Make Teamwork Work So Organizations Thrive, Lencioni Advises

When hiring, screen for the attributes of team players

By Stephen Miller, CEBS Jun 21, 2017
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Patrick Lencioni

Bringing out the best in talented people and getting them to work together drives business success, said best-selling author Patrick Lencioni during his keynote address at the SHRM 2017 Annual Conference & Exposition in New Orleans.

Lencioni is the founder and president of The Table Group, a San Francisco firm dedicated to helping organizations improve teamwork and employee engagement; the author of 11 best-selling books; and a former corporate executive at Oracle, Bain & Co. and Sybase.

He described three traits that team players must exhibit:

  • Being humble. A sense of humility doesn't indicate a lack of confidence. Instead, it means the person recognizes that the whole is greater than its parts and forgoes arrogance and egotistical behavior.

  • Being hungry. The best team players are not easily satisfied and are eager to push forward with tasks at hand and longer-term agendas.

  • Being smart/people smart. Beyond intellectual abilities, it's important for team players to have common sense and demonstrate emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills.

1 for 3s

When hiring new employees or evaluating current team members, watch out for those who demonstrate only one of these characteristics, Lencioni said, as they can stop a team in its tracks. For instance:

  • Pawns are humble but not hungry or people smart. They're likeable but zap the energy from the team.

  • Bulldozers are hungry but not humble or good with people. Soon enough, nobody really wants to work with them.

  • Charmers have strong people skills, but they're not humble or hungry. Under the radar, they try to play people against one another to their own advantage.

2 for 3s

Those lacking just one of the three key attributes of a team player can be especially destructive, he said.

  • Accidental mess-makers are humble and hungry but lack people skills and emotional intelligence. They plow ahead but the results aren't good.

  • Loveable slackers are humble and have people smarts but aren't hungry. They hold back the team because they never seem to get anything done.

  • Skillful politicians are hungry and smart but not humble. Dangerously, they can feign being humble so that you don't see them coming until they drive a knife in your back.

"Don't hire these people, and if you already have done so, then don't keep them on your team," Lencioni advised.

Team Development

To help develop strong teams that exhibit the values of humility, hunger and smartness, Lencioni recommended that managers prod team members to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, and he suggested the following actions:

  • Managers go first. Managers should acknowledge their own areas for improvement, such as being prone to thinking they have all the answers (and lacking humility).

  • Help team members acknowledge areas that need improvement. Give them permission to call each other on behaviors that hurt the team and to suggest better ways of working together. Team members who share the same challenges—egotism, lack of people skills, lackluster attitude—can best open up to one another and offer support and advice about changing those behaviors, so get them together in a room to discuss their issues.

  • Remind people when you see that they aren't exhibiting one of the three key values. When you see bad behaviors, remind employees that these aren't acceptable. When you repeatedly do so, "98 percent of the time they will either change or leave, and both are OK outcomes."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing and Sustaining High-Performance Work Teams]

Hiring Ideal Team Players

"Stop focusing on technical skills and measurables; skills can be taught," Lencioni said. As long as a candidate's skills are in the right ballpark, "hire for attitude."

He also recommended that employers:

  • Avoid siloed interviewing. The hiring team should together interview a job candidate so they can share impressions and sometimes correct a misreading of the candidate's responses. If one-on-one interviews can't be avoided, the hiring team should get together after each interview to share the interviewer's take on the candidate's strengths and weaknesses so subsequent interviewers can revisit those issues.

  • Conduct nontraditional interviews. Get the candidate out of the office into a real-life situation, even if it's not specifically job-related. Take candidates shopping or to run an errand to see how they act in the real world.

  • Ask, repeat, ask again. Candidates want to show you what they think you want to see. But their mask may eventually drop under the pressure of repeatedly bending the truth, so keep probing to weed out those who "game" the interview process. If they say they're good at resolving conflicts, ask for examples—or how others, such as their spouse, if married, might evaluate their ability in this area.

  • Scare people with sincerity. Make it clear that "we take these values seriously, and if you don't, then this isn't the place for you."

"HR professionals are missionaries," Lencioni said. "You have a 'ministry' to change organizations for the better," and fostering teamwork is at the center of that mission.

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