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Beyond the performing team — growing social capital

Before Covid-19, leaders and their teams were already fraying under pressures to deliver. As conditions intensify and more time is spent ‘keeping the lights on’, performance burnout will reach new heights. How will we make it?

Thanks to the work of people like Margaret Heffernan and Daniel Coyle, we have a much richer understanding of the journey we may choose to make, from fragile (collapse in crisis), through resilience (take shocks but stay the same, continue to deliver) to anti-fragile (learn through chaos and emerge better, achieve remarkable things).

The skills of highly successful groups that move through crisis in positive ways are not predestined, they can be built.

If we unpack what makes some groups exceptional at problem-solving and innovation, drawing on the work of Daniel Coyle, we note efforts in three areas:

  1. Build psychological safety
  2. Be vulnerable (to move to invulnerable)
  3. Have purpose.

Interacting with closeness and conflict distinguishes an ordinary group from an exceptional one — the deliberate commitment crafts a valuable and rare form of capital. It takes time to build and the investment is worth it. Groups that work with the above three factors fare better through times of chaos. Margaret Heffernan describes this special kind of capital as social capital — the shared sense of identity, norms, values, cooperation and reciprocity within a group. She insists that for good ideas and true innovation, human interaction is critical. Each person must have a voice, but this is not be confused with a gentle roundtable seeking of consensus. No idea emerges fully formed. Ideas are messy and confused, and developing them to full potential requires generous contribution, faith and challenge. Conflict and argument between motivated people who share bonds of loyalty and trust is required. It takes time to develop the trust you need for real candor and openness, and this is what growing social capital is all about.

While many leadership teams are elite collections of IQs, track records and qualifications, a few are more than the sum of their parts. Individuals can amalgamate to deliver profound impact, going beyond achieving financial targets and balancing stakeholder needs. Reaching a ‘performing’ state is one thing. Coalescing to drive a larger agenda that runs as thread between them and is only fully realised through their collective, is quite another. Leadership teams like this can change the world.

In many ways we are only touching the tip of the relational capital iceberg. But the more we do, the better off we will be.

Make a new commitment — grow social capital.

Watch Margaret Heffernan’s Ted Talk “Forget the pecking order at work.

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