Saturday, April 08, 2006

Building "Character" Teams -- Four Conflicting Necessities = Challenges to Winning  

There's a trend in MLB, in part because of the trophy-winning 2005 campaign of the "character"-rich Chicago White Sox. That rage is an attempt to emulate the winners' focus on what that organization defines as character, and character is a very slippery object to define. In the ethnically-Albanian parts of Yugoslavia, the thicker a woman's moustache, the more character she was perceived as having. At the early Microsoft, the volume of character you were thought to have was directly proportional to the amount of unpaid overtime you worked.

For the porpoises of this entry, I'll simplify what baseball considers character: a Three Musketeers all-for-one-and-one-for-all set of conduct, a positive work ethic that recognizes hierarchical authority lines and an ability to be fan/community-friendly.

Each franchise will define character a little differently. Evaluation will be different in each organizations, too. Some will try to measure, the way the Colorado Rockies do, with the aid of testing. Others will just collect scouts' unrigorous observations.

There's no doubt attitude and personality make or break teams and non-baseball organizations are subject to the exact same gravitational fields. People evaluating baseball teams' competitive standings will frequently forget these, especially if the evaluators play Rotisserie or Strat-O-Matic-style simulations where individual personality and group dynamics are missing (almost completely) from the outcomes that establish the probabilities of winning or losing. Beyond baseball, too many managers pick one of the binary choices: they ignore character because they can't measure it easily, or they allow it to dominate their hiring decisions too much, and as I've explained before, binary decisionmaking is Russian Roulette with Five Bullets.

A recent nifty Amy Joyce story in the Washington Post presents a lot of the research that shows that amiability in the workplace -- the factor I believe most often gets equated to "character" beyond baseball -- is strongly valued in hiring, in promotions, and in how hard employees will toil for a boss. Go read it, but here's an important extract:

According to a Harvard Business School study released last summer, people choose work partners based on, naturally, their competence on the job but, more notably, on their likability.

The study, which surveyed both managers and regular employees, broke these criteria into four categories of people: the competent jerk, who knows a lot but is unpleasant to deal with; the lovable fool, who doesn't know much but is great to have around; the lovable star, who's both smart and likeable; and the incompetent jerk (do I even need to describe that one for you?).

The majority of respondents, of course, said they wanted to work with the lovable star, according to the research. When managers were asked which choice they would make in hiring and promotion, they said competence always trumps likability. But the research showed the opposite was true. "We found that if someone is strongly disliked, it's almost irrelevant whether or not she is competent; people won't want to work with her anyway," said the authors, Tiziana Casciaro and Miguel Sousa Lobo, in their research paper. "By contrast, if someone is liked, his colleagues will seek out every little bit of competence he has to offer."

(Go on, you've done it: "But he's SUCH a nice guy. Do we really have to fire him? He was really good on that project seven years ago.")

Here's the thang -- while "character" is a completely viable approach to building winning teams in baseball or beyond, there are a million ways to fail and only a few ways to succeed. Here are the challenges:

(1) Because character is not an either/or factor. There is a continuum of behaviors each individual holds, so to measure character requires one to measure shades of gray -- with various tints. Character has some context, so different components have different meanings. Let me give you an extreme example because it's so easy to see the complexity in it -- but realize that in organizations with less extreme ways of being, it may be harder to break out pieces of behavior and decide what the critical factors are.

One of my godsons, The Big Train, was selling mortgages for one of the bigger national operations (its totally unmemorable name has the prefix "Ameri" but there are several and I've forgotten the suffix). The basis of the model was to pitch worse-than-average financial status people with deals that weren't very good for them but were very good for Amerisuffix. The deals were generally not all that easy to sell but each was very lucrative. My godson experimented with trying to give the customers better deals, some of which already existed in Amerisuffix's portfolio of options as fallback offers if the customer declined the initial (getting râpéed) option, and some of which, I think, he invented, and then aggressively pushing them to tout his services by word of mouth. His core idea was this: that if you increased volume while leaving a little on the table you'd initially break even but over time, the word of mouth would bring you low-cost, pre-enthused leads, so the dollar net would be positive. And the moral-qualms net would be positive, too, for those salesfolk who were capable of feeling them.

It looked like a win-win to The Big Train, and it was apparently working. But within Amerisuffix, specifically, The Big Train's plan looked like a failure of character. Character was defined more as adherence-to-the corporate-plan and less to increasing net, and I suspect but don't know, that management also believed, regardless that he had sold his plan as a revenue enhancement, that The Big Train was having moral qualms which equated to a weakness of character.

I suspect that at Amerisuffix, the poster boy for their version of character would also blow out of their system pretty quickly, because at the extremes of their practices, their behavior edged into the illegal. To succeed there, a person would have to have a set of traits within an acceptable range shades of grey, neither altar-boy nor Captain Barbossa.

(2) Because character is going to be defined subtly differently in any organization (see Amerisuffix above).

(3) Because appropriate "character" is going to evolve over time so that whatever is now making you stronger might kill you later.

(4) Because the balance of the shades of grey you have in the workgroup is a dynamic, interactive recipe that will either cause to you excel or undermine you. Optimal "character" includes some unchanging elements and some that evolve over time or need to be thrown away for occasional circumstances.

Leo Durocher once said, "Nice guys finish last". He was wrong and he was right. He was right in that a team of "nice guys" wouldn't, in the long run, win in baseball or most endeavors. Neither would a team of Leo Durochers...he wasn't very talented within his major league peer group, and an entire roster of irascible dirt-kicking roller-derby folk fight strong quaquaversal gravity fields that tend to make them drift apart and lose cohesion. Leo himself was a critical ingredient with many of the teams he played on -- the components of his "character" made the overall competitiveness of specific teams better even though the ingredient as a standalone is not much of a virtue (like baking powder in a cake recipe). With two Leos, you might take off, while three or five might cause you to implode.

Hiring, as the Harvard study suggests likeable people is a "nice guys" dead end. I've hired plenty of Leos in the past...some work out fine, some blow up in my face, but if you consistently bypass difficult, very-talented people in favor of likeable, adequate people, you end up with a vapid group that can't do what it needs to do to succeed when faced with adversity.

So, scarily to some, recognizing and acting on these four truths are all necessistes, and yet they conflict with each other. Yes, you need people who follow management's guidelines almost all the time, but you need some who can transcend the organization's rules to preserve the organization's survival, a subtle and challenging set of grey areas best understood by people who are in Kohlberg's stage five of moral development (read the Heinz Dilemma story if you want to see how this most closely relates).

If you can separate "character" from the more squishy "likability", by all means, try to define character and hire/fire based on it. Keep in mind you have to define each trait, the minimum and maximum and norm you're lookinmg for of each, and how many people who are outliers you need and should limits yourself to. Applying the four necessities above is a great way to start.

It's not that building a "character" team is not worthwhile -- it is -- but building and maintaining a "character" team is very challenging and requires a very deft touch, the kind the 2005 White Sox front office and manager and coaching staff had. Few organizations are as evolved as baseball in having the courage and skills required to try and win at it.

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