I once coached a management team who was trying to figure out what to do with one of their suppliers. Their dilemma was “do we keep the positive relationship we have with Joe Supplier and keep our costs low but risk brand integrity, or, do we eliminate them and find a new supplier but maintain a strong reputation?” This was a decision that had been ping-ponged back and forth for three months before I entered because members had opposing viewpoints and other work priorities that “needed” to be addressed before this one. What the ping-ponging also meant was that they were wasting time revisiting the same dilemma over and over rather than tackling it in the moment. When I asked them what the company was known for, there was no doubt what the answer was: its brand. It took less than five seconds. Could they have solved this issue themselves? Probably. But the question is, why hadn’t they?
It reminds me of an experiment conducted by Peter Skillman. The challenge was simple: two groups faced off to construct the tallest marshmallow monument using 20 strands of uncooked spaghetti, one yard of string, tape and one marshmallow. The only rule was that the marshmallow had to be on top.
Here’s where it gets interesting.
One group consisted of MBA students, the other group was kindergartners. The MBA’ers strategized, bounced ideas off each other, asked great questions and developed several creative options with the intent being to decide upon which option to pursue and then start building. They failed miserably. Here’s why.
The MBA students were caught up in their own identities. They worried about offending others on the team, they withheld ideas for fear of what others might think, they tried to figure out how they could integrate into and influence the team (and who the actual “influencers” were). Each member thought about how he or she could solve the problem rather than the team as a whole. They spent so much time managing their own identities that they forgot about the goal. Bottom line: They didn’t function as a team but as a group of individuals sharing the same space.
The kindergartners were the opposite. They functioned as a single system rather than an aggregate of individuals because they were focused (unknowingly) on what needed to happen within the team rather than who brought what to bare. How the kindergartners worked together was more important than what they contributed as individuals. Interestingly, similar experiments were tested against lawyers and CEOS and the same problems arose: the CEOs were trying to be CEOs whereas the kindergartners only cared about the marshmallow.
What’s Your Team’s ‘Marshmallow?’
The marshmallow effect is the elephant in the room of every group and every team that nobody wants to address because it’s awkward. The “elephant” is the identity that people hold onto that informs how they contribute and interact together.
Having a strong identity is important, yes, but it becomes problematic when you let who or what you identify with supersede doing what’s right.
Separate the person from the problem.
Disagreement isn’t a reason for firing someone — Lincoln’s Team of Rivals was cognitively diverse — but team dynamics are because they influence the team’s chemistry (would you prefer working in a toxic or a healthy team environment?), and dynamics are shaped by the identities with which people “show up.”
I remember instructors “firing” candidates during one particular selection and training pipeline in the Navy because those candidates just didn’t “fit.” They were skilled, they were competent, but their attitudes didn’t fit into the larger team culture. Why? Because they showed up with their previously held identities — they were used to being the big fish in the pond and they refused to let go.
In my experience in coaching management teams, unearthing “marshmallows” is the single most important catalyst for driving sustainable results. Team identity drives behaviors, relationships, decisions and output. Think of the cost vs. brand dilemma above. What was holding the team back from arriving at their conclusion? Contribution. Individual contribution was limited because members were more focused on managing their individual identities rather than working collectively as a team. The kindergartners would’ve crushed them.
Egos and power struggles undermine any group’s performance. A shared purpose is only possible with a shared identity. By the way, the average height the kindergartners built was two and half times that of their MBA counterparts — consistently.
Originally posted on Forbes
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Jeff is a leadership team coach, author, speaker and former 13-year Navy SEAL who applies his experiences from the pinnacle of special operations to leaders and teams today. Subscribe to his weekly lessons on leadership and teamwork at www.jeff-boss.com or to his weekly podcast at www.shutupandshowup.com