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Create Better Teams by Casting Roles with Different Skill Sets

Imagine a movie where every character acts the same and agrees on everything. There would be no conflict and no new ideas for two hours, leaving audiences unsatisfied and unenlightened.

There’s more to building a great team than putting together great individuals. To bring the right creative and innovative energy to your company, you have to mix different skill sets and personalities.

If these personalities conflict, that’s all the better, assuming you manage it properly by creating an environment where people are safe to present and discuss diverse ideas. Nothing creative and innovative was ever born out of placid acceptance of the norms. Create your team to be interesting, not easy to manage, and creativity and innovation will flow from a conflict of ideas.

Everyone Has Their Own Role to Play

In a 2018 talk at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Jeffrey Katzenberg, the co-founder and former CEO of Dreamworks, explained how he treats team building as a casting process. Every person has their own role to play, and their own character to add to the innovative story of your team. Katzenberg says that teams really can be more than the sum of their parts, and that if you get the mix of human capital right, “one plus one is going to equal eleven.” (youtu.be/rP-dB6f96gA)

Startups with too many coders might be able to program their way through big problems, but they often end up tackling problems that no one cares about. Startups with too many designers might have great ideas for solving real-world problems, but they won’t be able to implement them without the right coding skills. And startups with too many accountants and MBAs might have a realistic view of what business is really like, but no ideas beyond copying what’s worked for others.

Innovation researcher Greg Satell writes in the Harvard Business Review that, “you don’t need the best people–you need the best teams.” (hbr.org/2018/02/4-ways-to-build-an-innovative-team) The smartest individuals often flounder in the wrong team. They might not offer anything that other team members don’t already offer. They might not have the perspective to try anything new. They might be too smart for their own good, making them pretentious and uncooperative.

Don’t get lost in the aura of high-energy actors who won’t play well with the team. Start from skills first. What is your team missing? Who is overloaded already? Who could expand into other roles? Like a casting director has to balance the demands of talent with roles and characters, you have to balance individual skills and personalities with the larger creative needs of your team.

Think of yourself as a “knowledge broker,” as Robert Sutton of the Stanford Engineering School calls it. (hbr.org/2000/05/building-an-innovation-factory-2) Your role is not to pick the best people, but to pick people with the right selection of skills that you can guide and combine into something greater.

Fermenting Constructive Conflict with Psychological Safety

When building your team, don’t be afraid of a little conflict. Different ways of doing things and different ideals push creativity–if managed well. When ideas conflict, it’s a good sign that neither idea is fully formed and that something better is out there. Creativity is often waiting in the synthesis of existing ideas.

The key is that no idea should be off limits, especially in initial discussions and brainstorming. Google, after doing a massive internal study, found that the best indicator of team success wasn’t personalities, skill sets or intelligence but simply “psychological safety,” meaning team members felt safe in expressing any and all opinions. (nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html?_r=0)

Psychological safety is not the same as the “safe spaces” popular in some academic institutions. Whereas safe spaces shut down discussion by limiting opinions on controversial topics, teams promoting psychological safety have to be open to all ideas, no matter how opposed they might be to the usual way of thinking. To get the most out of your team, no team member should have to worry about being ostracized for holding the “wrong” opinion.

According to creativity researcher and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the best creative ideas come from people questioning the basic assumptions of their “domain,” by which Csikszentmihalyi means the accepted, “set of symbolic rules and procedures” in a creative person’s field. (books.google.com/books?id=aci_Ea4c6woC) You and your team have to be willing to question standard industry practices and ideals. No great idea ever came from doing things the same way over and over again.

How to Manage Conflicting Personalities

Make sure everyone on your team knows their role, and set clear goals for your team to work toward. Try to keep your goals relatively open-ended. Goals should be about the problems your team needs to solve, rather than how exactly they should be solved.

When finding solutions to problems, your team will inevitably conflict over the best solutions, and they will encounter new problems. In your role as a leader and knowledge broker, you will have to act as a mediator. Instead of letting coders, designers and marketers double down, it’s your job to force them into constructive discussions, compromises and new syntheses.

Encourage conflict, but step in to interrogate your team members’ entrenched ideas. Drill down into their beliefs to uncover the assumptions that lie beneath their particular way of doing things. Keep asking them “why” until they can’t answer anymore.

For example, imagine a coder who absolutely refuses to try a designers idea. First, ask them why the idea won’t work. Maybe there isn’t enough memory, but why isn’t there enough memory? Maybe some other process is hogging memory, but should it be? Maybe there’s some way to shift memory usage. Perhaps another team member has a better way of organizing this memory-hogging process, or they might have an alternative idea that wouldn’t hog so much memory in the first place.

