Friday, October 14, 2011

Copycats, that's what we all are

This article is about the complex relationships and behaviors within teams. As it turns out, most of us are copycats. And that should change the way you look at your team and you’ll find some suggestions on how to do it in this article.
But first, watch the “Face the Rear” video where everyone is facing the rear of an elevator. Go on and watch it first, then keep on reading.

Setting the context
This video was done to demonstrate the power of conformity within groups and was based on the Asch experiments, a psychology study done back in the 50’s. Now, what do you think? How does this relate to Project Management? First of all, this is an evidence about groups and almost every project involve groups - so it relates to Project Management. But project teams are much more complex then groups of people you share an elevator with. And much more intimate, as people in project teams are sure to share some tough moments.
The point is, if you know how people tend to follow others in the same group, you can take advantage of it - both by preventing unwanted behaviors and reinforcing the ones that benefit the project team.

1. You have a tendency to do like others do in your organization
But lets start with you, the project manager. Have you noticed that you (probably) have a tendency to do like others do in your organization? By itself, this is just a fact you can observe - it’s not good or bad as it depends on what you imitate and the context you’re in. But just by acknowledging that you may be imitating others is beneficial as it gives you more control. Because you acknowledge it, it allows you to decide if you want to act like that or not.
Suppose that usually people in your organization don’t respect the starting time of meetings. Knowing that you have a tendency to do like others do, you know you’ll have a tendency to get late to meetings, right? But if you know that, you can make a choice: will you get late to your next meeting or not? Maybe, reasonably, you decide to get late because it’s an internal meeting of some sort - and everyone else will be late anyway. Or you decide to leave the office earlier than usual because it’s a meeting with a new customer you don’t know well yet and because of that you don’t want to get there late. But you can now decide what to do.

2. Your team members have a tendency to do like other team members do
You can use your team members tendency to act like the other team members to your advantage (and also your teams and your projects advantage). Here are some of the things you should do.
First, this is one more reason for you to deal with unwanted behaviors as soon as you spot them - because if you don’t this unwanted behavior will probably spread and become a usual thing within your team.
Second, make it very explicit to the team that you appreciate the behaviors you want every time you notice them.
And third, remember you are part of the project team and your actions are always under a spotlight. Pay close attention to what you do, what you say and how you say it. You should be the first one to set the example and every time you can say to someone: “Hey, instead of doing that that way, why don’t you try to do it like I do?” you’re on a good track. If you can’t say it that’s because you’re not setting the example yourself - and you’re demanding of your team things you can’t do yourself. And that doesn't sound reasonable, does it?

3. You are expected to act like other project managers in the organization
Because of this, you should know how other project managers deal with the situations. This allows you to add a necessary explanation whenever you want to deal with something differently. If you don’t do this, others may find you kind of weird (because you don't act like others do) and because of that they may not see the merit on your side for dealing with it the way you are dealing. But if you say something like “I know you usually deal with this this way. But in this particular case I think it’s worth doing it the other way around. I have even done it in the past successfully” people won’t find you weird anymore. Instead they’ll pay attention to your reasoning and focus the discussion there, either agreeing or disagreeing with you.
With this I don’t mean that you should follow the pack but be aware when you don’t instead - because that will take you some extra work.

4. You expect your team members to do like other team members do
Remember you (probably) expect your current team to behave the same way your last 5 teams did. Again, the first step is to acknowledge it. And when someone is doing something different than you expected don’t say “Hey, that’s not the way we do things around here”. Think first about the pros and cons of the actions in question. And in doubt, ask “Why are you doing that? Why that way?” until you have no more doubts. And then decide if that works better for your team and your project or not.
Imagine you propose to your team to leave on Fridays at 6 PM sharp and, say, go bowling. Now imagine that they all exchange strange looks when you do it. Your past project teams where all happy about leaving the office on time for a change, why not this team? You may jump into the conclusion that they are in need of some team building activities as they’re not interested in having some fun together - probably they don’t really care for one another. Or it could be they all have kids to go to and would rather do that then go bowling...

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Or not. But either way please acknowledge it. And whatever you do, please don’t jump into conclusions and use this knowledge that most people are copycats, you included. It’s not our fault, it’s our nature.

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