Learning at Large Ep5: Using personal values to build high performing teams

Today, I talk to Tom Marsden, CEO of technology company Saberr. In this episode, we discuss the role personal values play, psychological safety, setting team norms, building an environment where people can tackle challenging issues, and how to trickle-down organizational values into something that is much more meaningful at a team level. This podcast is relevant to anyone interested in team dynamics and performance improvement.

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About Saberr

Saberr enables entire organizations to build more agile, more effective teams. Find out about the key elements of what makes a high performing team and how you can enable this at scale.

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Podcast Transcript

Simon: Tom, I appreciate—you’re really busy and I really appreciate you making the time for this today.

Tom: Not at all—it’s a pleasure.

Simon: Just to get started, could you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your company, Saberr?

Tom: Yes, I am Tom Marsden, and I’m the CEO at Saberr. Saberr is a technology business, and we’re particularly focused on helping organizations build high-performing teams using digital products.

Simon: What makes a high-performing team?

Tom: There are a range of factors, and we’ve done a lot of research looking into what makes a high-performing team. Actually, the factors probably won’t be that surprising. The key insight we found is that it’s making teams do it that’s really hard. And that’s where we’re focusing all our effort. So, the fact is, in terms of a high-performing team, you can break them down into a few themes. One is the team composition. Have you got the right people in the team in the first place? That means not only technical skills and the right roles covered, but also the sense of shared purpose and shared alignment. In our research, we found that common values are quite important to bringing a cohesive team together. And then you’ve got more of the factors that Ruth Wageman and  Richard Hackman researched at Harvard, which is—really, for teams to be successful, they have to be very clear, upfront, about what they’re trying to achieve.

“For teams to be successful, they have to be very clear, upfront, about what they’re trying to achieve.” Tom Marsden on the #LearningatLarge podcast

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So, the upfront element of teamwork is things like, is the team purpose really clear, have you defined that, could everyone state clearly why this team exists in the first place. You’d be surprised how many teams struggle with that question. But also the team goals—and not just the individual, but what are the connective goals the team is trying to achieve? What are the norms of behaviors they’re working to—so how does this team operate? And all those things are best done upfront, in upfront work.

The third behavior—and sometimes we call them “habits”—that high-performing teams have is the habit of regular reflection and course correction. Particularly in the modern age, where teams need to work in an agile fashion because the world is so fast-moving and they need to respond to change, the days of repeated direction and then just get on with it are all gone. So, agility is key. For agility, you need to be able to reflect on what’s working and what’s not working in the team, and then adjust.

“The third behavior—and sometimes we call them “habits”—that high-performing teams have is the habit of regular reflection and course correction.” Tom Marsden on the #LearningatLarge podcast

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So, team composition, the right people in the team, shared sets of values that you can align around a common purpose, doing the upfront work to make sure your purpose is clear, your goals are clear, and you’ve got the right team processes in place to work through issues. And then this habit of really regular reflection so the team can work out what’s working and what’s not working.

Simon: Thanks, Tom. So, just to understand that, I know you do a lot of work around values and spend a lot of time around values. What would happen where that’s not the case, and what’s the remedy for a team that isn’t aligned in values? What’s the fallout from that?

Tom: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, what we found in our research is looking at team composition. There’s a lot of discussion around diversity within teams, and what we typically think around in terms of diversity is the ethnicity, age, gender—those kind of demographic characteristics. But there’s other types of diversity, and there’s a lot of research in teams. One is cognitive and behavioural diversity where the team members think and behave differently. And actually, the research shows that’s quite correlated with good team performance. You want people who come at problems and solve them with a different mindset. A different way of breaking down problems. The challenge around where teams have very different values—by values, we mean the principles that you hold dear, the principles by which you make decisions in your life; that may mean things around whether you’re particularly risk adverse, or if you like to embrace dynamic change and shake things up—those kind of values that sit deeply. When people have very, very different value sets, unless they are recognized and managed, that can lead to worse team outcomes. This is what the research shows.

The way you address it—I think there are two main themes. The first one is getting people to recognize those different values, understand them, and talk about them. If my values are very different from yours, that could be causing conflict, because I don’t like risk and you’re always shaking things up. We found that if people start to explain why that is—you know, what is it from your experience that means you have a sort of appetite for risk that I don’t have? Why is it you’re willing to take risks that I would never want to do?—we start understanding the different motivations that each other have in the team, and we can start to build bridges.

