A Functional Perspective on HBR's Social Connections

ReDefine is all about looking at leadership in a different way: “What does the group need?” instead of “what do good leaders do?” This perspective shift matters because it lets us see leadership advice that doesn’t improve our performance as leaders. Today we are going to look at Ron Friedman’s article “5 Things High-Performing Teams Do Differently” to understand why – while the five things are true – they don’t help us select more effective actions. I don’t often do this kind of analysis, but sometimes we have to see what doesn’t work so that we can set it aside and look for what does.

First, many of Friedman’s social connections are actually outcomes, not causes, of success. They are not a “driver of team performance”; they are a sign of the other things that cause performance. These social connections occur because the functions of leadership are directed towards the group, not individual, success. We as leaders achieve this direction by acting upon the functions of leadership in other ways, not by trying to create these symptoms in the group.


For example, the ability of groups to “be authentic” occurs when the leadership functions are well-developed. Members practice emotion relationships that allow for disagreement, complex humor like sarcasm and irony, and processing the challenges of work in healthy ways. Members trust that they will create positive emotion reactions with a wide range of behaviors because of a history of past positive reactions, and so they fully express their personalities. These groups also have a shared vision that allows for individual differences in identity. Members know where they align – excellence in the work product – and so they value and respect each other's differences.


The same is true of groups that talk about non-work topics. These groups can discuss, and benefit from, personal questions because they have already established a strong shared focus on work. Communication through phone calls is similarly a sign of strong interpersonal relationships, as phone calls are more emotionally difficult when we cannot predict the emotion reaction of the person we are calling. Established relationships minimize this discomfort and allow for the more effective synchronous interaction of a call, which benefits the group’s work product.


If we, as leaders, simply encourage conversation about books, sports, and family or push members to call each other rather than email without building the functions, the group will not suddenly become high-performing. Rather, we have to cultivate a shared story of vision and encourage productive relationship-building. Authenticity and personal connections can then take shape within the foundation of a shared focus on work.


Second, while Friedman recognizes a few specific tactics that increase the productivity of interactions, but his interpretation lacks the larger context of the functional approach (or any other approach). Meetings are a constant challenge for all groups, and Friedman recommends strategic meetings that focus on work outcomes. The tactics he describes – prework, agendas, check-ins – are interchange relationships that provide clear information and expectation transfers. These interchanges support a shared focus on the vision, specifically the role of individual contributions as part of the whole. These tactics are only part of the larger network of interchanges that transfer information to where it needs to go, and while better meeting habits are helpful, the larger context allows us to understand why and see other opportunities for improvement.


The same is true of Friedman’s concept of frequent appreciation, which relates to the functional concept of constant feedback. Constant feedback allows members to discuss the process of work as it occurs. Friedman’s recommendation to recognize the positive is a great suggestion, but the functional approach allows us to take this concept further. We create effective feedback when we talk about the underlying successes (and failures) of the process of work. This is fundamentally different from an annual performance review process, which is focused on problem areas. Constant feedback as a whole is supported by positive emotion relationships, because the practice depends on a history of strong positive reactions to overcome the discomfort of recognizing mistakes. This context explains why we should not neglect the positive and why we should discuss the process of work frequently, close to the moment of performance.


The outcome-focused perspective of leadership in Mr. Friedman’s article distracts us from where we need to act: the three functions of vision, relationships, and learning. Friedman is right that high-performing organizations display these visible practices. Unfortunately, this insight does not help us select actions to create high-performing teams.


What do we do to make it possible for our team to perform these important social habits? We share a clear story of vision that connects individual tasks to a meaningful change, we encourage behaviors that support the process of work and create positive emotion reactions until they become habits, and we create an environment where members can experiment with new ways to perform the work. Our focus on the three functions of leadership – the things that the group needs to be successful – creates the possibility of excellence in the group.

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