Effective Co-Workers not BFFs

During the recent evaluation and debrief of a year-long leadership development program, which involved teams working together to solve problems for community organizations, we learned a few things. One of the most obvious was: it’s not easy for randomly selected groups of strangers to gel into functional teams. In spite of workshops on group dynamics, coaching and a library of resources; most of the teams faced group process challenges, ranging from minor personality clashes to all-out war.

A couple of teams were notable exceptions. These two teams seemed immune to the dysfunction that plagued the others. When asked to share the secret of their success, they had difficulty articulating it and were inclined to credit the luck of the draw for giving them the most cooperative team-mates. As we dug a little deeper into their approach, we identified two practices that seemed to make all the difference.

People and Process

First, they actually applied the team process tools they were taught during the workshops. Specifically, they mentioned three things they did consistently:

  1. They established expectations early on (e.g. show up for meetings or let us know if you can’t, be respectful of everyone’s input, etc.) and held each other to them.
  2. They took a few minutes to “check in” at the beginning of each team meeting and wrapped up each work session with a review of meeting effectiveness, member participation and any emerging concerns or issues.
  3. Before leaving, they scheduled their next meeting and allocated responsibility for completing the next stage of the project work.

The second practice that the two most successful teams shared seemed to come about naturally. It wasn’t covered by their initial training or assigned reading (though it will be in future!) The successful teams made a point of getting to know each other on a more personal level before jumping into the project work. In fact, one team admitted they didn’t get any work done in their first two working sessions — they were too busy learning about each other’s experiences, families, hobbies, pets, favorite music, etc. In spite of their slow start, they found that lost time was easily made up later because they had established a level of trust and mutual understanding, which enabled them to work together much more effectively.

One more question we asked of program participants was whether or not the members of the team expected to stay in touch going forward. Responses ranged from “unlikely” to “absolutely.” No one suggested that they’d found their BFF, but many had forged strong working relationships and a new network of colleagues they hoped to maintain. Not surprisingly, the desire to maintain that network was strongest among those whose team experience was most positive.

When we analyzed all the program evaluation and debrief information, it was apparent that the most engaged participants were those who had a positive group experience. They didn’t have to become close friends with their team-mates, but they did require a basic level of friendliness and mutual respect to feel engaged and committed. They didn’t need their team-mates to be perfect, but they did require everyone’s best efforts and mutual accountability to remain enthusiastic.

Lessons for the Workplace

The recent focus on engagement in the workplace has many employers jumping through hoops searching for the magic engagement formula. Past research from Gallup suggested that employers should focus on helping workers make a “best friend” at work as one surefire way to increase engagement. The insights from our leadership development program don’t seem to support that. Interestingly, Rodd Wagner, former principle with Gallup, has recently reversed his stand on that particular point. He offers this reasoning for his change of heart:

“First, because I believe organizations are incapable of manufacturing or improving such intimate personal connections and, second, because subsequent research has shown other (more easily influenced) factors to be more important drivers of engagement and performance.” [1]

In fact, Wagner now warns HR not to get involved in fostering friendships, since those types of bonds can’t be artificially induced. Instead, he urges HR to focus on engagement factors they are better able to influence.

But most employees still rank the people they work with as a significant influence on engagement and retention—so what is HR to do?

  1. Forget the BFF matchmaking. Instead foster a dominant culture of friendly, respectful co-workers.
  2. Actively develop team and group work skills.
  3. Recognize and reward collaboration.
  4. Make sure that managers support and recognize each employee as a unique individual and give everyone a chance to shine.
  5. Encourage peer-to-peer kudos and recognize those who recognize others.
  6. Directly tie team and individual goals to the organization’s mission and vision so everyone feels a sense of accomplishment for doing good work.

Some employees might find their “best friend forever” at work and that may make them more engaged and less likely to move on. Most, however, won’t—and your chances of creating an environment or successfully implementing a program to change that are slim to none. Focus on what you can influence and control and let friendships happen (or not) naturally.


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[1] Ben Abbott.  HR guru backtracks on ‘best friend’ engagement test http://www.hcamag.com/hr-news/hr-guru-backtracks-on-best-friend-engagement-test-203823.aspx#.VcoQZp0uLig.twitter

Photo Credit: Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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