Category Archives: Team Building

Skeptics and Pragmatics

When in doubt about where to start on a topic, I almost always turn to the best companion a writer of any kind can have, the dictionary. Webster’s dictionary defines “skeptic” as a noun, and “a person who questions the validity or authenticity of something purporting to be factual.” There are a few other definitions, but this is the first one on the list.

The etymology of the word (to be honest when I did some of my initial research I wondered why anyone would want to know the “study of bugs” with association to “skeptics”, but it turned out that I had confused “Entomology – the study of insects” with “Etymology – the origin of words”. Silly me.) comes from the name taken by the disciples of the Greek philosopher Pyrrho, who lived c.360-c.270 B.C.E., and is related to skeptesthai “to reflect, look, view”. In any event, you can see where the word came from and how its meaning was formed.

So what has this to do with business, you might ask since that is what I usually write about.

It has to do with the fact that skeptics and skepticism are normally viewed in a negative light when it comes to business. Management usually wants you to fall in line behind their plans and start executing them. Skeptics are viewed as hindrances to the progress of management’s plans. The plan is done. Let’s get on with it. If we had wanted your opinion we would have asked for it.

Leaders on the other hand will usually seek out those that “reflect, look, view” and “who question the validity or authenticity of something purporting to be factual.”

Please don’t get me wrong. There is a time and a place for skepticism and there is a time and a place for action. However it is always the time and place to ask if you are doing the right thing.

Plans must be continually questioned and revised. Processes must be continually reviewed and renewed. Just because something looked like it would work one day does not mean it will look and work the same at a later date.

The problem is that for the average manager it is easier to continue on with an existing plan, even a bad existing plan then it is to make the effort to revise the plan, or even develop a new plan and to change directions. I don’t know why this seems to be the case in business, but it has been my experience across most of my business career. It seems the risk associated with trying something different is felt to be greater than the risk of continuing to do something wrong.

This brings us to our second word for the day: pragmatics. Much like labeling someone a skeptic in business as a negative characteristic, being labeled a pragmatic seems to have taken on a similar context. It doesn’t seem that anyone has ever been told they are pragmatic enough. You only hear about people being too pragmatic as if that means that they are not capable of somehow grasping the bigger picture.

I think this is similar to the conundrum associated with “whelming”. You often hear of people being overwhelmed when they have too much to handle. You sometimes hear of them being underwhelmed when they are not impressed. You never hear of them being just plain whelmed.

Going back to Webster’s dictionary, for “pragmatic” we get an adjective this time, “of or pertaining to a practical point of view or practical considerations.” When we look at the source or study of bugs associated with this word we get from Latin pragmaticus “skilled in business or law” and from the Greek pragmatikos “fit for business, active, business-like; systematic”. There’s more, but I think you get the picture.

A pragmatic is someone who is skilled in business with a practical point of view. Now the catchphrase here is “practical”, so here we go again. Practical according to Websters another adjective: adapted or designed for actual use; useful. Now we have a pragmatic as someone who is skilled in business with a point of view that is adapted or designed for actual use.

So enough already with the word-smithing.

What all this has led up to is a couple of questions: How is it that the skeptic, the one who wants to see deeper into the topic seems to be perceived as an obstacle to progress as compared to the individual who never questions authenticity and validity? Why is it that the pragmatic, the one who wants to do things designed for actual use is seen to be perceived as not inspiring enough to lead?

Business seems to have evolved over time away from some of these basic tenets that in the past have been the basis for success. History is littered with examples of some very hard lessons that were learned, or more accurately, relearned at great expense, where the skeptic or the pragmatic were ignored, but were in the end proven correct.

I remember working for a company where all of the management and all but one of the stock analysts were convinced that the company and its stock price would only go higher. It was a market boom. Everyone needed to get on board or be left behind.

There was however one analyst who kept saying that the market was overbought and the business model did not even support the existing business and stock levels. He was a skeptic. He was ostracized and ignored.

When the market, and stock crashed and thousands lost their jobs he was proven far more accurate than anyone was even comfortable discussing. The company went from being the market leader to having gone out of business in less than ten years.

