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Unlocking the ‘Black Box’ of Team Performance & Motivation

What motivates team members is often something of a ‘black box’. That is because most executives have only a superficial understanding of what really motivates their colleagues. Yet, looking inside a team’s motivational ‘black box’ has unparalleled power in accelerating performance, trust and cohesion.

The Motivational Black Box

With a ‘black box’ you see what goes in and what comes out, but its internal workings are hidden or clouded in mystery. That makes it an apt metaphor for teams.

Without understanding individual and collective motivations, we can’t really understand how a team works. Moreover, if we don’t fully understand how a team works we will struggle to optimize it.

Most executives are familiar with the stages of team development – storming, norming and so on1. However, few are aware that these stages can be fast-tracked to accelerate teamwork and collaboration. The process of acceleration involves peering inside the black box that is a team’s intrinsic motivation.

Take the test: Write down the names of 3-5 people that you work with most closely. How confident are you that you know what is motivating (or even de-motivating) them at this time? Take a pen and write beside each name what you believe are the key motivations driving that person.

The process of illuminating individual and collective motivations within teams has the potential to take team cohesion and effectiveness to new levels. Also, to create the conditions that enable people to thrive through their work.

Strangers to Our Managers

There has been a revolution in what we know about motivating performance. So much so that, what we once believed about human motivation and how to incentivize it has been turned on its head. But this has all happened so quickly that many managers are struggling to keep pace with the changes. 

Many managers have only a patchy understanding of what motivates their people. Moreover, what they assume motivates individual team members is often wrong. As a result some of the most powerful drivers of performance – specifically intrinsic motivation – are being neglected. Instead, organizations rely on traditional incentives or forms of motivation that have only limited effectiveness.

However, it is not only manages that fail to understand motivation at work. As executives, we may only have patchy knowledge of what motivates our colleagues. There may even be times when even struggle to understand our own deeper motivations.

Inside the Black Box
A colleague who revealed that she had a passion for interior design and was completing interior decorating classes was asked by the manager if she would like to input to the plans for re-decorating the team space.

Strangers to Each Other

Most executives don’t really know what makes their colleagues ‘tick’.  This even applies to people that they have worked with for years. You may be thinking, so what?  Well, this matters for a number of reasons, including its impact on the effectiveness of teamwork and collaboration. 

When conflicts or tensions arise within teams (as they inevitably will), people tend to blame personalities or politics. However, the real problem is often a failure to fully understand our colleagues’ motivations. So, pause for a moment: If you are frustrated by a colleague or their behavior, maybe you don’t fully understand their motivations.

People’s personal hopes and fears can generate great energy – the unstoppable energy required to make things happen.  However, channelled in the wrong direction it can also generate great heat or friction.

When we don’t fully understand other people’s motivations we may suspect their intentions – that is the very definition of mistrust. All this hinders effective teamwork and collaboration. It is also a lost opportunity, where tension or friction could actually be harnessed to positive effect.

Inside the Black Box:
One colleague revealed that for the past few weeks she was travelling home at weekends to take care of an elderly parent. Once the team became aware of this it was able to reschedule meetings so that she could travel back to the city on Monday mornings and leave earlier on Friday evenings.

The Process of Building Trust

The cohesion of a team depends on team members understanding and appreciating each other. That includes shared motivations, as well as divergent interests and needs. The more we know and understand people, the more we care about them.

The act of people sharing their motivations is the act of building team unity and cohesion. To share our hopes and fears is to connect on a deeply personal level.

When team members listen and share in this way they build up deposits in the bank of trust that can be called upon when help is needed or the going gets tough. Thus, it is key to building trust within teams. It is also an important pillar of building supportive relationships within teams2.

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Inside the Black Box:
A colleague revealed that her child had just been diagnosed with a learning disability and that she would need to go to some appointments with her son over the coming weeks despite an approaching end of project deadline.  Her manager and colleagues told her: ‘Your son comes first, we will support you…  Let’s look at the workload for the next two weeks and see how we can re-organize it to give you more flexibility.’  

The Process of Building Team

The research tells us that it can be difficult to care about people that we don’t know, especially if they are not like us3.   So, if your team members don’t know each other, it is likely to be more difficult for them to open-up, rely on and share with each other. 

This limits the level of real interdependence and mutual accountability that is likely to exist among team members. It is yet another reason why the process of sharing the contents of the black box of individual and collective motivation is so powerful.

