by Lisa Gill
Tips from Sweden on how to be a high performing team in the 21st century
Last month I spent two weeks in Sweden (and a couple of days in Amsterdam) with Karin Tenelius and Carl Erik Herlitz, founders of Tuff Leadership Training, a company that trains managers in a style of leadership that produces motivated, responsible employees and self-reliant teams. I had been invited to co-write a book with Karin about her career buying and transforming struggling companies into high performing, self-managing teams. As part of my research, I attended Step 1 of the Tuff Leadership Training course; four days of intensive leadership training involving practical exercises and plenty of feedback. Here’s what I’ve learnt…
Being versus doing
Alternative organisational structures are something of a trend right now; Zappos continues to receive press attention as the largest organisation to date to adopt the self-management system Holacracy (a system Medium recently ditched in favour of evolving their own approach) and I’ve seen more and more communities and resources springing up to support the movement from hierarchy to something more ‘bottom up’ — The Ready, Future of Work, Responsive Org, RSA’s Reinventing Work Network, WorldBlu, Enlivening Edge and others.
But there’s a risk of getting caught up in structure and ‘doing’, and neglecting the ‘being’ side of things. There is no shortage of literature out there on leadership and management thinking, but there’s a big gap between knowing and doing. It’s a question of habit and as writer Charles Duhigg discovered in his book The Power of Habit, we can’t delete old habits but we can (with practice) replace them.
Before she started Tuff, Karin coached hundreds of unemployed people during the recession in Sweden in the 1990s which enabled her to develop an extremely powerful technique. Where many job coaches pandered to their clients and did much of the work for them, Karin found it far more effective to relate to her clients as capable, making them entirely responsible for the outcome of the coaching sessions. She had been inspired by two books in particular: former President of Scandinavian Airlines Jan Carlzon’s Moments of Truth and Ricardo Semler’s Maverick — both examples of leaders who achieved great success by empowering front line teams and ‘leading by getting out of the way’. In 1999, she got the chance to put these radical ideas into practice when she was asked by the managing director of Freys Hotel to coach her employees in becoming a self-managing team.
Within just eight months, the hotel’s profit had risen by 26%. The success of this case led to Karin getting CEO assignments in two other small companies which enabled her to develop a comprehensive methodology for training teams to function independently without managers.
“I then decided that it was a good idea to teach these skills to managers and founded Tuff Leadership Training. The name indicates that the focus is on developing skills, rather than getting more knowledge, and the training involves a lot of personal feedback, with painful insights as a result!”
Co-founder Carl Erik, who originally qualified as a lawyer, then set about taking Karin’s method and expanding it into a replicable training programme. If Karin is the pioneer, Carl Erik is the settler. His rigorous pedagogical approach meant they could bring their leadership training programmes to managers all over the world — from Sweden to China to South America.
No more parents and children
At the heart of this training is the principle that when managers truly relate to employees as adults (instead of as parents to children) employees are far more likely to be motivated and responsible. In Step 1 of the course, you get given the following imagined letter from an enlightened manager:
In fact, to promote their courses, Tuff runs 90-minute seminars provocatively called ‘Stop Motivating Your Employees!’ It’s a big mindset shift from managers doing something to employees to motivate them to being in such a way that they are motivated. People are naturally motivated so if they aren’t, managers are probably getting in the way!
“The answer to the question managers often ask… — How do you motivate people? — is: you don’t. Man is by nature motivated… His behaviour is influenced by relationships between his characteristics as an organic system and the environment… Creating these relationships is a matter of releasing energy in certain ways rather than others. We do not motivate him because he ismotivated. When he is not, he is dead.” — Douglas McGregor
(Quoted in ‘Freedom Inc’ by Brian M Carney and Isaac Getz)
Both the seminars and the courses give managers the opportunity to practice these new leadership skills — like exercising a new muscle — through role play scenarios, demonstrations and plenty of feedback from both the trainer and each other. It’s all about raising awareness, moving from ‘unconscious incompetence’ to ‘conscious incompetence’. ‘Tuff’ in Swedish means ‘tough’ and the training is definitely hard work. For many managers it feels extremely uncomfortable because the very skills they’ve been recruited and promoted for become their pitfalls when it comes to practicing empowering leadership. Even the seasoned coaches who were in my training group found it difficult to truly give up responsibility to the coachee — the default we have learnt so well in our workplaces is either nurturing parent (taking care of people and the problem) or critical parent (admonishing people and solving the problem for them).
