Your team may not be facing down malevolent world-dominating aliens from outer space, but you can probably learn something from a team that does so successfully. I am speaking, in this case, about The Avengers, that multi-talented squadron of superheroes blowing up movie screens near you.
They’ve got a team. You’ve got a team. What can a super-soldier, a couple of spies, an archer who never misses, a billionaire playboy in high-tech armor, a Norse myth with a big hammer, and a giant green engine of destruction teach your team? Plenty.
Before I tell you they can teach you, though, a word of caution. If you’ve seen The Avengers, you may recognize the following examples; if you haven’t,then consider this your one, true, SPOILER ALERT.
Lesson 1: Infighting is counter productive. Sure, this sounds obvious, but how many organizations suffer because of it, or how management handles it? In The Avengers, the villain Loki got the upper hand by exploiting team diversity, differences of opinion, and mistrust. He set the Avengers at each other’s throats, which gave him an opportunity to attack when they were most vulnerable.
Now think about your team. The members are each different from the rest, each has his or her own viewpoint, her own skill set. Some are better at working in a team than others, some prefer to work alone. A good manager finds a way to encourage cooperation amid diverse viewpoints. Everyone on the team should be there because they bring something valuable to the table — their superpower if you will. The sooner each one learns to respect the ability of their teammates, the better for your team effort. The leader of the team should model good behavior by making it clear that all players and their powers, are valued, and must be valued by all members of the team. Even the Hulk seemed to get that by the end of the movie.
Lesson 2: Find what motivates your team members then let them do it. Nick Fury is a super-spy who can’t always be trusted to tell the truth (which is a problem, see below), but one thing he knows how to do, is to get a team going. Fury knows how to appeal to what makes the individual Avengers tick. Fury knew he needed to send the Black Widow to recruit the Hulk; he knew what he needed to say to get Captain America to get back in the fight; he knew the effect a handful of bloody trading cards would have in firing up a dispirited cadre of heroes at a critical moment.
So ask yourself: how well do you know the members of your team? Have you spent time coming to understand what matters to them, what values they hold, what makes them rally? What kinds of projects get them fired up? What aspect of your business ignites their passion? Can you find ways of encouraging the high-powered talents on your team to get excited about improving your business, your product, your competitive position? It may take time to do it, but when you figure out how best to aim the creative energy burning within your organization, you’ll be on the way toward a winning strategy. But there’s another step.
Nick Fury not only found what excited the individual Avengers, he got out of the way and let them do their thing. He didn’t micromanage how Captain America directed the team on the ground. Fury didn’t tell Hawkeye which way to aim his arrows or which of his trick arrows to use. He didn’t tell Iron Man how to handle the nuclear weapon heading for Manhattan.
Can you let members of your team do their jobs, do what they’re good at, do what you hired them for? Can you trust that you made a good call when you brought them in, or do you feel the need to obsessively look over their shoulders? Can you let them make mistakes and trust them to be professional enough, and motivated enough to learn from their errors and improve? As smart, accomplished, and tough as Fury was, he knew he couldn’t call down lightning from the sky. He had Thor for that. As a leader you’re smart, and accomplished, and probably tough. But you can’t do everything. Otherwise having a team would just be unnecessary overhead.
Lesson 3: You need people to ask the tough questions. In The Avengers, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, two very different, very intelligent scientists, started the tough questions about what was really going on in the background. Obviously, Fury didn’t want them asking those questions, which eventually sent even Captain America off to unearth some facts. But having the answers to those questions — even though they pointed to some unsettling truths — eventually freed up members of the team to move forward toward united action. They were well-informed about negative facts about S.H.I.E.L.D, and they still worked to achieve Fury’s ultimate goals.
Do you surround yourself with “yes” men? Are people in your organization afraid to ask questions about initiatives? Do people keep to themselves important ideas – ideas that could help you avoid pitfalls – because they fear you won’t listen? Is there a perception among your staffers that a questioner will be branded as “not a team player?” If you can answer “yes” to any of those questions, then you’re crippling your team and shooting yourself in the foot by leaving all that intellectual capital – all that important stuff they’re not telling you – on the table.
Lesson 4: Being dishonest with your team breeds distrust. A related point, but subtly different. Again, consider Nick Fury. He mislead the Avengers about what he was doing with the Cosmic Cube, but team members began not only questioning what he was hiding, but before long, began using valuable time trying to uncover what Fury wasn’t telling them. In another example, the Black Widow lied to Banner, he figured it out, and later, they both had reason to regret it.
Do the members of your team have reason to believe what you’re telling them? There may be things you can’t tell them for legal, ethical, or other reasons. But can you trust them to understand that fact — that some information may not be accessible for very good reasons — or do you feel that you need to mislead them? Those who try to fool smart people often end up only deceiving themselves. Meanwhile, how much time and energy are being expended,wasted, really, by staff members trying to figure out what’s really going on, worrying about it, and discussing it amongst themselves? Wouldn’t it be better if all that time and energy was trained toward prepping for the alien invasion — or making your organization more successful?
Lesson 5: Good public relations flows from setting an inspiring example. There’s a scene toward the end of The Avengers, when newscasts are showing the public reaction to the revelation that there are extremely powerful superheroes among them, who have just taken part in trashing much of New York, albeit to repel the invading hordes from another world. One young woman, rescued from imminent death, looks at the camera and says, “Captain America saved my life.” The Avengers couldn’t buy that kind of publicity. And there was no better time for it.
So while your organization may not be beating off super-villains, it might well be that you can find a way to generate some good will by doing something good in your community. Can members of your team volunteer to tutor kids at a local school, or donate some hours to a worthy cause? You will feel good about it, you will look good doing it, and frankly, some people will remember it should you ever have need of people to speak well of your team, your company, your organization. If you never have to wrestle with bad publicity, so much the better. But by doing some good in your community, you build a good name. Remember the words of Avengers creator Stan Lee (in connection with some other wall-crawling hero): “With great power comes great responsibility.”