I also recall the reviews by the public and the analysts about the banks that were described (rather derisively) as “pragmatic” when they did not participate in the new burgeoning “sub-prime” mortgage market. There was great money to be made. They were going to miss out on the new found fortunes. When the market crashed, and took down most of the economy with it, it again proved that the business practice of making mortgage loans to those that had a high probability of being able to pay back the amount of the loan they received was still the best practical model. It seems that eventually sound business practice will be proven out.

Skeptics and pragmatics, of one type or another need to be sought out and encouraged. They idea of not taking things at face value and doing things that are designed and adapted for actual use should never go out of style or favor. We need to remember that just because someone is a skeptic does not mean that they are an obstruction to be overcome. Just because someone is pragmatic does not mean that they cannot be a visionary and inspirational leader.

Leaders today need to be looking for skeptics and pragmatics for their teams. After all, chances are that at least one of them will be proven to be one of the leaders for tomorrow.


We would all like to think that business is run as a meritocracy. That would mean that those who have actually earned favored or leadership positions would be the ones that occupy favored or leadership positions. Either unfortunately or fortunately depending on how you choose to look at it, that is not entirely the case. Personalities, friendships, alliances and past histories all come into play when leaders and their teams are selected. In multinational companies it also seems whether we want to believe it or not that location and cultural heritage can come into play when leadership positions are discussed. The politics of business, the perceptions of who we are and how we act can be potentially more important than our business accomplishments and capabilities when it comes to opportunities for leadership roles.

I would be surprised if that last statement did not elicit a collective “Duh” from everyone.

Leaders want a diversity of thought on their teams. By having differing points of view pitfalls such as “group think” and “blind spots” are avoided and stronger team solutions are arrived at. Leaders also usually want a uniformity of support on their teams as well. This means that they like to know that they have people on their team that they can count on regardless of the situation.

On the surface this may sound like an irresolvable dichotomy; a desire for a diversity of thought and opinion and a unanimity of support from the same people on a single team. The balance is struck by the astute leader that can select members of the team that are all driven to achieve the best results, no matter whose solution is selected or implemented. The dynamic is maintained by team members who understand that there are other members on the team who may have equally passionate opinions and points of view on issues, and who focus on the solution, not the individual who has proposed it.

For the leader politics is about having trust in the team. For the team it is earning and maintaining the trust of the leader and working as an individual within the team. For the individuals of the team it is about the meshing of personalities and styles with the leader. A good example of this phenomenon can be seen when a new leader or CEO is brought into an organization. The new leader will usually review and interview the existing team, and then replace either part or possibly all of the team with new team members that are known entities have experience with and are trusted by the leader. The replaced team members probably have done nothing wrong. They were just unknown entities that had not had the opportunity to fully gain the leader’s trust and were replaced by people who had already proven their abilities and trust to the new leader. Were the replaced team members less capable? Probably not since they were already performing in those roles for the previous leader, but that’s now a moot point as they were not given the opportunity to fully prove their capabilities to the new leader.

That is an example of the politics of business at some of its highest levels. It usually plays out to a similar extent at just about every level within an organization. Leaders at all levels of an organization have a tendency to “like” to have certain people, and certain types of people on their teams. These are the people who have engendered a political trust by the leader. They are to some extent know entities. They have known capabilities and approaches to solving issues. They have demonstrated allegiance to the leader, and performance in the past and are expected to do so in the future.

Politics even more so comes into play in trying to make the transition from an unknown entity as part of a team, to a known, “liked” and trusted team member. There are no hard and fast rules that can be put in place here other than one: as both a business person and a team member you must be true to your nature. Do not try to be all things to all people. It is even worse if you try to be different things to different people.

There are a limited number of positions on any team. Not everyone can be on the team. There will be some leaders that will not be compatible with who you are and how you go about your responsibilities. The same will probably go for their teams. For example, in a matrix and consensus structured organization, individuals with an authority-responsibility disposition may not be as fully comfortable or successful as they would be in a general management or profit and loss structured organization. The same would go in reverse where matrix comfortable individuals would probably have issue in the P&L structured organization.

Unlike governmental politics where it seems the process is to find the best way to tell people what they want to hear, business politics seems to be more about finding the best way to tell people what they need to hear. Public arguments and friction caused by differing opinions and aggressive message delivery styles will probably not be considered the most politically astute way of communicating what the leader needs to hear in the business environment.