Many organizations and teams are afflicted by a’ them and us’ rivalry.  The way through this is a greater understanding and appreciation of each other’s needs and motivations. When people feel that their needs and their interests are understood and respected, they bond more firmly as a team.

So, it is vital that people working in teams get the opportunity to dialogue what matters to them and how that is/can be reflected in their work, the work environment and their interactions with others. This is what Pitstop to Win is all about. Although far removed from the therapeutic setting, it can be every bit as powerful to our personal development as full and complete humans.

When team members fail to develop good social relations, they do not communicate well, have interpersonal problems that interfere with task performance, and are unable to reward and motivate one another. This limits the ability of the team to continue to operate.
Daniel J. Levi4

Inside the Black Box
A colleague who revealed that the isolation of remote working was in some way alleviated by maintaining a routine of taking a coffee break and sampling nice coffees from around the world at home, found a package of 10 different bean varieties on their door the following week – a token of appreciation the team leader. 

The Process of Self-discovery

We can be ‘strangers to ourselves’ in terms of the inner world of our motivations and emotions5 . This may at first sound weird, but it has been a long time since Freud revealed that much of our thinking takes place beneath the level of our conscious awareness. 

The implication is that our motivations may not be explicitly clear, even to ourselves. For example: 

  • We may find ourselves frustrated or drained at the end of a week without fully understanding why. 
  • Other people may tell us that we ‘really come to life’ or shine in certain situations – illuminating passions and talents that we may have taken for granted.
  • We discover new passions mid-way through our lives, but where they there all along or are the really new?
  • A major event happens in our life that causes us to take stock of what really matters to us.
  • It may not be until we are faced with losing something that we really appreciate how much we value it.

The above are all examples of how our intrinsic motivations can either reveal themselves or remain hidden – how they can be expressed or denied with little conscious awareness.

Modern society puts little value on introspection, even if we had time for it.  Yet, a whole industry exists in terms of life coaching, counselling and psychotherapy. Therein lies evidence of the need to go beneath the surface in understanding our own motivation and those of others.

All this does not mean we need to lie on the psychotherapists couch, or that we need to engage in excessive ‘naval gazing’6. Yet, developing a more consistent and whole narrative around our motivations and drives is part of being fully human and something that dialogue with our colleagues can help us to achieve. 

Inside the Blackbox
The Leadership Team was fully determination to bring the strategy to life.  The Business Development Director had played a key role in stoking the ambition regarding new markets and would play a central role in making it happen.  However, he now faced a surprising dilemma.

In the past 3 months alone, he had spent on average 3 nights per week travelling internationally. With a young family and a new child on the way, the prospect of even more extensive travel was a source of personal anxiety. When the concern was discussed, colleagues readily agreed to look at the plan and its implications in terms of travel.  They also agreed not to ‘lean on the director’ – taking advantage of the fact that he was travelling (e.g. when you are over can you sign the contract for the new in-market office).  

Conclusion

Talking with our colleagues about what energizes and engages us at work, the unique skills and talents we bring to the job, the values we share and so on not only helps them to better understand and appreciate us, but helps us to better understand and appreciate ourselves.

For the organization it holds the promise of aligning individual and corporate goals – thereby tapping into the most powerful motivation of all and, in the process, building more cohesive and resilient teams. For individuals, it enables people to explore ways in which they bring more of themselves (their unique talents and skills) to their work and to get more from their work (from job satisfaction to personal learning and growth) in turn.

  1. Bruce Tuckman, DEVELOPMENTAL SEQUENCE IN SMALL GROUPS, Psychological Bulletin 1965, Vol. 63, No. 6, 384-399 []
  2. Surely much of what makes life worth living comes down to our feelings of well-being—our happiness and sense of fulfilment. And good-quality relationships are one of the strongest sources of such feelings. – see Daniel Goleman, ‘Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships’, Bantam, 2006 []
  3. As Daniel Kahneman puts it ‘Familiarity breeds liking.’  See Daniel Kahneman, ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013. []
  4. Daniel J. Levi, ‘Group Dynamics for Teams’, SAGE Publications, Inc; 5 edition, 2015. []
  5. See Timothy D. Wilson, STRANGERS TO OURSELVES, Belknap Press – Harvard University Press, 2004 []
  6. As Timothy D. Wilson puts it…. ‘…there is evidence that it can be counterproductive to look inward too much. It is often better to deduce the nature of our hidden minds by looking outward at our behaviour and how others react to us and coming up with a good narrative’. See Timothy D. Wilson, STRANGERS TO OURSELVES, Belknap Press (Harvard University Press), 2004. []

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