For Something Special, Optimize Your Team for Harmony

Motivated, happy, teams get you something you want, but only teams in harmony get you something else.

Mar 10, 2020 · 7 min read
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A few weeks ago, I was on a 1-on-1 with my manager and he asked me a simple question: "How is the team?". At first, a simple question would mean a simple answer. There was a clear intention to compare impressions taken from another level in the organization and I appreciate that. The answer at first was indeed simple, but then System 2 took over.

Talking with Your Manager, Fast and Slow

In the omnipresent tome of wisdom that is Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow, we are presented with two modes of thinking. Making my best effort to not murder with simplification the life's work of a Nobel laureate, it works like this: without noticing, we are either employing System 1, the fast talker, intuitive, sensitive and generator of impressions, or System 2, the calculating, careful, logic lover, and validator of impressions. System 1 is eager to help, System 2 is lazy. If you think this explains a lot about too many things, I know the feeling.

Now, let's do a quick exercise. We are both talking at work and I ask you the question "How is the team?". Quick now, think! What is your most immediate answer? Or, even more important, what are the gauges that you look at, in your imaginary team dashboard, that will inform your answer? If you are like me, you would, without a second thought, look at morale, followed by a close second, happiness.

That was System 1 talking and answering a very different question.

System 1 is so eager to help, so afraid to let us down, that it will do anything to get us a satisfactory answer. Including using a little trick called Intuitive Heuristic. When we are facing a difficult question, System 1 will answer an easier one instead. We don't even notice it most of the time. So, when our manager asks us "how is the team going?", we answer instead "how is the team morale?", or "is the team happy?". Which is much easier, right?

Morale and Happiness

I started answering with morale and happiness, but it's when you define those concepts that you might notice something is missing. For example, it was only after scratching the surface for a bit that I understood that I saw morale as a team property and happiness as a "player" property. It's also important to mention that morale and happiness could mean different things in another domain, but here I'm considering on purpose the specificity of the team environment, which could be in the workplace or sports.

What did I come up with?

Team morale is a shared feeling of how fair the results a team is getting considering how much effort is being put into them. I believe great team morale comes from conquering a great challenge, a true test to the team's mettle.

What about happiness?

Player happiness is how one feels about how much he's contributing to the success of the team times how much of his contributions to the team corresponds to what he does best. You probably have a different vision of happiness, but for me, it really peaks when I feel that I can impact the team with what I do best.

Having these two gauges on high levels is great. Rare as it might be, it's undeniable that work and results flow much easier when these two come together.

I liked where I was heading, but at the same time I felt something was missing, something that tied together what was individual (happiness) with was of the team (morale).

Enter Football Manager. If you never heard of it, it's a simulator where you, surprise surprise, a football manager, take control of a club and try to lead it to glory. I gave it more hours of my life than I dare admit and I'm a football coach, in part, because of the damn game. Truth is, now I can appreciate the thought developers have put behind what makes a team successful and the variables that contribute to it.

Football Manager defines team harmony as the product of morale, happiness, and relationships.

It's so obvious now. Of course it's relationships. It's the first thing that exists in a team. It's what makes individuals more than the sum of the parts. It's the quality of the relationships that will make or break a team.

Relationships are with whom each person connects with inside the team, how strong each of those connections is, it's who gets the best, or worse, from whom.

It's even curious how people tend to gather around similar thinkers or who they most agree with, and not necessarily who gets the best out of them.

The Team Harmony Formula

It's through relationships inside the team, that one's happiness can impact team morale and vice versa. On a personal level, we can look at how the relationships of a person are affected by his mood, for example. A colleague with personal problems will interact differently than usual with other teammates, which might, in turn, affect the team mood. On a team level, personal happiness can be affected once involved in the dynamics of the team. Meetings that derail, conflicts that escalate, collaborations that go fantastic, office politics, are all instances of the group impacting the individual.

When asked how's my team, now I look at this triangle of morale, happiness, and relationships and I replace the question with a more interesting one: "how's the harmony in the team?". The answer, even if not as quick to provide, will be richer than what System 1 could come up with. Remember, you will be answering at least these:

  • How much do you feel team members are contributing to the success of the team
  • What's a rough percentage of tasks each team member has on what he/she does best
  • Who has strong relationships with whom
  • Who has poor relationships with whom
  • Who gets the best out of whom
  • How does the team evaluate the effort being put into challenges
  • How does the team evaluate the results obtained considering the effort they spent

Harmony is achieved when each person can contribute to the success of the team, against a real challenge, with their best skills, alongside people they appreciate to work with.

What Does This Mean for Managers?

When I challenged you to quickly answer "how is the team?", the first answer that came to your mind will tell you what are you optimizing for. If you see your team not getting the results you want, the behaviors you expect, or that the relationships are suffering, the first thing you will try to fix is the dimension provided by your quick answer. That's my bet at least, and that might not be the best course of action.

If you are looking for just one vertex as the problem, you are not seeing the triangle. I'm not even sure if there's only three, but the principle still stands, look at all the dimensions of the team and optimize for harmony, not the individual parts.

Look deeper into the strong suits that each member of the team can bring to the table, they might be hiding for lack of confidence, or because no one ever challenged them on that. Capitalize on the talents people enjoy employing that are most useful for the team.

What Does This Mean for Team Members?

Your control is limited. You have your actions and mindset. Your team members and leadership you can only aim to influence. There's value in being in the front lines though. Being first to recognize issues and problems as they come up is one of them, who is feeling unsatisfied, or undervalued. Where there is a gap in the skills inside of the team. How much more complex a given task ended up being. All these, and more, are triggers that will cause the team to lose its balance if not addressed in time and with the right toolset.

Optimizing for harmony is not hiding or minimizing problems. It's not running from confrontation, nor avoiding upset the status quo.

Optimizing for harmony is you stating the problem and gather support from your team to come up with solutions to solve it.

Optimizing for harmony is shining a light where you are hurting and help your leadership find the best resources to take care of it.

Optimizing for harmony can be counter-intuitive. It might mean doing the best job of your life while pissed at someone, simply because it's then the team needs you most. It might even mean doing the worst job of your life because you had to learn something new that made you uncomfortable, but since you were the best candidate of the ones available, you considered everything and optimized for harmony.

Parting Thoughts

Cover for your team. No matter what. Always be seeking where your team weaknesses are going to show and anticipate measures. Do a great job for your team and celebrate when others do the same.

Don't see harmony as a coagulant of behaviors, a standardization of opinions, or an ode to "we've always done it like this" BS.

Look at your team's harmony as a north star to help you consider your decisions. Time and the consequences of your options will make, or break, your team, but the way I see it, optimizing for people playing off each other's strengths, against worthy challenges, is a wonderful way to get everyone on the same boat, sailing to great results, and better versions of ourselves.



If you enjoyed this, there are many others to come.

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