Some people might argue that I have the political savvy of a petulant fourth grader. To some extent this might be true although I would hope that I would have learned a little since then. Early in my career I learned that I seem to migrate toward leaders that were more results and less process oriented. This did not mean that it was only results that counted. There was obviously more to it than that, but it at least put me in an environment that matched my business performance tendencies. I understood this and did not try to become a process or qualitative team member. I carried this objective, results and quantitative approach with me as I matriculated in management.

Now the politics of business for me are more associated with assessing the management structure that I am in to understand if they are quantitative-results oriented, or qualitative-process oriented. I understand where I am a better fit and where I am not. For me to be a member of a qualitative team would be a stress on them as well as myself. Likewise it might be a stress for a process focused individual to be a member of my team, since my tendencies are not in that direction.

Just as you should work to understand your business styles and tendencies, so do leaders need to look to understand your business styles and tendencies. Leaders look for both diversity and compatibility in their teams. As leaders take on new roles and need to create new teams, or as they look to fill roles in their existing teams in will be business style and team compatibility that will become more the deciding factors as most potential candidates will be fully technically competent or they would not have been considered in the first place.

What may be viewed as politics can also be viewed as leaders looking for a comfort level with the individual members of a team, and the team as a whole. Those that the leader has worked with in the past, either directly as a team member or as part of another type of issue, may have a “political” advantage or disadvantage, depending on how that leader has viewed the style of their business conduct. Beneficial experiences and compatible business approaches can in some instances potentially favorably sway decisions that might have been made on merit alone. Just as dissonant experiences and compatibility can potentially unfavorably sway decisions in the other direction.

Business opportunities, promotions, assignments, etc. will not always seem to go to the most deserving or the one who may have best earned it, from each individual’s perspective. There will always be a personal experience, compatibility and trust factors associated with each leader’s decisions. We would all like to look at this as “politics” when it comes to how someone may or may not have ingratiated themselves with a particular leader. Leaders always evaluate p
eople, both those on their teams and those that are not. Understanding this, and combining it with finding the appropriate business performance style to provide leaders with the information that they need to know may be the best solution to dealing with business politics. It provides the opportunity to demonstrate business capabilities without generating conflict or dissonance. Leaders can look for capability and compatibility for their teams and individuals can look for resonance in leaders for their business approaches and styles.

I wish I had learned this one a little better earlier in my career. I was under the mistaken impression that being right or delivering on objectives was the only thing that mattered. It matters a great deal, but when everyone believes they are right in their own approach and are delivering on their objectives to one extent or another, it may be the other criteria, or politics that make the difference.

What’s Right?

Anytime you have a business or office environment, people will congregate to talk. It’s part of the social aspect of working in the office. These are euphemistically known as “water cooler” conversations (although I really suspect that it has been decades since there was actually a real live water cooler in an office). People will talk about many things, but if they are in the office at least some part of the conversation will usually be about the company that employs them. I have worked in several different companies and this is a fairly consistent topic for discussion, at least in my experience.

What I have also found is that these conversations normally migrate to, and revolve around the issues, challenges and problems that the business is facing. Company stock prices, competitors’ products and capabilities, pending or potential staff reductions, executive bi-play and office politics are all favorite topics for discussion. I think we have all been there, and probably even participated.

In short, most of these conversations are at best group reinforcement sessions for all that can be perceived as wrong (rightly or wrongly) about the business, and at worst become a functionally demoralizing aspect of the work day environment. Sometimes it appears that these meetings can become an opportunity for company bashing where the objective is to see who can relate the worst example of bad corporate behavior or malfeasance. It has been seen it in the boom times of the past and it seems to have taken on an even greater propensity in the difficult times of today.

This “what’s wrong” discussion concept got me to thinking, which is always a dangerous proposition for me. Why do we always tend to focus on the negative? Doing so has to have a negative effect on both ourselves and those we share the negativity with at the office. Surely something has been going right, and probably has been going right for some time, to enable the companies and business units we work for to survive and grow for the periods of time that they have been around. I decided some time ago that I would put this idea to the test at one of these negative conversations that I was party to. I asked:

“Okay, I have heard your view on what is wrong with the company, but can you tell me what’s right with the company?

