I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of what constitutes a good team. Even more so, since studying my Masters and entering the world of organization development. Talent? Of course. Essential. Hard work? A given. But there is more to it than just talent or hard work. The actual chemistry is hard to pinpoint, and the fact that you end up with a highly functioning team can often be a fortuitous accident, something that’s happened upon, but there is no doubt that putting together a really high performing team is a complex and often painstaking process.
At the end of this lockdown period there is, sadly, little doubt that unemployment is going to rise, and significantly. Whilst most economists predict some kind of bounce back it’ll inevitably result in serious pressure in the job market, with a crowd of applicants for each post. Skills and training will be catapulted back to the top of the business agenda – and rightly so; training is often one of the areas sacrificed when the pinch comes but it can’t be overlooked now. Recruitment companies will be busy.
Elements of the hiring process will look very different. Not necessarily in terms of the way positions are advertised or applications made, but I imagine that interviewing, particularly the type of questions, will change. With so many people having spent lockdown working from home recruiters will be keen to focus on understanding preferences for independent or supervised work, how we motivate ourselves, how we organize our work, our approach to flexible working, how we are creative, how we own our learning and development, and other traits that have been highlighted over the last few months. Applicants will need to sharpen their responses.
In certain instances, we may see the use of psychometric testing. And here’s where the whole team thing becomes particularly interesting – for me, anyway. I have always liked psychometric testing as a vehicle for understanding the personalities of team members, be that in sport, which is where I’ve spent a large chunk of my working life, or in business. I have never personally gone so far as to advocate it for recruitment purposes, though many companies do that. I have, however, used it a lot in my work for clients in terms of trying to help them build and improve their top teams.
The academic and former table tennis international Matthew Syed recently spoke at the CIPD’s Festival of Work conference, his topic being that of Cognitive Diversity. Having really enjoyed what he had to say (not to mention being a renowned knowledge sponge) I immediately hunted out and ordered his book on the subject: Rebel Ideas¹. It’s fascinating. It takes as its premise the principle that the most effective teams thrive on different thinking. Our default position is to surround ourselves with people like ourselves: people who reflect our views, our opinions, our values, our sense of humour. In social media terms it’s referred to as our echo chamber. Instinctively we don’t go looking for people who hold very different views or opinions to ours. But by mixing with people who often agree with our outlook on life, are we not actually missing a trick?
This isn’t homogeneous diversity. We aren’t talking here about the need for diversity of race, gender, disability, religion or sexual orientation, important though it is to continue to encourage this. No, here Syed is talking about the way teams think. Back in the day homogeneity wasn’t as much of a challenge. Our problems were more linear, for a start, and probably didn’t require the diversity of thought we do in the 21st century. But times change, and so do our challenges. When I first started working in cricket, back at Glamorgan in the 1980s, our governing group consisted of an Executive Committee (their word, ‘executive’: in truth it was anything but) of 24 elected members, up to five co-opted members, three officers and up to four trustees, along with a CEO. Quite apart from the fact that 37 is a ridiculously high number, virtually all of them were white, middle-aged, middle class males. If the club was seeking ideas about how to appeal to local young Asians in the community, for example, how were 37 white, middle-aged, middle class males going to come up with anything new or radical? If they were each asked to jot down five ideas, you might imagine a potential pot of 185 ideas in total (37 x 5) but you’d probably have been hard-pressed in reality to find more than a dozen different ones, because they would in all likelihood have been thinking in the same way.
OK, so that was 35 years ago and we’ve moved on. But have we, really? When we are recruiting or building teams, do we focus sufficiently on the chemistry of those teams, on the diversity, both homogeneous but particularly on the diversity of thought? I’m not sure that we do. Duncan Fletcher, the former England cricket coach, who we brought over to work at Glamorgan in 1997, told me his view that the best functioning teams mirrored the cast of characters from an old Western movie. You needed a gunslinger, a sheriff, a bartender, an undertaker, a blacksmith, a saloon bar entertainer, a general stores manager, an outlaw, and so on. If you ended up with three outlaws and no sheriff, or three undertakers and no gunslinger, your balance would be all awry. It matters not how talented the different people are (though you have to have a certain entry level ability, obviously). It may not even function at all. It shouldn’t be just a collection of individuals. It’s about the team.
The work I have done in recent years, for a variety of MDs, CEOs and other leaders, has more often than not included the development of the senior management teams around them. I use a variety of psychometric testing tools to try to determine the balance of those teams, the strengths and weaknesses of their potential members. In one business, tests showed that of a four-person team working to the MD, all four had very similar character traits. When the MD enthusiastically suggested that this was exactly what he was looking for I had to agree with him: if the team decided to take a particular business decision there would indeed be unanimity… even if that meant all five of them careering over the edge of a metaphoric cliff and taking the business with them. He took the point. It isn’t simply about having finance, marketing, operations or whatever represented; it’s about the character, the personality, the attitude, the challenge, the diversity of point of view.