If you’ve cast your team well, there should be conflict. Different people with different backgrounds and skill sets will have different ideas. They will want to solve different problems in different ways. They will have strong opinions about how things “should” be done.

No conflict is a bad sign. It means no one is trying anything new, and that no one is questioning the standard way of doing things. Innovation comes from solving problems, and those problems won’t reveal themselves if everyone is ignoring them.

Your job is to put together a team full of different skill sets and ideas and then to manage and broker those conflicting ideas. If you lead your team of non-conformists well, you can push their knowledge into a new synthesis of ideas and valuable solutions.

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How to Host a Workplace Holiday Party Without Inviting a Lawsuit

Oh, Christmas: the time of year when you drink hot apple cider, schedule sleigh rides, and worry about holiday-spawned lawsuits. If you’re like most managers, you don’t know how to tackle the season without increasing your company’s liability. You might have read that it’s illegal to put up Christmas decorations, or that you should instruct your employees to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” but is that true? How can you keep your company protected without having to say “Bah, Humbug?” Here’s what you need to know about religious discrimination during the holiday season.

Christmas Trees Aren’t Illegal

Christmas trees are not a crime, nor are menorahs, Christmas songs, Kwanzaa decorations, snowflakes, or any other holiday-themed baubles — even if they’re religious. You and your employees are still allowed to celebrate, whether that’s baking sugar cookies or putting up a mini-Nativity scene on your desk. However, you need to understand the specifics of employment law and religion to make sure you don’t end up on Santa’s naughty list.

Religious Discrimination

You can’t discriminate against your employees based on their religious beliefs and practices. You also can’t allow your employees to harass or discriminate against their coworkers. The law recognizes several types of discrimination: disparate treatment, disparate impact, and hostile work environments. All three have been illegal since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Disparate Treatment

It’s illegal to treat people of one religion differently from people of another faith. For example, you can’t give Christian employees Christmas Day off of work and tell all of your Jewish employees they’re required to cover those shifts. You are allowed to let people take off for the holidays, but you can’t set the schedule based on religion.

Disparate Impact

As a manager, you have to be careful about your decisions in the workplace. If you set policy that impacts one religious group more than others, you’re still breaking the law. For example, if your company gave everyone free hams for Christmas, this would impact Muslim and Jewish employees, who traditionally don’t eat pork products. Likewise, you can’t permit holiday decorations except for unlit candles, because some religious groups celebrate winter holidays by displaying candles. It’s reasonable to tell staff the fire code won’t allow lit candles in the building — but not to ban unlit candles entirely. It can be tricky to avoid this type of discrimination because you can accidentally impact your employees even with the best of intentions. It’s best to use a committee or outside resource to make sure you’re staying inclusive.

Harassment

The most apparent form of religious discrimination is harassment, and it’s easy to run into trouble here. An employee might feel harassed by excessive holiday celebrations, especially if they’re pervasive or evangelical. A Nativity can be a lovely Christmas decoration for the office. A banner proclaiming that “Christ died for our sins” would be inappropriate. Likewise, an employee inviting the office to celebrate Christmas mass is appropriate; allowing that employee to send repeated invitations could turn into harassment. Make sure everyone is celebrating the holidays in a spirit of good cheer.

Sexual Harassment

Do your workplace holiday blow-outs include alcohol? You might want to rethink that policy. Many religions discourage or forbid their members to imbibe. Employees from those religious backgrounds won’t feel like attending a drunken end-of-the-year holiday party. Plus, you’re setting your company up for a slew of sexual harassment complaints or even legal liability for accidents caused by post-party driving under the influence. Redirect the alcohol budget towards better food — or bigger bonuses.

The Grinch hasn’t stolen holiday spirit from the office. Instead, today’s employment laws make sure everyone feels included in winter celebrations. As long as you’re willing to put in some effort, you can host a rocking holiday party that raises morale without leaving anyone out in the cold. Creating a safe environment for all of your staff is indeed the best present you can get them.

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10 Critical Traits Managers and Team Leaders Should Possess

One of the worst things that can happen to your small business is to have disgruntled employees who dread going to work. That situation often leads to reduce productivity and engagement, as well as high turnover rates. That translates to less revenue and higher costs due to hiring expenses. How you treat your employees has a direct impact on their attitude, but you’ll often be busy on big picture tasks. Your managers and team leaders must pick up the slack. Here are a few traits that you’ll want to encourage in them:

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