People looked at me as if I had just come from another planet.

Instead of playing along with the rehashing of all the latest down side issues and topics that seem to be present in every organization, I had challenged people to at least try and define what was good about the place we all worked.

I was immediately challenged in return to see if I could actually start the list of what’s right. I think this was done as a delay tactic so that everybody else’s brain could do a cold restart in this new direction for the conversation. I started off with the most basic good thing about working for the company that I could come up with:

“My paycheck cleared and was deposited in my account at the bank.”

I assumed that everyone else’s paycheck had achieved the same status. This is a tough item to argue about. We all got paid. Something had in fact gone right enough that we got, and continue to get paid. I also assumed that everybody would like to continue to get paid. The focus now should be what else we need to do right going forward to assure that we continue to get paid. It was an interesting change to the standard conversation at that point. It also seemed to work. Several other right topics ensued. There were some good things out there if people just thought about them.

I am not a Pollyanna in that we must only look on the brighter side of things. If we do not acknowledge what is wrong we will never focus on it, and there will be no improvement. What I am saying that we do have a tendency to not just focus on, but to dwell on what is wrong almost to the point of discouragement. This means that occasionally we need to take a step back and look at what has been done right.

I don’t think it needs to be done all the time. A certain amount of venting with friends and peers is good to provide a healthy work environment. There have also been instances in these negative conversations that have germinated some of the teams’ better ideas and plans on how to improve the business as a result of hearing from others what they think is wrong with the business. However, I really do think that on occasion it is a good idea for the group to have the water cooler conversation taken in a different direction and talk about what’s right with the business.

Friction and Clarity

There is always going to be a certain amount of friction in an organization. When people are involved, differing viewpoints, approaches and personalities will always cause some amount of both business and inter-personal issues. I have found that unless the inter-personal issues are of such a significant nature that they affect the organizations ability to function, they are best left to the individuals to sort out. You can’t make individuals like each other, but they can learn to respect each other in the organization. The business issues between people in the organization, on the other hand, are topics that can usually be cleared up quickly, and in many cases avoided altogether.

In my experience, most of the conflict or friction in an organization has arisen due to a lack of clarity. Most organizations seem to function best when there is a clear and consistent set of goals, well defined organizational and individual responsibilities, and an acknowledged decision making structure. If the business is experiencing any significant amount of organizational or individual squabbling, or a slower level of progress toward the desired goals and objectives, it may be a reasonable assumption to go and look at the clarity of these organizational definitions.

Unclear, or worse, differing goals and objectives will sap an organizations strength and impede its progress. If people are not working toward the same accepted goals friction and conflict cannot help but occur. If one group is working on the volume of sales and the other is focused on the profitability of sales there will be conflict. If one group is focused on technology and design, and the other is focused on costs and manufacturability there will be friction. The idea here is that if organizations are solely focused on only one aspect of the overall goal, valuable time and effort will be lost trying to resolve these goal oriented differences. Making sure that the organizations goals are aligned, and just as importantly aligning the metrics and compensation that are associated with them can reduce the time and effort lost to this type of issue.

Unclear organizational or individual responsibilities arise from a lack of clarity in each organizations definition and role. If one organization has responsibility for price (based on cost and margin), a second one has responsibility for cost (affecting both price and margin) and a third has responsibility for margin (based on price and cost) there is going to be conflict. Can price solely dictate what margins and/or what costs must be? Can costs be the prime criteria associated with the business without understanding and responding to market based influences? Can you strictly look at margins in isolation of costs and price? Again while making sure each individual and each organization functions are well defined, it is also important to make sure that individual and each organization role is are well defined with respect to the other organizations and individuals that they must work and interact with.

The answer is that obviously all these organizations must work together, but then who will decide the issues that arise from differing and sometimes overlapping responsibilities and objectives? If sales wants a very low price for a capability that operations indicates that capability has a very high cost, resulting in what may be unacceptable margins, how does the impasse get resolved. In addition to clear goal alignment and responsibility definitions there needs to be clarity around the acknowledged decision making structure. If it is a decentralized structure there needs to be consistent guidelines detailing the various scopes and spans of control for the decision makers. If it is a hierarchical structure of the decision spans multiple business groups there needs to be a clear and quick escalation process to get decisions made quickly and all organizations back focused on the goal at hand.

