Cairn Leadership

Develop Strong Team Character To Improve Performance

Developing good character for leadersDid you know that the Ancient Greek root for the word character literally means sharpen, cut in furrows, or engrave?

This meaning fits. Your character is the mark you make on the world, one little etch at a time. Yet most of us don’t think about it all that much. We move through our days without regard to our mark, or how our habits engrave themselves on us in return.

Many leaders also forget to consider character’s role in their team’s success. This is because we tend to look at character as black and white, making it an unapproachable subject in the workplace. To tell someone you want to improve their character makes it sound like you think they are a liar or cheat. In reality, we all have a little virtue and a little vice. A team that openly talks about and intentionally works on their collective character will outperform others in the long run.

Confronting challenge is a key way to develop character. Read more about personal leadership and character here.

What is Team Character?

We like Dr. Angela Duckworth’s definition of “everything you feel, think, say and do.” Her definition aligns with Aristotle’s idea that our thoughts become actions, our actions become habits, and our habits ultimately become our character. While individuals can go through this process of character development, your team also builds a culture with or without good character. Your collective thoughts and actions come to define your team and its performance.

What’s the benefit of focusing on team character in business?

Having good team character means we think, feel, speak and act in alignment with our collective strengths and values. If your team makes regrettable decisions, is unsure of how to act in certain situations, or you all don’t feel like you lived up to your potential moment to moment, you have some work to do. When you hold each other accountable to high character standards, you all get closer to your collective potential.

Good character matters because it allows us to show up in the best possible way with our daily thoughts and actions. This matters a lot for team performance. Character alignment drives authentic leadership, deep belonging on a team, and ultimately high performance. Quality character also drives trust within a team, as people consistently know what to expect from their teammates.

A tool for evaluating character

We assume your team intends to do the right thing. If you intend to harm others or live out of alignment with your values, you might be vicious or wicked. That’s a whole different story.

In our week long collaboration with Travis Manion Foundation and the US Naval Academy, one Midshipman observed that our true character comes out when things get hard. The real ‘us’ becomes clear instead of the ‘us’ we wish we were. To test your team’s character, take stock when things are difficult. Here are four situations you might find yourself in with your team that could shed light on collective character.

Four key character situations

1. You don’t know the right thing to do. This is the easiest to fix! If you and your team find yourselves looking at a challenge and not knowing what to do, start with some reflection on your core values and mission statement. We work on this in all of our Leadership Development Programs. Next, invest in an ethical reasoning course or even a good book on the subject. Then spend some time studying critical thinking. We have robust curriculum in all these areas to help!

Ultimately this situation comes down to a test of integrity (it’s hard to do the right thing but you know what you should do) or an ethical dilemma (all options seem questionable). Developing better ethical reasoning will help you navigate a dilemma, and critical thinking will help you isolate tests of integrity. Another powerful tool for a team in ambiguity is to have diversity of thought. When many different perspectives are available, you will be a likely to find a good option instead of settling for the least of evils. Hire for diverse perspective and generate psychological safety to allow people to speak up!

2. You know the right thing to do, but you don’t do it. Ok, like me, you ate the entire box of Thin Mints when no one was looking, and you regret it. Good news! Character is trainable. Spending time with other people confronting adversity is the best way to develop your character strengths, which of course is part of all our programs. Get an accountability partner or coach, read about habits, and start tracking your character wins. Building strong character for yourself and your team boosts your reliability and impacts foundational trust. When you and your team consistently talk about character and set a high standard, you are much more likely to meet that standard. Just note that character development is a lifelong pursuit. Aristotle noted that our character is always improving or degrading. Your team is likely the same.

3. You end up doing the right thing by accident.
In backcountry skiing we call this non-event feedback. You pat yourself on the back for being a good person, but you don’t actually know you will respond the right way next time. This one calls for some serious reflection and a postmortem on your decisions. You need to be sure you are doing the right things for the right reasons.

Post-mortems can be effective in many different formats. One of our guides asks “did we get it, or did we get lucky?” I like the question: “when were we most at risk and what did we (or didn’t we) do about it?” Simple structures like goods, bads and actionable insights work well too. The key here is to have a structure to debrief any meaningful moment or decision for your team and build in the discipline to actually do it.

4. You know and do the right thing for the right reasons.
Celebrate. Things feel right when we act in accordance with our desired character. These are the hard decisions that you could not imagine doing differently afterward. Note that character is always getting better or worse though. One win is just a step on your journey, not permanent good character to take to the bank.

Build your team character foundation

Rapid growth in your organization tests relationships, strains resources, and creates ambiguity. Building a strong foundation of character can help your team successfully navigate growth and change. Here’s a trail map to help get you started:

  1. Define your core values
  2. Define your team’s core values
  3. Determine the character attributes that are welcome and unwelcome
  4. Recognize and reward behavior that aligns with your team’s preferred character attributes
  5. Spend time learning critical thinking
  6. Spend time learning ethical reasoning

Want to accelerate this process? We can help with custom lessons given on an adventure designed to make the lessons sticky. Take two minutes to design your adventure with this quick survey.