Three Ways Leaders Can Solve the “People Problems” That Hold Teams Back
Skip to content
Leadership Organizations Nov 2, 2016

Three Ways Lead­ers Can Solve the Peo­ple Prob­lems” That Hold Teams Back

Some­times the con­fer­ence room should be a box­ing ring, oth­er times a campfire.

Employees use a conference room as a boxing ring.

Michael Meier

Based on the research and insights of

Leigh Thompson

Tanya Menon

The Fri­day team meet­ing you lead has gone off the rails. The same way it did last Fri­day, and the Fri­day before. In fact, it’s hard to remem­ber the last time you had a tru­ly pro­duc­tive meeting.

Add Insight
to your inbox.

We’ll send you one email a week with content you actually want to read, curated by the Insight team.

Indi­vid­u­al­ly, none of these tan­gents or bun­gled oppor­tu­ni­ties would be a big deal. But cumulatively?

It’s not in our every­day aware­ness,” says Leigh Thomp­son, a pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions at the Kel­logg School. But it turns out these small but numer­ous time sinks are pil­ing up to the equiv­a­lent of a mas­sive landfill.”

Thomp­son and her col­league Tanya Menon of the Ohio State Uni­ver­si­ty dis­tin­guish between two types of spend­ing. Type I” is spend­ing in its typ­i­cal sense — the kind that promi­nent­ly appears on finan­cial state­ments. In con­trast, type II” spend­ing — squan­dered work time — goes unrecord­ed. But it is no less impor­tant. To start to get a sense of how much type II spend­ing occurs, Menon and Thomp­son asked 87 senior exec­u­tives to esti­mate what wast­ed time had cost their com­pa­nies. The aver­age answer: near­ly $15.5 million.

As it turns out, most type II spend­ing orig­i­nates from dys­func­tion­al work­place dynam­ics — more com­mon­ly known as peo­ple prob­lems.” In their book, Stop Spend­ing, Start Man­ag­ing, Thomp­son and Menon describe some of the thorni­est peo­ple prob­lems that lead­ers han­dle, or rather mis­han­dle, every day.

Here are three such prob­lems — as well as what man­agers can do to stop rein­vent­ing the wheel, start encour­ag­ing pro­duc­tive con­flicts, and save a lot of time in the process.

Prob­lem: Man­agers like to win.”
How to tack­le: Build your­self up — and then learn from your rival.

Thomp­son describes a famil­iar blind spot from which many high-per­form­ing teams suf­fer: they become so used to win­ning,” either indi­vid­u­al­ly or as a group — being right, being the first, being the best — that they become unwill­ing to seek valu­able infor­ma­tion from one anoth­er, since doing so would be a tac­it admis­sion of imper­fec­tion or weakness.

The prob­lem is that we can­not all be win­ners,” Thomp­son says. We see so much sta­tus com­pe­ti­tion going on in orga­ni­za­tions that it’s dif­fi­cult for us to learn from one another.”

In a study con­duct­ed with Tanya Menon and Hoon-seok-Choi, who com­plet­ed a post-doc at Kel­logg and now is on fac­ul­ty at Korea’s Sungkyuk­wan Uni­ver­si­ty, Thomp­son found that when giv­en a choice between spend­ing a hypo­thet­i­cal R&D bud­get on the ideas of an inter­nal rival or those of an out­side com­peti­tor, man­agers were will­ing to spend 42 per­cent more on the out­side competitor’s ideas. This is why con­sul­tants get hired,” Thomp­son says. We bring in out­side peo­ple to tell us some­thing that we already know,” because it para­dox­i­cal­ly means all the wannabe win­ners” in the team can avoid los­ing face.

While Thomp­son has noth­ing against con­sul­tants, she urges tak­ing the short­est path to valu­able insights: quite often, a rival’s. The trick for open­ing up that path, she says, is sim­ple: List one or two things you’re par­tic­u­lar­ly proud of.”

Per­haps you just pub­lished a book or a well-received case study; per­haps you had an above-aver­age per­for­mance review last quar­ter. Now all of a sud­den,” she says, when I hear about the accom­plish­ments or ideas of a col­league, I am more recep­tive to it — because I have just remind­ed myself that I am not chopped liver.”

Prob­lem: Too much teamwork.
How to tack­le: Set aside places to build con­sen­sus — and places to duke it out.

Most man­agers are put in a dou­ble bind, says Thomp­son, in terms of the direc­tives they pass along to their teams. On the one hand, we’re say­ing, Get to the top’; on the oth­er hand, we are say­ing, Be a good team play­er.’ So peo­ple come into meet­ings, and they don’t know what’s expect­ed: Should I have on my I’m a team play­er’ hat, or my I’m a lone genius’ hat?”

The rub, of course, is that both of these hats are ter­rif­ic — but only in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions. And since most peo­ple do not seek out dis­rup­tive con­flict, the team­work hat in par­tic­u­lar can become a lia­bil­i­ty. Thomp­son cites an episode at Rhode Island Hos­pi­tal where, in 2007, three dif­fer­ent brain sur­geons cut into the wrong place on a patient’s head. In each case, the sur­geons’ sup­port staff were being such good team play­ers that they either failed to bring the error to the sur­geons’ atten­tion or did not do so aggres­sive­ly enough to com­pel the sur­geons to admit their mistake.

When we’re in the box­ing ring, I am not try­ing to be nice to you. I am try­ing to point out flaws in your approach. But know­ing that it’s a box­ing ring means that we both know I am not attack­ing you, I am being hard on the problem.”