It seems that too many times these business issues that cause friction can find their way into the interpersonal issues category and seem to sit and languish. The result can be a sort of perpetual squabbling between people and organizations, and a much slower pace of progress than is possible and needed. By bringing a little more clarity to the business and reinforcing what the various goals, responsibilities and decision making processes are for each of the organizations and how they must work together, you may be able to reduce the causes of business friction in the organization. With that source of issues reduced, you may even be able to help reduce the number of interpersonal issues as well.

Don’t Ask – Do Tell

I think we have all be in organizations that have implemented reorganizations. Some of us have been through it several times. We have seen some good ones and we have seen some not so good ones. In most instances difference between a good reorganization and a bad one depends on the first steps taken by the new leader. Those first few statements and actions by the new leader set the tone for the new organization.

Those leaders that took a little time to meet and understand their new team showed they were taking the time and interest to understand what the team faced. A team will normally respect this approach. Those that took immediate actions showed they had a plan and were going to be decisive. The team will again normally react positively to this approach as well and look for the logic and goal associated with the changes.

Then there are those leaders whose first action is to question their team.

They will ask if the team has the competitive drive, the talent, the training, the spirit, the desire, etc (pick one or more) to accomplish the task or challenge that is in front of them. This is not what a team needs to hear from its new leader. The team does not want to hear the leader questioning their capabilities or mind sets.

A team wants to see those attributes in question, in their leaders. They want to see it in statement, action and deed by the leader. The members of the team don’t want to be questioned about their own commitment or attributes. An organization is a reflection of the leader. A new leader needs to be dynamic in setting both the new structure and clearly annunciating the organizational goals and expectations.

A new leader needs to step in, and up and clearly state what the needs and goals of the new organization are. The leader should not ask the team if they have the requisite attributes. The leader should tell the team they have the attributes needed to achieve the desired goals.

It is a small but very important difference in getting a new organization going.

Sometimes You Check Your Ego at the Door

Ego is a powerful force in business. It drives us to work harder, to succeed, and to do our best. It is a key element in the makeup of a successful sales and business leader. Without it, losing the sale or missing the numbers would be much more tolerable. Good enough would in fact be good enough.


However no one is infallible and no one has the market for good ideas and decisions cornered. It is a good manager that will make a decision and move forward, but it is a good leader that will recognize when a better solution than their own has been provided, and adopt it.


Our egos will make it hard for us to accept that we are either wrong, or that someone else may have thought of a better way of doing things. Always be prepared to defend your decisions and directions. However it is equally possible that those that are questioning you are not correct, but do not dismiss them out of hand.


A review and discussion of different points of view will serve several functions. People want to feel that their input is valued and heard. Different points of view make the overall business stronger by removing blind spots associated with too many similar points of view. If they are not correct, they have had their say and will be stronger supporters of the current directions.


If they are right, you have to check your ego at the door and acknowledge it, and then make the changes that are for the betterment of the business.

Management Style

We have all worked for managers who were very assured in the manager – subordinate relationship. If they wanted to talk to you, they called you into their office. If they wanted you to do something, they told you what it was they wanted you to do, probably when to do it, and possibly how to get it done. They were very much into reaffirming both with you and with themselves that they were the boss.


That type of situation and management practice will have a tendency to reduce the interaction, and flow of information upwards to the manager. Since subordinates opinions will seem to carry less value, they will eventually stop being offered. This type of management structure will be successful only if the manager is never wrong. I think it has been a long time since the last infallible person was on the planet.


Leaders must remember that they are part of the team. Everyone in the organization will know that they are the manager. There are normally all sorts of announcements and group meetings to introduce and reinforce this fact. The leader should however make sure not to set themselves so far apart from, or position themselves to be the superior to the rest of the team.


A good leader needs to adapt themselves to interpersonal requirements of the situation, but still be able to be the leader. Being able to deal with and talk to the team on a peer basis will be key. Inviting, respecting and acting on opinions other that your own will assure that you will continue to get good advice from the team. Phrasing requirements in the form of a request and using please will probably get more things done quicker than shorter, direct orders.


