically?

A: You’re suggesting a practice called promiscuous pairing. Try every possible combination of people. You might even try mobbing. The more teammates connect with each other, the better.

Q: How do you manage poor performers?

A: I start with an open mind. I share how I’m feeling. I investigate what I think I’m observing. I ask them what their intended outcomes are. I ask them about their biggest goals in life. I offer them feedback, and if they’re up for it, we use Perfection Game to explore how well they’re doing, what are some positives about their performance, and what they could do differently to be awesome at their role. It usually becomes evident that there’s something wrong with the team or organization—and we try to fix it. Or that the individual lacks some critical skill—and we make it possible for them to try to learn it. Or that they realize they don’t belong on the team—and they leave this team and find a team that fits them better.

Q: How can we engage with teammates who don’t want to engage? They just want to keep their heads down and work.

A: The research on the correlation between psychological safety and team performance is solid. It goes back more than 20 years. Would your teammates respond to numbers and logic? You might try sharing the research on psychological safety, including its correlation to high team performance (for example, Amy Edmondson’s seminal paper on the topic or the famous news story about Google).

Q: What are some tips for applying some of these learnings within a large organization that lacks the right mindset?

A: You could start with your team or your team-of-teams. Create a bubble within which there is high psychological safety, high emotional intelligence, and high performance. Protect the people within that bubble of awesomeness from the rest of the large organization.

Q: When offering a “pass,” would you do it as part of a Scrum event, or would you reserve it for a one-on-one? I fear that doing it in the Scrum event would look judgmental.

A: I just say, “I pass,” at the right time. I don’t make a big deal out of it. There’s no ritual—it’s just two words.

Q: How can we encourage our leaders to use these ideas? They’re not “sold” on the idea that psychological safety is necessary for high-performing teams.

A: The research on the correlation between psychological safety and team performance is solid. It goes back more than 20 years. Would your leaders respond to numbers and logic? You might try sharing the research on psychological safety, including its correlation to high team performance (for example, Amy Edmondson’s seminal paper on the topic or the famous news story about Google).

Q: I am a new person on a team that has been working together for years. What would you suggest as a good start to get them to be a high-performing team?

A: I would try three things. First, I would simply model some of the behaviors. Try an emotion check-in; you might explain what it feels like to be a new member of this long-standing team. Pass on something. Suggest a better way to make decisions and resolve conflict. If someone asks you what you’re doing, explicitly explain it to them. Next, I would share the decades of science and research on teams and team performance. The highest performing teams enjoy measurably high levels of psychological safety and emotional intelligence; if we want our team to be one of the highest performing teams, the science and research tell us that we’ll need high safety and high EI. Finally, consider taking a class or getting some coaching on the behaviors that can get your team into a state of high safety, high EI, and, thus, high performance.

Q: If you have a team stuck in the “storming” phase, how would you propose getting them past this phase?

A: You’re talking about Tuckman’s model of team formation. I notice that when we run a class or workshop on the Core Protocols, we traverse the stages of team formation super fast—from forming to storming to norming and performing in as little as one day. You could try it yourself, or you could ask for help.

Q: How can you keep these values alive after a reorganization? Do you need to start from scratch with Tuckman?

Q: How do you deal with unstable teams during organizational change?

A: In the most successful cases, leaders learn and practice these behaviors first, before anyone else in the organization. When leaders do something first, we call it leading—we call them leaders. Leaders go first, right? 😉 They might take one of my classes and participate in regular coaching to practice and master the behaviors of high-performance teams. The leadership team becomes the first high-performing team in the organization, and they openly model the behaviors so everyone else can learn by imitating them. In one organization I worked with, the leadership team held their daily stand-up in an open physical space, and everyone in the organization was invited to observe. They began their daily meeting with an emotion check-in. They modeled good decision making and conflict resolution, and all the other behaviors of high-performing teams. They were true leaders—they went first—and they genuinely tried to be a great team. They made it safe for everyone else in the organization to learn and practice the behaviors of high-performance teams. They cultivated an environment of high psychological safety and team emotional intelligence, critical ingredients for high-performance. When teams got shuffled to achieve organizational goals better, team members had the skills to reteam quickly. They already had norms they could use to spin up into well-performing teams rapidly.

Q: How do I encourage my teammates to have the courage to be honest about how they feel?

A: Try modeling it. Share your emotions with them, and invite them (but don’t pressure them) to do the same.

That’s it for today’s questions! If you have a question about anything you think I might be able to help with, just ask. We’ll include a link to my website’s Contact page – just type your question there, and I’ll get back to you.

Thanks for joining us here on With Great People, the podcast for high-performance teams. We’ll be back soon with another episode. And remember, to support this podcast, visit my website, kasperowski.com. Thanks for listening!

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