Few busi­ness deci­sions have stakes that dra­mat­ic. But ambigu­ous expec­ta­tions from man­agers, com­bined with a default desire for team­work, can still par­a­lyze nec­es­sary com­mu­ni­ca­tion. It’s like being at a din­ner par­ty, and I have no idea what fork to pick up, so I am not going to even eat,” Thomp­son says.

One tac­tic for avoid­ing this trap is to remove ambi­gu­i­ty. Thomp­son and Menon rec­om­mend estab­lish­ing box­ing rings” — cir­cum­stances in which every­one knows the ground rules for con­ver­sa­tion­al com­bat and also knows that they are not personal.

When we’re in the box­ing ring, I am not try­ing to be nice to you. I am try­ing to point out flaws in your approach,” Thomp­son says. But know­ing that it’s a box­ing ring means that we both know I am not attack­ing you, I am being hard on the prob­lem.” For con­sen­sus-build­ing, camp­fires” take the con­verse approach.

Thomp­son says that com­pa­nies can imple­ment this tac­tic lit­er­al­ly by des­ig­nat­ing a cer­tain con­fer­ence room as the ring and anoth­er as the camp­fire, rather than just treat­ing every win­dow­less beige room iden­ti­cal­ly (and ambiguously).

We should take much more account­ing of how the phys­i­cal envi­ron­ment, and all the cues there­in, influ­ence people’s behav­ior,” she explains. It’s a way to glob­al­ly low­er the stakes for ini­ti­at­ing these pro­duc­tive conflicts.”

Prob­lem: Too much expertise.
How to tack­le: Reframe the prob­lem so no exper­tise is necessary.

It may seem obvi­ous that when you’re faced with a dif­fi­cult prob­lem, you want to bring in the best experts to solve it.

Only, some­times, you don’t. Some­times exper­tise can get in the way.

Con­sid­er this exam­ple: In 2008, a team of uni­ver­si­ty bio­chemists was frus­trat­ed after fail­ing to make head­way on a series of com­plex pro­tein-fold­ing prob­lems. Instead of seek­ing out more experts, they decid­ed to ask thou­sands of ama­teur online gamers for help. The sci­en­tists’ inge­nious approach was to present the pro­tein sim­u­la­tions as a puz­zle game called Foldit.

And their gam­bit paid off: The gamers, many of whom had nev­er tak­en a course in biol­o­gy, solved the prob­lem with­in two weeks,” Thomp­son says, because they weren’t blind­ed by the assump­tions that the biol­o­gists were using.”

Thomp­son is not argu­ing that man­agers embrace total indif­fer­ence to exper­tise. But in sit­u­a­tions where know-how has come up short, she rec­om­mends abstract­ing away from the problem’s details in favor of explor­ing its deep­er struc­ture. That is how the biol­o­gists were able to lever­age the pat­tern-match­ing capa­bil­i­ties of non­ex­perts — and it is how expert deci­sion-mak­ers can bypass their own idio­syn­crat­ic bias­es and blind spots.

Take, for exam­ple, the thorny ques­tion of which doc­tor­al stu­dents are like­li­est to suc­ceed in their pro­grams. Back in the 1970s, Robyn Dawes, a Uni­ver­si­ty of Ore­gon psy­chol­o­gist, ana­lyzed the per­for­mance of past PhD stu­dents in the hopes of mod­el­ing a sim­ple, effec­tive pro­ce­dure for select­ing new PhD can­di­dates. Dawes’s mod­el drew on fac­tors that the admis­sions com­mit­tee already believed to be impor­tant, like grades, GRE scores, and the qual­i­ty of the under­grad­u­ate insti­tu­tion. But crit­i­cal­ly, his mod­el offered a more accu­rate and more con­sis­tent way of com­bin­ing these fac­tors than did the intu­itive and idio­syn­crat­ic judg­ments of the expert committee.

It turns out that a mod­el of a deci­sion-mak­er is bet­ter than the deci­sion-mak­er itself,” Thomp­son says. After all, sta­tis­ti­cal mod­els don’t have long­stand­ing bias­es about which fac­tors mat­ter most; they also don’t have headaches, or get fatigued.

But you do not always have to fit up a sta­tis­ti­cal mod­el in order to side­step the exper­tise trap, says Thomp­son. Instead, you can get sim­i­lar ben­e­fits just by invit­ing some­one into your deci­sion-mak­ing process who brings dif­fer­ent exper­tise to the team.

Chances are, that is going to be a per­son whom you don’t get along with,” Thomp­son admits. But if I can put that aside, they might have a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent lens for view­ing my problem.”

Featured Faculty

Leigh Thompson

J. Jay Gerber Professor of Dispute Resolution & Organizations, Professor of Management & Organizations

Suggested For You

Most Popular


How Are Black – White Bira­cial Peo­ple Per­ceived in Terms of Race?

Under­stand­ing the answer — and why black and white Amer­i­cans’ respons­es may dif­fer — is increas­ing­ly impor­tant in a mul­tira­cial society.


Why Warmth Is the Under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed Skill Lead­ers Need

The case for demon­strat­ing more than just competence.

Most Popular Podcasts


Pod­cast: Our Most Pop­u­lar Advice on Improv­ing Rela­tion­ships with Colleagues

Cowork­ers can make us crazy. Here’s how to han­dle tough situations.

Social Impact

Pod­cast: How You and Your Com­pa­ny Can Lend Exper­tise to a Non­prof­it in Need

Plus: Four ques­tions to con­sid­er before becom­ing a social-impact entrepreneur.


Pod­cast: Attract Rock­star Employ­ees — or Devel­op Your Own

Find­ing and nur­tur­ing high per­form­ers isn’t easy, but it pays off.


Pod­cast: How Music Can Change Our Mood

A Broad­way song­writer and a mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sor dis­cuss the con­nec­tion between our favorite tunes and how they make us feel.