“The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” – Aristotle
Contributed by Allison Holzer
The teams we work with have the capability to lift us up, to inspire every individual on the team to heightened commitment, performance, and success. Why is this possible? And how can we capitalize on this knowledge so we can build high performing teams to achieve business results?
In Dare to Inspire: Sustain the Fire of Inspiration in Work and Life (Hachette, 2019), my colleagues Jen Grace Baron, Sandra Spataro, and I explore this topic and more in detail.
When we first started having conversations about a company in 2012, we knew that we wanted to do something that would help people have their best days… more often. The idea that kept emerging for us in those early days – the thing that led to “best days more often” – was inspiration.
“Best days” are days when we feel inspired.
Believe it or not, we spend on average 90,000 hours at work in a lifetime and yet, only one in eight people report being inspired at work. This seems like a huge opportunity to impact not only the happiness and well-being of the individual but also the organizations for which they work.
After all, inspired people are not only three times more productive than dissatisfied employees (Eric Garton and Michael Mankins), but also more agile, creative, strategic, oriented to purpose, and connected to others.
Inspiration drives extraordinary performance and results.
That’s at the individual level. What we also discovered is that when teams are inspired together, they have considerably positive outcomes. The teams are more innovative and agile in responding to market shifts; better at sharing information; and people want to be part of them, thus supporting retention.
Understanding Inspiration Through Research
Since not much original research on inspiration at work existed at the time, we conducted our own research. Consolidating insights and observations from our interviews and work with more than300 senior leaders, we developed a grounded theory that reflects the themes that emerged across them.
We share these findings in our book. We see this as the frontier of a new field of exploration that will continue to evolve and unfold over time.
Based on our research, we define inspiration as a combination of seeing more possibilities and feeling heightened confidence, or invincibility to achieve those new ideas. The spark of inspiration can transform our mindsets to change how we see our own capacity. Of course, these two things combined lead to extraordinary results because we not only have new and better ideas, but we also have the courage and motivation to achieve them.
The question is, how can you do this?
Most people think of inspiration as a fleeting, intense burst of momentary brilliance that happens to us. But in fact, we found that inspiration can be actively sought after, created, and sustained over time. It is a repeatable process, the code of which is rooted in the science of positive psychology. This is true at the individual level and on teams.
There are three critical aspects to making inspiration a reliable tool to fuel your work:
- Being aware of your own inspiration levels (both individually and your team).
- Being able to make inspiration happen on demand, to activate it intentionally.
- Being able to make inspiration last, to sustain it over time and especially in the face of challenges.
Finally, for many, it’s important to consider how to scale inspiration across your teams and organizations and direct it towards meaningful, collective goals.
Sustaining and Scaling Inspiration on Teams
In our book, we share ideas about how to activate and sustain inspiration on teams, which scales it as a resource in the organization. Below, please enjoy an excerpt from our Team’s chapter to learn more. You will see that social sensitivity and trust are key elements that create an environment where teams can flourish; after all, we feel inspired by others around us when we trust them and feel supported by them.
Dare to Inspire Book, an Excerpt from Chapter 12 – Inspiring Teams:
Traditionally, we’ve evaluated team success based on output: Is the team producing what it’s supposed to produce? But a more modern way to think about teams is in terms of inspiration: How much potential do they have if they are motivated to produce and achieve more? Specifically, how inspiring are they?
Inspiring teams collectively share the possibility and invincibility to own and drive high performance. When they are inspired and inspiring, they achieve more than they ever thought possible. In the process, they make one another better, braver, and more confident.
Inspiring teams are comprised of inspiring individuals, but they are more than that. The team is its own entity, separate from the individual members, with its own identity, energy, dynamics, and norms. It has meaning and impact in and of itself, beyond each of its individual members. The team entity has influence over each of the team members in the same way a leader does.
Cliff Bogue, MD, chair of pediatrics, Yale School of Medicine, and chief medical officer, Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital, says of inspiring teams he’s seen in action: “[In the] intensive care unit when you have a very difficult life-and-death situation and everyone is in there, they’re ready to go, they’re working together. They’re very focused; there’s not a lot of extraneous chitchats. There’s “all hands on deck,” let’s focus, let’s all work together. Everyone [is] contributing; if we need an idea, who’s got an idea, let’s deal with this. And they’re just totally laser-focused. And that’s very inspiring to see a group like that come together and pull together for the patient. And being willing to do the extra work, stay the extra hours. There’s not a lot of bickering; there’s, ‘We’re focused here on this child.’”
Inspiration at the team level is more complex than it is for individuals. Teams are about sharing and coordinating inspiration across individuals. The team should be inspired and inspiring itself, as an entity with its own identity, values, and purpose.
Richard Hackman’s research on teams shows that team functioning can spiral—upward or downward—as individuals on the team react to and assimilate team experiences and results. The same is true for inspiration. You can get greater gains from positive inspiration spirals, just as you can also get a negative drag on team performance from a negative inspiration spiral where levels are low or lacking.
Specific attention to the team’s inspiration level and trend is critical. If teams are not aware of or attuned to this, they miss an opportunity to both create upward spirals of inspiration and prevent downward spirals.
