HELPFULNESS IS LEADERSHIP


So, you’ve made your way onto a team. A board, a panel, a committee. You bustle with ideas, and can’t wait to contribute.

Now what do you do?

Others in the group have been in the company longer, are more senior, and hold more authority than you. You wait your turn and you contribute to the leader, and don’t challenge their plan. I mean, that’s what everyone else is doing, that’s the way this is structured, so it must work, right?

Right? Well… it turns out that this structure, the leader-plus-support-team model, is counterproductive. It doesn’t get the best out of anyone, including the leader. While everyone else is made to feel like a ‘beta’, a less important person with less impact than the leader, it turns out not to be the case. If it were the case, then you could make a team comprised only of super-producers, the go-getters, the best of the best, the top strata, and expect to make a super-team.

Instead, the qualities that YOU hold, in NOT being an ambitious go-getter, in being more of a caring people-person, are likely to be better leadership and productive qualities than those of the traditional model of leader-as-boss.Turns out that having a boss-leader on board merely results in everyone else’s productivity being suppressed, which makes a boss-leader look better than those around them, but really cripples everyone.

To tell that story, we start with chickens.

To study productivity in groups, evolutionary biologist William Muir selected the top-laying chickens from a number of coops and gathered them together into one super-coop. The hypothesis being that all the most productive chickens together would achieve dramatically increased output as a team.

Meanwhile, as a control group to the experiment, he kept another coop – an average coop - and left it alone in the same conditions as the super-coop.The ‘common sense’ model, based on how we structure teams and management in human workplaces, predicted that the super-coop ought to out-perform the control group. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Instead, after six generations, the average group was full of plump, healthy chickens whose egg-laying productivity had increased dramatically, while the super-coop… Well, there were only three left alive, as they had spent most of their energy dominating others and pecked each other to death. The notoriously super-productive chickens had only achieved the appearance of success by suppressing the productivity of other members of the flock.

In citing this experiment in her new book Beyond Measure, Margaret Heffernan points out that exactly this happens in human teams. The ‘productive’ individuals are not more productive at all, but merely seem that way because they suppress the creativity and contribution of all around them. In fact, even these ‘stars’ are not as productive as they could be, since their ideas can’t be improved by contributions from the team due to fear and suppression.

Heffernan points out that this model of competitiveness, which has been taken as the ‘common sense’ approach for 50 years of modern business, and gives all the resources to the few who seem to produce, has produced little more than “aggression, dysfunction, and waste”.

This is not to vilify productive people – a demonstration by Morgan & Banks shows that a team of ‘extroverts’ will plan and execute a hypothetical Christmas Day while a team of ‘introverts’ are still philosophizing over the meaning of it all. Coming up with groundbreaking new ideas, sure, but not exactly putting a roast on the table. Ideally, a co-operation between personalities is needed.

Heffernan goes on to say that when MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) studied productivity in groups, using hundreds of volunteers to solve problems in groups, the high-achieving groups were not especially gifted with top- thinkers, nor even higher average IQs. They found that the best performing groups had three qualities of note: They scored better on the quality of social empathy; they set up a structure which granted each member equal opportunity to speak their mind so that “No one voice dominated, but neither were there any passengers”; and these teams contained more women. Which is encouraging for a number of reasons, particularly if you are a not-particularly-competitive female. Turns out that in caring for others, you have more true leadership potential than you thought, and you don’t have to undertake aggression training to be that leader.

It is the degree of sociability and benevolence – the willingness to help people, the degree to which they can hold their own opinions until they see an idea from someone else’s point of view, and support the idea or challenge it in a way that doesn’t damage the idea-maker’s confidence to come up with another idea.This may be a challenge if the structure of your organization is still a hierarchy, but there are still measures you can take – encouraging ideas out of others, working with people you recognize as being helpful to bring that helpfulness out of them, slowly (so as to diplomatically not threaten the competitive ones on the team) implementing a process whereby more people can pitch their ideas and challenge them. If not across an open table, at least in private conference.

Time spent together is vital to making this work. Familiarity and trust needs to be fostered so that the generosity of ideas and thankfulness between people can grow. Nowadays there are companies who co-ordinate their breaks and don’t allow coffee cups out of the communal area just to ensure that they talk freely together and socialize.

This extends even beyond your own team, even beyond your own company. It would be a waste of time and resources to try to get your own team to answer a question that someone else already has an answer to. Away from this myth that everyone must be competitive, people are inherently helpful. If you think you can help someone and they may help you, then meet, socialize, network and collaborate.

And at the end of the day, we’ll all be a lot more productive, a lot more social, less anxious about our work and more satisfied with our contribution, just for taking the time to better know the people you work with, and sharing ideas along with coffee.

Author: Stuart is a well-travelled, well-educated and insightful writer, content developer, presenter and trainer with a background in advertising, scriptwriting, marketing and training & development.

He has generated business opportunity solutions for schools, sports and businesses while leading teams of all kinds of personalities to get the best out of everyone.

Recently returned from six successful years in South Africa in the education and sporting industries, Stuart is keen to put his ample skills in writing, marketing, training and business development to best use in his home city of Melbourne.