Oprah Winfrey called it one of her most embarrassing moments.
In a live television interview, the renowned film critic Gene Siskel surprised her with his final question: “What do you know for sure?” Confounded, she couldn’t answer.
After Siskel died, at 53, from complications following brain surgery, Winfrey began drawing on his powerful question in her magazine columns and TV interviews, and also wrote a book titled “What I Know For Sure.”
My point? As a longtime business coach, here’s what I know for sure: Most people quit or stay at their jobs because of the other people they interact with daily.
Your true team
No matter the size of your company, you probably spend 80 percent of your workdays with the same four to eight people. And regardless of what the org chart says, those people are your true team, whether it’s in-person or remote.
Thus, if you want to better your work life, begin by bettering your team—and how you work together. Or what I call your “team habits.”
Through my work with a wide range of professionals—from individual contributors to line managers to senior leaders—I’ve identified eight categories, or types, of team habits. All the categories are consequential, but at least initially, I suggest focusing on three—belonging, decision-making, and meetings—and the individual team habits that lie within each one.
Moreover, I suggest starting small. Like individual habits, building team habits doesn’t happen overnight. Nor should it. There is more power in achieving everyday small wins.
In the “Starting small” sections in this article, begin with just one of the team habits suggested. Then, as you achieve results, select another one.
Belonging is a team’s superpower. Why? Because it’s what turns a group of people into a team.
A group is a collection of individuals. You and I could be part of a group yet not have a genuine sense of belonging. Even if everyone in the group is working toward the same goal, odds are members aren’t aligned around how to achieve that goal.
That’s because groups don’t have the strong directional relationship they need to work together effectively. They lack a true relational pull, or North Star.
A team, on the other hand, is a group that is highly aligned. Members share a sense of purpose and are guided toward something bigger, beyond just being in the relationship.
That shared context, imbued with the glue of belonging, is what causes a team to be effective at achieving their goals.
Still, belonging is fragile. It can be created—or cracked apart—by the daily habits of a team.
Agree as one team that it’s a good thing to ask for help. Be intentional in how you include people, particularly introverts who, by their nature, may want to contribute more quietly and deliberately.
Celebrate all individual and team wins as a group. Broach others’ innocent mistakes, both in real time (not weeks or months later) and with grace. Commit to not taking things personally.
When deciding what to eat on your lunch break, your choice will have no effect on your team. But when you get back to work and make a particular decision on a team project, you’re bound to affect what the rest of your team is doing.
In teams, decisions are inherently social and emotional. Any choice you make is relevant to someone—or everyone. And such reverberating effects can be mighty.
With a single decision, you can make people’s day or have them tearing their hair out. Ignoring that potential is where many teams (and organizations) get in trouble.
Remove bottlenecks by knowing when you do—and don’t—need management’s involvement in a decision. Keep a team decision log with a program like Notion or Confluence. (Best intentions aside, people’s memories won’t do.)
Build incremental time into more complex decisions. Accept “maybe” as an interim answer when it’s appropriate. Recognize that the stakes on many decisions are rarely as high as you think they are.
Meetings are one of those places where, in the span of an hour, you can see all your bad team habits, one after another in rapid succession. It’s akin to the ever-popular (and satirically minded) corporate poster: “Meetings: None of Us Is as Dumb as All of Us.”
One reason that meetings can be painful is that when you’re in one—especially if it’s going badly—you become hyperaware of the other work you could be doing. It might be finishing an overdue report or returning a key customer’s call.
No matter, you’re not doing it because you’re stuck in that meeting. Not to mention the massive cost of meetings once you factor in participants’ salaries and squandered productivity.
Eliminate “crutch” meetings—the ones used to deal with matters that have no place in a team meeting. Do some back-of-the-envelope math on what your regular team meetings may be costing your organization.
Prevent overstuffed meetings by limiting sessions to single-topic categories, such as planning, brainstorming, or celebrating. Agree on a designated facilitator for every meeting—and stick with it.
Allow people to decline a meeting when it makes more sense for them to be elsewhere.
Ready? Begin today to better three types of team habits: belonging, decision-making, and meetings. And be sure to start small, with one simple habit at a time. Soon, you will transform your work life—and know that for sure.