Skills for self-management
Just as managers have to un-learn being responsible, employees have to learn how to be responsible after years of education and work experience where much of the thinking has been done for them. I’ve spoken to many people in startups who you might assume are used to taking responsibility and enjoy operating within a flat organisational structure. However, as startups hit a growth tipping point, that parent-child tendency creeps in again. I’ve had many a conversation with founders in startups who lament employees who aren’t responsible enough and employees in startups who lament founders hogging all the decision-making power! And never the twain shall meet…
So whether you work in a big organisation or a small one, how do you flourish as a self-managing, adult team? In her 15 years of coaching teams in self-management, Karin’s found that three skills make all the difference:
1. Addressing climate issues
The climate in the company is what is feels like to work there. Karin insists that if a company doesn’t have a productive working climate, you can forget about self-management altogether. She’s developed a process for cleaning the air in organisations which she calls ‘shifting the climate’. It starts with a process called ‘moose heads’. A moose head is a metaphor for something that’s taboo in an organisation; usually an issue someone has with a colleague or the way things are. For example, one team Karin worked with believed there was a ‘secret troika’ among them — a trio of people making decisions behind the others’ backs. Issues like these produce a toxic climate that gets in the way of teams and individuals being effective. They’re called moose heads because it’s like dumping a rotting, bloody moose head on the table in front of everyone — it’s not pleasant but it’s important to get it out in the open. Once people have named and shared these issues, it’s then time for them to decide together the ground rules moving forward for the climate they do want.
Skill number two is decision-making. Often people in organisations tell me they’ve tried involving people in decision-making before and it’s been slow and ineffective. This is probably because they used consensus and consensus usually is slow and ineffective. Karin coaches people in decision-making methods such as Will Schutz’s concordance or sociocracy’s consent decision-making — it’s a middle ground between top-down and consensus which means everyone has a say, but you don’t need everyone to agree. This training often involves practicing decision-making as a group with fictional, complex scenarios which helps people who aren’t used to having authority to experience the impact their decisions have in a safe space. At Freys Hotel, the team was even able to design their own decision-making process regarding each other’s salaries.
3. A coaching leadership style
One of the Tuff Leadership Statements is “Polite or effective — it’s up to you!” Effective communication is founded on relating to each other as capable and responsible. This means being able to be straight with each other; to give and receive feedback; to practice generative listening and many other related skills that are very often not the norm in conventional workplaces. In self-managing organisations, employees are responsible for hiring and firing so a coaching leadership ability is crucial.
Whether you operate in a hierarchy or a flat organisation, I believe these skills are invaluable to being a high performing team. When I interviewed employees in some of Karin’s companies, all of them told me self-management is hard — but fun. Out of the three skills mentioned above, almost everyone said the moose heads process is tough — even if employees have been doing it for years — but essential.
Around the time I was in Sweden, I read Google’s latest research experiment, Project Aristotle, which found that the number one dynamic of their most successful teams was psychological safety. In other words, teams where members felt safe to take risks, be vulnerable in front of each other and be truly honest with each other.
Watch this space
Well, having returned to the UK, my home office now looks like a scene out of A Beautiful Mind as I try to turn my hours of recorded interviews and insights into a compelling book. It will be a mix of case studies and stories, methods and philosophies, successes and failures, which I hope will inspire people to experiment in their own work to create employee-driven companies. In the meantime, I’d love for people to share their thoughts and questions about this blog and some of the ideas I’ve mentioned.