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Shaving the Tiger: Understand and Recalibrating the Default Setting of a Team

Part of understanding the collective self-knowledge of a team is to understand its default setting—what it is likely to do when under stress or when operating on automatic pilot.

When under pressure, teams that have a history of operational focus go directly to the numbers, root-cause discussions, and Excel spreadsheet examinations. Health-care teams almost immediately argue about outcomes and support these arguments with data (then often argue about whose data is better). What is missing when this happens?

A Team’s default setting is not unlike our individual default settings and derailers when under stress. Do I move toward or away from others when pressured? What happens to my ability to trust? How do I cover my derriere when under threat? We know from studies on Emotional Intelligence (EI) that self-awareness is the first key step in recognizing our own default settings. It is equally important, though sometimes more difficult to recognize, what a team’s default setting is when under the gun.

I was amazed (but somehow not surprised) to see, while watching a recent Animal Planet program, that when tigers are shaved, their stripes are also present in their skin. This says something about our fundamental personality or wiring, as the “who we are” goes deep—down to our very skins.

We work very deliberately to make these default settings both predictable and a normal response to stress, often to the point of having teams rehearse and exaggerate pressure situations so they are less likely to go on autopilot. We believe that the antidote to moving away from real teaming when under threat is to adopt a conscious and deliberate style that says, “We know our default settings. If we find ourselves doing X (our default setting), someone needs to ‘throw the flag’ and revisit our agreements about how we will operate together.” This collective team knowledge is like a fire alarm that gets the attention of the team members and returns them to the agreements they made about working together and really resolving issues using their collective intelligence (CI).

So some questions to ponder:

• How would I describe the “default setting” of our team when under pressure?
• What assessments or instruments have we used that have provided information on our individual and collective default settings?
• How well have we articulated the “rules of the road” and what to do to sustain real teamwork—even when under great pressure?
• How would I describe my personal default setting when under stress?
• How well do we know our collective EI?

To the extent we can stay a real team – a Top Team – when under pressure will determine how well we perform both in the moment and over time.

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