As traffic grew on the London Underground in the 1960s, it became impractical for the limited number of platform attendants to warn all passengers about the danger of larger-than-expected gaps between the train and the platform. The danger was especially concerning in stations where the platforms were slightly curved – a passenger expecting a curved platform to align with a straight train carriage was at risk of an experience that posed a threat to life and limb. To solve this, the London Underground implemented an automated announcement giving people early warning to “mind the gap,” – and subway systems around the world adopted the practice. Even today, in places like Singapore where trains and platforms align with precision, announcements to “please mind the platform gap” play in various languages (locally, you can hear “berhati-hati di ruang platform”). While few corporate teams face the kind of physical danger that might befall an unaware train passenger, minding the gaps within and across teams is no less important.
Technology is enabling and accelerating the globalization and virtualization of organizations, and a new generation of employees is reshaping the present and future of work. Those megatrends are driving a shift away from the 20th-century organizational model of hero-led hierarchies toward organizations built upon knowledge workers and shared leadership, distributed across local and virtual teams. For organizations born flat, global, and virtual, the future of work is already here. However, for many companies, the gaps caused by the shift to the 21st-century world of work can feel like volcanic fissures, delivering flows of lava that can quickly damage a team or organization. Over the past few years, I’ve talked with dozens of leaders that found themselves dealing with the effect of unexpected gaps that posed a threat to the performance of their team, and I’ve encountered them myself…
Falling closer to the “volcanic fissure” level of gaps, about 18 months ago I began working with a new team made up of people from several different business groups. Everyone came from businesses with very different cultures and track records, and those differences quickly led to eruptions as a lack of role clarity caused inefficiencies and animosity. More significantly, while the leadership clearly defined the desired team norms, they failed to use them to guide the team and assess whether or not people were living up to those values. The resulting rifts between people led to both poor team performance and diminished well-being.
My own experience with unexpected gaps occurred several years ago. I was leading a team within a fast-growing business unit at a company that required a formal end-of-year performance and career conversation. Although I made a habit of continuous feedback and conversations with my team, I still completed the formal process. After the year-end conversations, I asked the team for feedback on the quality of their career discussions. Much to my surprise, a couple of team members indicated that there was a significant gap between what they had expected and their experience during our conversation. Since the feedback was anonymous and I didn’t know which team members had lacking experience, I quickly set up another round of career conversations with everyone. I then asked for feedback again to ensure that I closed any gaps. While the impact was small and quickly addressed, it was humbling to realize that, no matter the level of preparation and anticipation, gaps can happen anywhere.
While each of those examples differs in context, they highlight the fact that gaps in people’s expectations of each other, versus what they experience, occur across every organizational context. Like the game ‘Whack-A-Mole’ they can pop up anywhere, anytime. The important question is not how we as leaders can eliminate all the gaps within and across our teams, but how can we better manage them as they inevitably occur?
Minding the Gaps
- Regularly gather feedback on team member’s expectations of each other, of themselves, and of the other teams that support achieving their goals versus their actual experience.
- Openly discuss the feedback and acknowledge the existing gaps, then prioritize them.
- Identify specific actions to close those gaps.
- Track progress, and repeat the cycle.
A powerful way to develop the habit of closing gaps is to build it into the discipline of the regular team and one-to-one conversations that should include:
- Weekly Individual Check-ins – Holding a weekly, short one-on-one is critical to keeping people energized. It is an opportunity to touch base on goals and progress, and to learn what you can do to support achieving them. The conversations should be biased towards asking questions versus giving direction and should support versus asking for a report. Team leaders should be sure to mention any existing gaps and the progress on closing them.
- Monthly Team Reviews – These team meetings should focus on your team’s progress against existing goals, including closing gaps, ensuring alignment of purpose, processes, and priorities, and reviewing the latest feedback for new gaps. Most importantly, these reviews should be action-oriented with clear ownership and follow-up on prior actions.
- Quarterly 1-to-1 Reviews – This once-per-quarter discussion around effort, performance, and career offers team leaders an opportunity to ensure clear alignment between each team member’s role and purpose with that of the team and organization. It is also an opportunity to reinforce team norms as well as the part each team member plays in upholding those values. And, as always, to maintain a focus on the progress to close existing gaps.
It’s All About Relationships
It is because we are human that gaps develop between what people expect of each other and what they experience. We don’t engage with one another via finely-tuned algorithms, but through a messy mix of rational thought, emotions, preconceived ideas, and expectations – all viewed through the lens of our individual personalities and experiences. As Dale Carnegie, the 20th Century writer and leadership trainer, summarized in the simple, straightforward style that made him famous, “When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.”
As organizations become more team-based, the importance of managing relationships – particularly, team members’ experiences versus their expectations with one another, their leader, and across other teams that share the same goals – becomes critical to the success of the team and the people on it. When you develop the habit of proactively identifying and minding the gaps between what we expect of our key relationships and what we experience, you tap into the essence of the human experience that powers people’s energy and engagement at work.