Everyone on the team has a responsibility to be aware of their own inspiration level as well as the team entity’s inspiration level, building team self-awareness of inspiration levels and proactively taking steps to spark and sustain it over time. As Helen Russell, chief people officer at Atlassian told us: “While a leader is key, team members need to be equally capable of inspiring one another. Leaders aren’t always there, and you need the team to pick one another up when they fall and inspire one another to higher performance. A simple example is instead of just reading an interesting article over the weekend, you’re the person that shares that article with the team because you want all boats to rise and inspire others’ learning and growth, along with your own.”
To contribute to inspiration for the whole team, individual team members must grant power to the team entity, recognizing that, as Aristotle said, “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” Teams have to actively monitor inspiration levels and take responsibility for fueling them.
Cracking the Code on Inspiring Teams
Google embarked on research to better understand teams. Specifically, its Project Aristotle dissected what makes effective teams tick. Looking at roughly 180 teams, Google researchers found that the most successful and productive ones demonstrated psychological safety—referring to teammates’ comfort and security on the team. The researchers describe: “In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.”
Two related concepts to psychological safety, namely social sensitivity and equal talk-time during meetings, emerged in another study by scientists from Carnegie Mellon as critical aspects of high-functioning teams. Social sensitivity is the intuitive ability to sense how others are feeling, often based on nonverbal cues; equality of talk time during meetings means that every voice is heard—people feel confident using their voice on the team.
On the best teams, team members were adept at sensing what others on the team needed emotionally and were able to restrain themselves from dominating discussions. Their findings are consistent with leading academic researchers of teams, including Amy Edmondson at Harvard and Jane Dutton at the University of Michigan. A team that focuses only on production and loses sight of human connections, specifically the sense of safety and the importance of every member’s voice, will inevitably suffer. They may achieve short-term results, but they do not build stronger capability in the process.
An example of social sensitivity comes from Julia Balfour’s organization. Balfour’s social sensitivity is based on love, which shows up in a number of ways, including their original Valentine’s Day tradition. She describes it as follows: “Three years ago we devised a plan for Valentine’s Day . . . I had noticed that no matter your significant other situation, the office energy always seemed sad or tense. So I decided that every Valentine’s Day I’d bring in a dozen roses for everyone on my team, and then the team (because they are wonderful) decided they’d all bring in a special dish to share with one another . . . and Lovesgiving was founded. Today, we have too many treats to count—tacos, pasta, homemade bread, chocolate-covered strawberries or bananas, and the list goes on and on. We may all need a nap after that, but it’s all worth it because love makes the day great. Whatever your situation is today, throw a party and celebrate!”
Inspiring leaders ensure all voices are heard in inspiring commitment. Steve Squinto, the cofounder of Alexion, built teams where, as he described to us, “everybody leaves their ego at the door. This is not about ego, this is about solving problems and every voice counts. This is how the toughest problems will be solved.” In Squinto’s case, solidarity and social sensitivity were critical to his team’s capabilities. He explained that his team, “data-driven guys,” believed that “if you can understand the information, there is generally a solution around it. When there isn’t a solution, it’s because you haven’t looked hard enough at every angle.”
So when things were really stressful, and people were losing hope, Squinto would physically gather his team in the conference room to pore through information and talk out ideas and concepts together. He recounted, while laughing, that, without fail, there would be a crisis that generally occurred when he was on a two-week vacation in Nantucket. The key to the team’s success was Squinto’s ability to help his team separate their personal identities from their ideas so that they could truly leave their egos at the door and work collaboratively, in solidarity and above individual positions and needs, to find a solution.
When there is safety on the team, with social sensitivity and value for every voice, sometimes the leader’s role is to step back a bit and let the team perform. Shea Gregg, MD, a trauma doctor who creates high-functioning operating room teams, told us, “I know the team is highly functional, productive, and engaged when I am not saying a word and our meetings are collaborative.”
Through open discussion, trust-building, and compassion, he helps his team develop solutions that no one would have come up with on their own. “You open a discussion with a question,” he says, “and they lead the conversation. Then you know you’re successful. Then you throw out another question, and they go.” He explains that on “the most successful teams, the leader says the least.”
Yes, a leader needs to be present, he says, and team inspiration can be sparked by the leader, but then it’s the team and their questions and probing dialogue among themselves that fuels the inspiring discussion and results in inspiring solutions.
About the Author
Allison Holzer is the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer at InspireCorps, where she designs and delivers experiences for people to gain insights that drive their growth and success, both individually and collectively, within organizations. Driven by curiosity and commitment to contribute to the burgeoning fields of coaching and applied positive psychology, she has collaborated with scholars from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, Columbia University, and Hunter College to publish thought leadership on coaching practices, emotional intelligence, and adult motivation and learning.
Allison is the co-author of “Dare to Inspire: Sustain the Fire of Inspiration in Work and Life” (Hachette, November 2019). She holds a B.A. in psychological brain sciences, with an emphasis on learning and cognition, from Dartmouth College and dual master’s degrees in education and Fine Art from American University.