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DCE Magazine

The Science of Leadership in Teams

Summer 2020

Creating the right conditions for success is key to leading effective teams – in natural disasters or the workplace.

Armin Pajand

“Teams can achieve incredible results. My mission is to elevate the performance of teams everywhere. Influencing a few factors in teams can have results in big returns.” Armin Pajand

Armin Pajand knows what effective leadership looks like. He's seen how teams can be led in times of crisis, rise to meet sudden and unexpected challenges or ultimately come up short. Pajand is a recognized expert on leadership and not just in theory – he knows it because he's lived it.

Back in 2017 he moved to Houston just days before Hurricane Harvey decimated the region, taking a position as Associate Director for Leadership Development at Doerr Institute amid disastrous conditions.

But Pajand put his skills to work immediately, helping to organizing more than 2,000 student volunteers in a massive clean-up and recovery effort.

“Our team was mobilizing and coordinating volunteer efforts out of our office,” said Pajand, advisory board member for the DCE's Organizational Leadership & Communication certificate program. “It was a success because of collaboration with partners we brought onboard, like the Center for Civic Leadership and our student association.”

Leading a team requires a distinct skill set, whether on the front lines of disaster or in the office conference room. It's all about managing emotional needs, providing the right conditions and structure for team members to succeed. It's an especially relevant issue in today's environment, where disruption and accelerated change have become the new normal.

From years of experience, research and education, Pajand has developed a paradigm that defines what is required for successful leadership – and it's often not at all what you might think.

Teamwork in the 21st century

Learning to develop and lead high-performing teams is clearly more important than ever. A Deloitte study of 7,000 organizations shows a significant rise in teams being employed to drive strategy and execution, including 80% of Fortune 500 companies. And 92% of employees view teams as critical to an organization's success.

Effective teamwork is essential to meeting the challenges of today's challenged global marketplace, but data suggest many teams perform sub-optimally, creating an urgent need for innovative, high-performing team leaders.

“I've found that the most effective teams bring their best ideas, information and effort, and listen closely to one another,” Pajand said. “Then they integrate it all interdependently to produce outcomes that are superior to what they could accomplish individually. Members also need to be flexible enough to continue to learn and improve their performance.”

Low-performing teams, on the other hand, withhold their best ideas and information, and don't put forth their best efforts for reasons they might not even understand.

“Teams are hotbeds of emotion, and they typically perform poorly when their emotional needs such as shared understanding, control and sense of belonging aren't met,” he added. “When that happens, members are disengaged, not listening or asking questions. They lack trust and cooperation and avoid conflict.”

It might seem counterintuitive, but conflict can be an important element in effective teamwork. It's one of the common misconceptions that Pajand identifies in his research. An Oxford graduate and current industry professor at Texas A&M – as well as a noted global consultant and advisor across multiple industries – Pajand believes that harmony is overrated.

In fact, smooth interaction among collaborators, if the objective is to avoid debate and conflict, is detrimental to a successful outcome.

“Research shows that conflict, when well-managed and focused on a team's objective, can generate more creative solutions than you might see in groups free of any conflict. For example, we found in earlier research on symphony orchestras that slightly grumpy orchestras played a little better as ensembles than more harmonious groups.”

Managing emotional needs

A frequent speaker on brain science, Pajand has identified key factors that can guide a team to produce dynamic and optimal results. To do that, it's important for leaders to understand System 1 brain functioning, a concept developed by psychologist Daniel Kahneman that's popular in marketing.

Simply put, even when we believe we're making decisions based on rational considerations, our System 1 biases, prior learning and intuition influence most of our choices. In a team setting, this can manifest in negative behavior including “attribution error,” a tendency to attribute success to ourselves and failures to others.

“It's an unconscious bias that most everyone is guilty of at times,” Pajand said. “People believe they're responsible for their successes, but when things don't turn out right it's because of someone or something else – the boss, other team members, or the organization as a whole. Attribution error prevents teams from looking at their results clearly and collaborating on creative solutions.”

Perhaps most importantly, the most effective leaders realize it's not all about them. Think of it as being the author of a play, or conductor of a symphony.

“Leaders are indeed important in collaborative work, but not in the ways we usually think,” Pajand said. “The most powerful thing a leader can do to foster effective collaboration is to create conditions that help members competently manage themselves.”

Establishing the right conditions: Investing in just a few factors can have an outsized return.

Pajand suggests that creating the right conditions from the outset accounts for about 60% of the variation in how well a team eventually performs. The quality of the team launch accounts for another 30%, and real-time coaching accounts for only about 10%.

When composing a high-performing team, it's important to keep it as small and diverse as possible, he said, with the right number and mix of members, each with task expertise and skill in working collaboratively. Leaders also need to create a compelling direction and collective mindset by fostering a common identity and common understanding. Leaders need to ensure that the team has a clear set of norms or rules of engagement and can access the necessary resources at the organization.

“Teamwork isn't magical,” he added. “There's a lot more to it than gathering up some really talented people and telling them in general terms what is needed. Although you may have to do a bit of political maneuvering to get what is needed for effective collaboration from the broader organization, it is well worth the trouble.”

In his consulting practice, IntegroPartners, Pajand and his experienced team work with a variety of global organizations using their scientifically developed assessment, StyleView™, to gain valuable insights into team decision-making behavior.

Learn more about the Leadership Programs.