Monday, October 01, 2012

How a team degrades

I was recalling the other day one of the exercises we used to sensitize senior executives in my former hospital's Lean training program.   A group of colleagues sat around a table and were given a problem to solve.  Each person wore a hat with a label that could be seen by everyone at the table, except the person wearing the hat.  The label might say “whines,” “creative,” “combative,” “unintelligent,” or some other characteristic.

Strikingly, within just a few minutes, people at the table began to treat each person as though the assigned characteristic were true.  The whiner found himself ignored.  Likewise for the unintelligent person.  The creative person was seen to have all the best ideas.

This simulation exercise demonstrates the untoward power of stereotype.  There is a tendency of people, once given an expectation about another person, to find evidence in support of that expectation.  Everything the other person does or says seems to lend validity to the prior view, which, by the way, may have no basis in fact whatsoever.

I was recently the victim of such stereotyping, actually watching it occur and take hold over the course of just twenty minutes.  The setting was a pick-up soccer game.  While traveling far from home, I had been invited by a friend to join in his weekly game.  I know this is hard to believe, but I am actually a pretty good player.  I play several times per week with a group of excellent players from around the world in highly competitive games.  On this day, though, I had not played for several weeks, so I was a little rusty. I had just spent a long time on an airplane, and so I was also a bit stiff.  So, I decided I would be careful for the first part of the game, not wanting to pull a muscle or otherwise hurt myself.  In soccer, if you are careful, you are often not as effective on the field, and such was the case here.  The first couple of times a ball came to me, my passes were not as fast and crisply directed as usual.

What happened was that the other people on my team quickly decided, based on those first few touches, that I was not a good player.  They stopped passing the ball to me, notwithstanding that I was often open to receive a pass.  When I did happen to get the ball when it ricocheted my way, they did not expect me to do anything worthwhile with it, so they did not run to open space, where I could pass to them.  Thus, I did not have good options for releasing the ball to other players, so my passes tended to be intercepted more often by opposing players.  Later during a time out, I actually overheard some of my teammates muttering, “Well, he’s good at getting open, but he doesn’t run fast enough with the ball.”  Of course, they missed the point.  If you are good at getting open, you often don’t have to run fast with the ball.  Rather, you quickly send it to one of your other teammates who is open.  In that manner, the team as a whole moves the ball down the field.  In fact, if you try to be a hot shot and dribble down the field, you are much more likely to lose possession to the other team.

Meanwhile, the opposing team soon figured out that they did not have to cover me, as no one would pass to me.  This meant that the other team had an extra player to interfere with the rest of my team.  By turning the game from 11v11 to 11v10,  my teammates created a competitive advantage for the other team.  The score reflected this result.

It was a marvelous experience to both participate in and watch this unfortunate team dynamic develop.  As the recipient of my teammates’ denigration, I was surprised to see how quickly I turned to trying to prove myself.  Of course, at that point, you get more tense about every interaction with the ball and are more likely to make bad decisions or bad touches on the ball.  You could almost hear them raising eyebrows, as if to say, “See, he really is unreliable.”  It didn’t help that there was a loudmouth on my team who also felt the need to yell instructions at other players, often ill-timed and incorrect ones at that.  In my case, if he yelled an instruction, and I did something else, it was further proof of my incompetence.

I am not writing this so you will feel sorry for me.  (And I hope it won’t keep you from inviting me to play with one of your teams!)  I am writing it to demonstrate the process of team degradation for you.  We have all been in environments where one member of the team is stereotyped as less competent or less worthy, based on some early observations or preconceptions.  We then isolate that person and fail to give him or her a chance to participate and develop.  In so doing, we have effectively reduced the number of players on our team, and we have eliminated many opportunities for cooperation and creativity that might have helped our team succeed.  We might also inadvertently give our opponents a competitive advantage by weakening our own team.

A strong team is a learning organization that values all of its members.  It offers praise for jobs well done.  It offers support and encouragement when performance is less than what is hoped for.  It does not criticize or blame when mistakes occur; rather it seeks to learn lessons from those mistakes.