The second area you can focus on when team members have different values is if they can recognize that, but also say “what is the shared objective we have together?” So, I’m sort of fearful of risks, you like to take them—but we have this common objective, which is to release this product that makes a change in a hospital environment or something. So, how do we align around what we have to achieve together? If you’re really, really clear on that purpose and how you’re going to measure it through the goals you’ve set yourself as a team, then we found that mitigates the problem around the different value sets. And actually, we can start to see people bring those differences in a much more positive way, and it can actually become a benefit instead of a curse.  

Simon: That’s really interesting—sort of looking at the identity of people, respecting the human dynamics. Where does the learning happen in this kind of process?

Tom: The learning happens by doing real work. I think this is one of the key themes we’ve heard from coaches. When teams are engaged with real discussions about real issues that affect their daily lives, that’s where the learning happens greatest—rather than in a more abstract educational environment where you’re talking about the theory of teamwork. So what we’re trying to do is provide the foundation conversations through structured sessions that get teams to learn by really doing—that are having a discussion around their own team purpose, their own team norms. They’re learning about other perspectives within the team, and by really rooting the team learning in real work that affects them, you get a much higher level of retention in terms of understanding how these principles of teamwork play out.

“When teams are engaged with real discussions about real issues that affect their daily lives, that’s where the learning happens greatest.” Tom Marsden on the #LearningatLarge podcast

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But I think critically, one of the other things that the digital environment provides is an ability to come back and reflect on that learning. We spoke to a lot of team coaches who sessions off-site, and they said one of the challenges is we can’t really check in on a regular basis to see how things are going and evaluate whether there’s progress being made. A digital environment enables us to provide little nudges and notifications and check-ins so that teams can see whether they are growing as a team or not.

Simon: How do you allow for that kind of personalization for the team and the particular challenges they have, and the different human dynamics at play?

Tom: Yeah, so as you’re discussing the purpose you have as a team, you’re going to very quickly get into a real conversation about why you exist as a team, and that will throw out questions you might have around the scope of that or how to frame purpose statements. For example, we do a session where we get teams online to do an exercise to create team norms—like team behaviors that they want to agree to. But throughout that session, we encourage them to make it really relevant to stuff that’s important to you as a team.

Simon: Can you provide an example of a team norm and what you mean by that?

Tom: Yeah, so team norms is a construct that many coaches have used for years, and interestingly, in the last four to five months, I attended two sessions held by sporting coaches. One was Clive Woodward, who coached the England rugby team to World Cup success some years ago. He said that one of the first things he did with the team was ask the team to come up with their own set of rules about how they were going to behave. He said one of the first rules were, “We’re not going to be late for training.” He said the power of it was they came up with that rule, and he said through the years leading up to the World Cup, he can’t recall any one time that someone was late for training. It was because those rules were created by the team, for the team, that he felt they were so powerful.

Simon: Out of interest—sporting teams are quite small groups of people. How far can you go to get that meaningful buy-in to a team norm? How big can the team get before you might lose engagement with the norms and rules being put in place—to feel alien from them?

Tom: Most of the research that looks at teams shows that as you get to teams that are bigger—twelve to fourteen people—they start operating less as a team and more as a larger grouping. So, most of the team norms we develop are at that level. However, there are constructs like organizational values that can operate at a much broader level within the organization. Our view is that these things can sit side-by-side. You can have organizational values, which are the shared values that the organization is encouraging across all of their teams, but you can also get the space for teams to create their own set of norms, their own set of behaviors they’re going to work to that are in line with their organizational values but are more meaningful in that particular team context.

Simon: Tom, you also mentioned psychological safety. Could you step through an example of what you mean by that?

Tom: What we mean by psychological safety is that people in the team feel free to speak up—voice problems and concerns without any fear of retribution. The academic who has done a lot of work to get this known is Amy Edmundson, and her original research started in hospitals, but we’ve seen it as a condition precedent in a whole range of different organizations—from German manufacturing companies through to Google. I think the key thing we try to get out with teams, and with managers in particular, is to say, “How do you build a climate that is safe for a team to bring up challenging issues?” And there are a number of techniques that you can use. I think the first thing is to really make sure the team understands the purpose of their work—so, it’s meaningful. Second thing is you want to invite and give space for team members to voice concerns—so, if you’ve got an introvert in the team or you’ve got someone who’s more remote. And then critically, particularly for leaders, you’ve got to make sure that when people do voice concerns, they aren’t jumped on and made to feel like they shouldn’t have done that, or they’re being critical, or they’re being obstructive. They need to be listened to, heard, and understood.

