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  • Writer's pictureHeidi

Critic or coach - which one are you?

There are some interesting dynamics in high performing teams I often find myself sharing with clients. As leaders we of course set the tone for our team or business. Research suggests there are three factors that create a positive emotional space in a workplace that allow teams to thrive - the ratio of positive to negative communication in your team, the extent to which people enquire about the views of others vs advocating their own, and whether team members are focused on themselves or others (Losada and Heaphy, 2004). Reflect on your teams performance. If it's not where you would like it to be, it might be worth contemplating these three factors.

Losada and Heaphy explored the relationship between positivity and connectivity on the performance on business teams, and guess what? Positivity really does matter! Reflecting on my own experience here's how I've seen this play out. It’s not just the presence of positive or negative language, it’s the influence each team member has on the dynamic – so you get either a positive reinforcing effect or as I like to call it "a negative death spiral". Picture a meeting in your office first thing in the morning. Someone starts off by complaining about the traffic, the weather, another team in the company, or something a client has asked for that has thrown up all sorts of challenges internally. Whatever the focus, if one person starts with negativity, it's far more likely to continue. In high performing teams that ratio of positive to negative language is 5.6:1. So for every interaction that is characterised by sarcastic humour or a negative comment or view there are 5.6 to balance that out. Consider some of the teams you've been part of or led when things are not going so well. What has that ratio looked like? The difference falls away dramatically. For medium performing teams that ratio is 1.8:1 and for poor performing teams 0.36:1 - that's right more negative that positive interaction. I also think there is an interesting alignment with Gottman's research on married couples which links positive or negative communication to the likelihood of a harmonious and stable relationship over time. Gottman’s positive/negative ratios of communication are similar to those found in work teams by Losada and Heaphy. It might not only be in a work context where positivity matters!

So ask yourself this – do you regularly articulate a positive view of the future and finding solutions for your team, or is your communication often centred on what is not working well? And how does your body language support that positive communication? Sitting up straight and smiling is one of the simplest ways we can influence our own energy levels. We need to be mindful when we are in a leadership role that our energy is contagious.

The second factor is about the extent to which I ask questions of others to understand their views (enquiry) rather than telling you my view (advocacy). Here’s the thing, even if I am very polite the way I communicate, if my default style is to always start with my opinion I am actually undermining the connection I am creating with my team and my co-workers. If someone is always in “tell mode” then whether they intend it or not the underlying message others receive is “I’m right you're wrong” or “I’m not that interested in what you think”. When we have strong views on a situation, we are particularly at risk of stepping into "tell mode", even if we are doing it in a constructive way. We actually build a connection with others when we show interest – like asking their opinion before offering our own, and then actually asking questions to understand that point of view. Contrast that with the way we often ask questions - to get enough information to support our critique.

In high performing teams with strong connectivity, members enquire about the views of others a bit more often than they advocate their own opinions. The ratio here is about 1.14:1. Which might not seem like much, but reflect for a moment, within your team, where would that balance fall? Do you and your co-workers often lead with “what do you think?” or do you usually start with “in my opinion ….”. In contrast, for poor performing teams that ratio is 0.05:1 and for medium performing teams 0.67:1.

The third and final factor is a balanced focus on self and others. In my experience, when a team is a negative space, the individuals and the team become very self absorbed. Usually on their own problems! If they ever do pop their head up above the parapet to consider other team members or other teams in the organisation, it is usually to point out the problems that are being created for them! Whether at an individual or a team level, it becomes a barrier to creating a healthy relationship if I am wrapped up in my own needs and thinking. For high performing teams that ratio is 0.93:1. It falls away to almost nothing, 0.05:1 in poor performing teams.

So how does it all fit together? All three factors are mutually reinforcing. How we show up as a leader - the degree of positivity we bring, whether we are interested in the views of our team and co-workers, and where we focus our interest can help to generate a positive emotional space where people feel a sense of belonging, connection and support.

If this resonates for you, what can you do?

  • Start by focusing on your own approach. Be honest with yourself. Are you a critic or a coach?

  • Amp up the positivity. Ultimately, people don’t remember us for our job title, they remember us for how we treat them. It is the energy you bring that keeps you enjoying and engaged with what you’re doing. Are you an energy giver or an energy taker?

  • Create connections by showing an interest in others opinions. Try leading with curiosity and empathy for others perspectives. To what extent do you ask? To what extent do you listen?

  • When you step into leadership, the focus is no longer about you - it needs to be on your team. Try creating connections with a balanced focus on your own needs and the needs of others.

If you're interested, the complete article is available in American Behavioral Scientist

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