Lessons on team harmony from THE BOSS

Team conflict

So I am a bit of a fan of the rock n’ roll autobiography and would thoroughly recommend the latest addition to the canon of musings from the legends of rock, from one Mr Bruce Springsteen.  Keith Richards’ bio was an entertaining and esoteric stream of consciousness, Neil Young’s was both bizarre and beautiful and Patti Smith’s was terrific as an audio book because she reads it!

In Born to Run, Bruce takes us on a journey from his boyhood and early years, through the era of his mega-stardom in the 80’s, to his re-emergence as a touring artist today.  The man is 67 years old and is still rocking out!  Since the early days, Bruce Springsteen formed a very close relationship with the members of his E-Street Band, all the while remaining The Boss.  One of his closest relationships has been with guitarist, Steve Van Zandt (the dude in the bandana).  Rock and roll bands, like any teams, have their ups and downs and Springsteen is pretty candid about some of the divisions that formed in the band over the years.  Somehow though, over a career of nearly 50 years, he has managed to hold together one of the more formidable band of musicians going around.  How has he done it where so many have failed?

How does The Boss manage conflict?

Springsteen gives an insight into the value he places on differences of opinion and his approach to dealing with them if it becomes unproductive, in this passage about Steve Van Zandt, saying:

Despite our great friendship, or because of it, Steve can be a powerful force, and with his great energy he can be unintentionally destabilising… The friction and the rub in Steve’s opinions is often where he is most valuable to me, but in the past, he could unintentionally cross the line.’  Bruce decided these issues needed to be talked about before they re-formed the E-Street Band to tour in the 1990’s.  He described the ensuing discussion he had with Steve as ‘friendly but tough’, during which they got to hear each other’s points of view.  Following this pretty frank talk, he said they then ‘put it away’ and went on to have ‘the best eighteen years of our work life and friendship’.

So what can a little excerpt from a book about a pretty unique life and team have to teach the rest of us about our work and teams?  For me there are two things:

1. Some workplace conflict and difference is ok – even good

First, we have to genuinely believe that it is both natural and beneficial for people at work to have their say and disagree at times.  If every member of a team is in furious agreement about everything all the time, there’s a good chance that a proportion of that team are either asleep at the wheel or too afraid to speak up – thereby not adding anything very ‘valuable’.  But the measure of a great team is surely that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  The value of a certain amount of divergent opinion is supported in studies of teams where those teams that are seemingly very cohesive can be making more errors than those with a healthy amount of tension and difference.

The lesson is to normalise and legitimise the fact that there will be and often should be differences in opinions about direction or how things should be done.  This leads to better and more robust outcomes that have already been well tested internally before being launched into the marketplace.

2. Find ways to make differences of opinion and conflict easy to manage

If the first point is accepted, the next step is to promote a team environment where there is an accepted way in which team members feel comfortable to talk about differences of opinion without feeling either attacked or that they may be portrayed as trouble-makers or change-averse.  In addition, it is important that people understand that once an issue has been thrashed out and a decision is made, it is expected that people get on board (obviously excepting any situation of unsafe or unlawful conduct).

Psychological safety

There is a ton of social science research in this field from significant academic studies to the much heralded Google Project Aristotle.  Many refer back to Professor Amy Edmondson’s work with teams which identified ‘psychological safety’ as being fundamentally important to team member’s willingness and ability to contribute to the team without things degenerating into turf wars and damaging conflict behaviours.

Key attributes of a great team

The hallmarks of a team where it is ok to have differences of opinion include, for example:

  • when someone makes a mistake, it is not held against them;
  • there is an accepted way to discuss tricky problems;
  • people are not rejected for being different or having different ideas;
  • it is ok to take a risk within accepted boundaries;
  • it is normal and easy to ask others for help; and
  • individual contributions are valued and respected.

For us at AWM, we see everyday the power of simple processes, team practices and dialogue to support individuals and teams to have these sorts of conversations. Contact us to learn more.

While I’d love to have been a fly on the wall for that fire-side chat between The Boss and his long-time collaborator, suffice to say that many years later, Steve’s views and any differences of opinion have not led to a deterioration in the dynamic of the band, but seem to have strengthened it.  A credit to them both.