Simplest Way to Improve Your Team's Performance

Last Updated Jun 17, 2011 10:49 AM EDT

Every executive I've ever coached has told me that he wants to foster teamwork. "We want our people to be partners, not competitors" is the most common thing they tell me.

And often, it is the leader who is presenting the major obstacle to all this teamwork and partnership. It's something that the leader could remedy pretty quickly--if he or she could see it.

Can you guess?

It's destructive remarks, made behind people's backs. Many high achieving people have high standards and can be impatient when others don't meet them.

But think about what happens when you criticize a coworker behind his back in front of other people. The staffers you're talking to may well wonder what you're saying about them behind their backs. After all, why should people believe you'd treat them with any more respect when they're not present? So the net result is that you're fostering intense distrust and insecurity, hardly a recipe for collaboration.

Now I do not want to come off holier-than-thou. Believe me, I know how easy it is to toss off stinging judgments. In the past, I've also been told--by co-workers and family--that I criticize too much. I'll never forget the first time I received formal feedback from my own staff. One item on the evaluation was called "Avoid Destructive Comments About Other People."

What score did my colleagues give me?

Eight percentile.

They felt that 92 percent of the people in the world were better than me at not making destructive comments. And I wrote the evaluation!

So I went back to my staff, determined to practice what I preach, and in the process, I learned a little trick that I've since used on all my clients--which works really well at ridding yourself of this insidious habit.

When I met with my staff, I vowed to stop criticizing other people; and I impulsively pulled my wallet out of my pocket, waved it in front of them, and told them, "If I ever do it again, bring it to my attention, and I'll pay you $10." Then I gave them a little pep talk to urge them to ask me for the money because I thought they'd be sheepish about doing that.

Turns out my pep talk was unnecessary. My staff tricked me into making nasty comments in order to pick up the $10.

When a client called, one staffer said, "Hey Marshall, he wants this and this and this right away."

I said, "He wants something and doesn't want to pay? He's cheap."

$10.

Someone else related a silly comment that an academic had made. "That fool," I said, "how did he get a Ph.D.? He doesn't know anything." $10.

By noon I'd lost $50, locked myself in the office and refused to speak to anyone for the rest of the day.The second day, I lost $30. Third day, I was down to $10. And what score did I make on that evaluation a year later? 96th percentile.

So what does this teach you? How can you avoid making destructive comments? I have two suggestions:

1. Stop and think. Before you deliver any criticism, ask yourself: Will this comment help the company? Our customers? The person I'm talking about? The person I'm talking to? '

If the answer is no to all these questions, there is a simple solution that doesn't require a Ph.D. to devise. Keep your mouth closed. Don't say it.

2. Fine yourself. In my executive education classes, I have my clients fine each other $2 for each useless, counterproductive slam they make. We've raised over $350,000 for charity playing this little game! Once you start having people in your life fine you for those pointless remarks, you'll also become more conscious of the difference between total honesty and destructive disclosure, and you'll break yourself of this habit.

You also will find this helps builds the collaborative workplace you were looking for--and raises a few bucks for a good cause.

image courtesy of flickr user, quinn.anya

  • Marshall Goldsmith

    Marshall Goldsmith is an executive educator, coach and author. His books include What Got You Here Won't Get You There and Mojo. His specialty is helping successful leaders achieve positive, lasting change in behavior.