“You’ve got to make sure that when people do voice concerns, they aren’t jumped on and made to feel like they shouldn’t have done that, or they’re being obstructive. They need to be listened to, heard, and understood.” Tom Marsden on the #LearningatLarge podcast

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Simon: Have you got any thoughts about anonymity and whether that can help or hinder psychological safety?

Tom: Our view that we take is that at the level of the team, we advocate transparency. So, if you’re giving feedback to an individual at a collective meeting where the team is reviewing what’s working and what’s not, you need to put your name to it. This is partly because practically, at smaller team sizes, people are going to work out who said what anyway; you don’t want any of that gaming to be going on. But also because we believe transparent feedback should be what we’re aiming for in most circumstances. The area where we do some anonymizing is if you’ve got multiple teams, say 50 teams, that are bringing up issues and challenges. At the level of the team, we say that should be transparent and they should feel safe in the environment of the team to discuss those. But what we can do is pick out themes that are at a broader organizational level that maybe senior management might want to understand, which are anonymous. So, we use text analytics to understand semantic themes that are coming out of all of those teams, but that feedback at a senior level is anonymized because we don’t want this used as a way to sort of pick out problem teams or anything like that.

Simon: You’ve just mentioned text analytics to draw out data that you play back to the business at large. I was actually going to ask you a question around how you prove the impact you’re having. Can team performance be measured in a way that isn’t through self-evaluation or quality feedback?

Tom: Yes, in some environments. In some environments, there are relatively clear measures of performance; for example, sales environments or call center environments, where you’ve got hard data. I would say those are the two—we’ve seen they are the biggest environments of data collected. We’ve seen a lot of research in some healthcare environments as well that has shown a very powerful correlation; for example, somebody called Michael West has done research showing that the effectiveness of a team in operating has genuine and clear correlations with patient outcomes, including mortality rates. He actually puts figures on the fact that real teamwork could reduce patient mortality rates by over 5,000 deaths a year if you increase the amount of teams that are operating as real teams, what he describes as real teams—really exhibiting proper teamwork. So, there are environments where you can objectively measure the impact of teamwork, but there are still a lot of environments where that’s much harder. So, the reason we include a self-evaluation method and some of these intermediate methods is because we wanted to have some data at least to prove out the ROI.

Simon: Earlier you mentioned Amy Edmundson’s work. Could you share a book or resource that people listening to this could read that might help them think about some of the topics and themes that you’ve explored today?

Tom: There’s a few resources I’d really recommend. If you’re looking to understand the different types of team composition, there is a fantastic work by someone called Scott Page, who wrote a book called The Difference Around the Benefits of Cognitive Diversity. There’s an academic called Amy Kristoff Brown who has written about the challenges of having values differences in teams, there’s a good Youtube video as well that you can look up. It’s about an hour long, and goes into some really interesting stuff around understanding how diverse perspectives play out in teams and some of the benefits and challenges faced. Amy’s works—I think two books are great. One is called Teaming, and looks at psychological safety particularly in a team environment, and then her more recent book is around the fearless organization, which is looking at how psychological safety can really underpin innovation within organizations. So, it’s looking at the benefits of psychological safety for organizational change.

Simon: Brilliant, thank you.

Thanks to Tom for sharing some really useful insights, showing us how important it is for us to be aware of the human dynamics at play in our teams and to provide the right level of support around it. If you’re interested in finding out more about Tom and his company, then visit his company website, Saberr.com. Tom is also on LinkedIn and happy for you to connect with him. Perhaps you’ll be able to apply some of Tom’s insights in your own organization, or maybe you have some of your own examples you can share.

Join the conversation!

You can join us on Twitter @Learn_at_Large to keep the conversation going using the hashtag #LearningatLarge, or email me at simon@elucidat.com with thoughts, suggestions, and questions. We’d love to hear from you so don’t hesitate to get in touch. And finally, don’t forget to subscribe to “Learning at Large” in your favorite podcast app and subscribe to our newsletter for updates on new episodes.

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