At least that is what I have found to work well, with the possible exception of anything I ask my kids to do.

Disagreements Are Good

I have heard it said “If everybody says it’s so, then the chances are very good that it is really not so”. I think this is another way of saying that if everybody agrees, then you have a problem. Healthy disagreement within a team is a desirable condition as long as it is handled properly.


When putting together your team it is easy to get lulled into the comfort of bringing on “Known Quantities” and friends. A problem that this situation can generate is complacency and a lack of diverse thinking.


Issues and problems need to be looked at from many vantage points before the best solution can be generated. Different people with different perspectives will provide this. Just as “sales” people will invariably generate a sales solution, “finance” people will also generate a finance solution. The “best” solution may indeed incorporate aspects of both sales and finance.


With this diversity of thought and perspective will come disagreement. This will be healthy, as long as everyone plays by the rules that:
1. The disagreement is not personal, and
2. The objective is to generate the “best” solution, not “my” solution.


The end result of this team management by disagreement is both a stronger team and a stronger business. “Group Think” and “blind spots” are avoided and the best aspects of all perspectives can be incorporated into running the business. That makes for a stronger business.

Play to Your Strength

Management hires people to fill specific roles. If you need a sales person, you look for the best sales person you can find who will be compatible with the other personalities on the team and the overall company culture. You are usually not looking for a combination Marketing, Operations, Service, and Software Developing Sales person. Finding a sales person with these additional traits may be nice, but that does not make them the best Sales person. You are normally looking for depth of capability, not breadth of capability.

Each role will require a leader with a specific strength, be it Sales, Marketing, Finance, etc. Understand what your strength is and play to it. That does not mean to ignore the other disciplines. To the contrary, they are important and you should try to increase your capabilities in those areas. You should build your capabilities in your non-core disciplines by trying to surround yourself with people whose strengths lie in disciplines outside of your core strengths.

We all like to think that we have few if any weaknesses. This may be true. The point is that not everything we have is a strength. A little honest self analysis can help each of us pinpoint our strengths. We all tend to gravitate toward people who have similar personalities and interests. This can cause trouble for an organization. Once we are aware of our own capabilities, we should consciously try to look for people with different capabilities and strengths in an effort to “fill in the gaps” in the organization.

President Ronald Reagan was a leader who recognized as a great “communicator”.  He filled out his cabinet with people who were also recognized as some of the most talented individuals in their specific disciplines (Defense, Treasury, Economy, etc) around. President Reagan was a leader who played to his strength – communicating, but hired to his weakness – the mechanics and specifics of running the most diverse and complex country and economy on the planet. Looking back, it worked pretty well. We enjoyed some of the most prosperous times in recent memory. We would do well to learn from that example.

Write the Objectives AND the Reviews

 We have all been in the position where we have either brought new people into the organization, or have been put into a new role where it was time to write the annual objectives or the annual reviews. If it is the start of the year we are so busy with budgets and getting started that our first inclination is to tell the team members what the objectives are and then ask them to write and submit their own objectives for your review. If it is the end of the year we are so busy with the annual close that we ask them for draft self reviews for the same reasons. Admit it. We have all done it.

When these events happened to me I usually didn’t feel that my management was too busy to do my objectives or reviews. I felt I wasn’t enough of a priority in the organization for them to take the time to do it. I was busy too, but I guessed that someone had to do it and if I wanted a merit increase or a reasonable review that someone would be me.

One of the best ways to help build team commitment is to take the time to write their objectives and show them how their individual objectives and performance apply to the overall team’s objectives. Instead of treating the objective setting and review processes as necessary evils, you can turn them into a real team building opportunity by using them as a true method of communication with each individual team member. It takes more time than any of us would like, but it is the right thing to do.


Everyone wants to know where they stand in the business and how their work is helping and applies to the organization’s  progress. By sharing your objectives, and by taking the time and showing your commitment to the team by writing and reviewing their objectives you can assure both their alignment and commitment as well. When you as the leader demonstrate the importance of both the objective setting and review processes by devoting the time to personally complete them instead of delegating them back to the team, you show the team the value you place on them and the role that each member plays in the teams combined success. It means a lot. I know it did for me when my leaders did it.