Frank Napolitano: How to strengthen your team without using a single sports metaphor Featured

8:01pm EDT October 31, 2011
Frank Napolitano Frank Napolitano

Teamwork. You would be hard pressed to find a more overused and under-delivered concept in business. But do platitudes and an abundance of focus on teamwork actually produce a team? Sadly, not very often.

Frustrated by the complexity of getting a talented group of people to actually work together, I searched for the nub of what turns a group of motivated and capable people into a team. I won’t claim enlightenment just yet, but the foundational elements seem to be trust and transparency.

Trust is a complicated word with a host of meanings. While no one ever challenges the importance of trust to a team, they don’t know how to define it and aren’t sure whether trust at work means the same thing that it does at home. Our experience tells us that families don’t function well when members don’t trust each other. The same is true for business units. But are there differences between the trust that we have in our families and the trust that we need to have with our co-workers? I don’t think so.

At the core of it, trust exists where people are able to feel vulnerable with each other. “Dad, you just don’t trust me!” wails your child when you tell them that they can’t go to their friend’s house unless a parent is there. And they are definitely right. Away from your watchful eye, and motivated by the personal gain of ‘fitting in’ with their peers, you question whether they would do the right thing. Trust doesn’t even enter the equation when they are at home, where you can monitor their behavior. But at some point, you know that you can’t always be there. You will have to trust them to do the right thing eventually. So you try to build a foundation of mutual respect that will increase the likelihood that your child will make good choices even when you’re not looking.

It’s the same at work. People are naturally apprehensive about allowing themselves to be vulnerable. Over time, this fear of trust causes them to act in ways that make it hard for a group to function as a unit. But a great leader looks for opportunities to encourage vulnerability. Then, the leader diligently ensures that no one takes advantage of that vulnerability for their own gain. Finally, the leader rewards that vulnerability with praise, highlighting wherever possible how it improved the functioning of the team. Over time, trust grows.

Here is another good way to think about it. My son was fortunate enough to attend the California Institute of Technology. Their honor code contains a great prescription for trust and vulnerability. It reads, “No member of the Caltech community shall take unfair advantage of any other member of the Caltech community.” Go ahead and substitute your company name for Caltech in that sentence, and ask your people to live by that rule. Trust will abound.

But trust alone is not sufficient. Your real goal is to foster constructive conflict, just like the kind you want to have with your child.

Finally, great leaders allow decisions to be made transparently. Sometimes we feel the need to protect one team member from the rest of the team’s concerns about their performance and/or ideas. But having those discussions behind closed doors doesn’t help anyone improve their performance or rethink their ideas. Worse than that, it makes it nearly impossible for people to feel comfortable with vulnerability. And that will destroy the foundation of any team. So rid the workplace of clandestine meetings and the misguided protection of people’s feelings. You’ll be glad you did.

Frank Napolitano is the CEO of GlobalFit. Before joining GlobalFit in 2006, he ran Strategic Planning for the largest gym chain in the Northeast. Napolitano has held corporate leadership roles since 1984, including CEO positions at five different companies. Before that, he practiced law and public accounting with two national firms. Reach him at Frankn@globalfit.com.