The actual test will vary depending on circumstances. In one sporting context, my contact, who was the Head Coach, wanted a simple way to be able to identify what made his players tick, how he could quickly and effectively tap into their thinking. He was interested in all the underlying detail, and keen for the individuals concerned to explore their own results, but what he was really after was a way of determining how individuals reacted to instruction or challenge. Who responded to the carrot? Who was more likely to react positively to any stick? Who needed time to prepare? Who took advice instantly? OK, I’m over-simplifying here, but we managed to find a test where we were able to do just that. (If you want a bit more background, there’s a short case study on this one from September 2019 which you can find elsewhere in this section.)
The Myers Briggs Type Indicator is one of the better-known psychometric tests². Based on Jungian psychology, it involves a series of around 70 questions, after which individuals are allocated to one of 16 character ‘boxes’. None is better or worse than any of the others, and each have strengths and weaknesses. Each person is said to have one preferred quality from each category – Introversion/Extraversion, Sensing/Intuition, Thinking/Feeling, Judging/Perception – producing 16 different types.
If the test is taken seriously and is sufficiently detailed (there are varying degrees of depth) we can understand much more about each person’s behaviours within those different boxes. As with all psychometric tests it is important not to over-analyze, but I confess that as a tool to help understand someone’s underlying personality, I am a fan. I believe it can tell us an awful lot about how a person thinks, reacts and behaves. And if you are building a team, where the dynamic of personalities around the table is so important, that can provide a lot of really valuable information of how people are likely to be able to work with one another. Or not.
The ‘Introversion/Extraversion’ characteristic fascinates me. The Is often prefer doing things alone or with one or two people they feel comfortable with. They take time to reflect so that they have a clear idea of what they’ll be doing when they decide to act. The Es, on the other hand, get their energy from active involvement in events and having a lot of different activities. They are excited when they are around people and like to energize others. Every good team needs a mix of both, surely.
The ‘Judging/Perception’ trait is the other one I like to look at. The Js will seem to others to prefer a planned or orderly life, to want everything settled and organized, to like to have life under control. The Ps are more spontaneous, more flexible; they like simply to understand the world and adapt to it, rather than try to organize it. A team with too many organizers, or a team exclusively with individuals who prefer to ‘wing it,’ probably won’t get very far.
It’s important not to take these things as gospel. They don’t resolve problems for you. They merely act as a window with which to view personality traits. But if you are putting a team together, I think it’s incredibly helpful to have some information that might help you achieve the kind of balance you’re looking for. Or, to refer back to Matthew Syed’s example, to help ensure you have an appropriate level of cognitive diversity around you.
I have one close friend who has always been very good at identifying the need for people around him to be able to challenge him. He believes it helps him to scrutinize the rationale for his decisions. To be able to operate like that and not feel threatened is a fantastic strength. I like to think I do that consistently, but my default position is to gravitate to people with similar views and I have to work at it. I’m not comfortable with confrontation. However, I recognize that to be a more effective leader I need to be encouraging that element of respectful challenge that comes from having people around me asking questions and offering different opinions to mine. And if I want ideas, I am far more likely to get a broader and more diverse range of them if I have broader and more diverse thinking in the people around me.
Another of my friends is, in three of the Myers Briggs characteristics, the polar opposite to me (for the Myers Briggs geeks out there, I’m an ISFJ, he’s an ENFP). But we each recognize in the other the type of skills we would need if we were working in a team. I am far more I than E; he is a natural E. He is a very strong P; I am a born and stubborn J. We often disagree. On all manner of things. But we are able to challenge each other and to understand a different argument or viewpoint. We also happen to be in the same stable when it comes to values and people-based decision-making. If there were a leader looking at us, he or she would quickly see that although we have different approaches our presence in any team would help him or her to weigh up options and take a decision.
Whether or not psychometric testing ends up being utilized more at the recruitment stage remains to be seen. If it means helping businesses to better recruit on attitude, then I hope it does. But I remain a fan anyway. I use several different tests and I have seen the success that they can bring. Building a high performing team should mean building a base of different characters. If you already have a few of one type, you’d be well served avoiding going for another – or ‘cloning’, as Syed refers to it – even if that person mirrors your values. There are sceptics, of course. I should know. So was I once. And I’ve been surprised by the number of sceptics who, when they hear what the various tests are telling them about their own behaviours and personalities, are both surprised and enlightened. Try it. What harm can it do? You never know. It might even help you.
¹ Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking, by Matthew Syed. (John Murray) 2020.
² What’s Your Type? The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing, by Merve Emre. (William Collins) 2018.