By the way, in my home soccer group, we have an unofficial rule that you pass more, not less, to players who are not as good.  By giving those players more touches, the stress associated with each pass is reduced.  The team as a whole thereby engages in behavior that helps those people develop and learn.  The overall level of play rises, and all enjoy the camaraderie that comes from a game well played.


e-Patient Dave said...

This is important on multiple levels. I'll write about it from the patient's perspective - and you've got another book there.

Michael Sokolov said...

That's an interesting observation, Paul. I've often noticed the same thing - if I have a bad start, people stop passing to me. However, I've also noticed that some things can reset people's expectations of you. I find that the start of each soccer game, for example, is a chance to prove yourself again, even with people who may have formed a bad impression of you in a previous game. They didn't pass to you last week, but now they do.

So don't lose heart!

Paul Levy said...

Thanks. Don't worry, I did not lose heart. I enjoy the game too much for that!

Istvan said...

According to the definition by Katzenbach and Smith (1993), a real team is “a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose.” I would emphasize the complementary skills in this definition. We know how many roles the soccer players have during a game and we also know that the team needs all of these roles for success. In the 1970s, Dr. Belbin and his research team at Henley Management College in the UK showed that teams work better if they comprise of a mix of people with different strengths and skills who can work together and utilize the different strengths for the good of the team. Soccer teams need players with supporting role just as much as they need finishing strikers. Without a distributor midfielder, a striker would not be able to do too much and also without striker a team would not be able to score that much either. But these two members need to realize first that they need each other and they have to work together. If a team cannot identify these roles and cannot realize that it needs both, the team will likely fail.

e-Patient Dave said...

This triggered a much bigger post on my own site than I anticipated.

Perceptions creating reality: the scapegoat dynamic and the role of the patient

Istvan said...

The team behavior in both cases could also be explained by two well-known phenomena, the pattern recognition and emotional attachment. Both phenomena are unconscious and based on a simple neural-network process in the brain and unfortunately both phenomena can be misleading and distorting. When the brain stores a memory of an event or situation, it stores an associated template and emotion with it. This unconscious brain process (tagging) helps us to faster access memory and thus to assess a situation next time and identify a suitable action plan. As Brunsman says (2009), we are hard-wired to gather information quickly, match it to previous experiences and knowledge, and make decisions. It is possible that the team members in your Lean group previously had unfavorable experiences with people with those negative characteristics that the labels said and the team members did not have enough time or they were not willing to learn relevant new information about the other team members. As Finkelstein says (2009) the lack of sufficient relevant experience is a pre-condition that opens the door to misleading experiences. So, you are absolutely right that a strong team is a learning organization because the team members have to learn new relevant information instead of relying on pattern recognition and emotional attachment. I am wondering what would have happened to the team dynamics if the next day the Lean group had used different characteristics on the hats or if they had a lessons learned session as part of the simulation.

Anonymous said...

Whether or not an athlete (or a health-care provider) is perceived as "any good" is often dictated by results.

Anonymous said...

Paul, just to let you know it can go the other way:

Years ago in college I was playing pick-up basketball. As per the norm, there was an unofficial "highly skilled player" court, "medium skilled" court, weekend warrior court, etc. Well my typical weekend warrior court had no players and the experts needed an extra body -- me.

On the first possession a teammate missed a shot. I fought for position against a guy about 6 inches taller and got the rebound. I went up for a layup, felt him try to block the shot from behind, double-clutched, spun the ball off the backboard, and in. An atypically nice play by me. A couple of my teammates yelled "great putback!". Well, the next few times down the court, they would feed me in the low post, thinking I was an offensive juggernaut. But the bigger opponent and my lack of quickness made sure I had already hit my high point. By the end of the game my teammates had properly adjusted expectations (Ok defense, can't create own shot on offense), but it was nice (for a while) to be thought of as something better than I was!

Anonymous said...

Paul -- great analogy and thank you for sharing it despite your chagrin at being the victim. You can bet this happens on the volleyball court as well. I won't go into the trials of a short-in-stature 40-something playing on the same court as the 20 somethings. Fortunately I am the setter (like a QB) so I can call the shots :) Finally, also loved your comments on the unspoken rule on your team with regard to the least-skilled player getting the most touches. Also multi-situational and all around great sentiment. Bravo!

Paul Levy said...

Thanks, Julia!