Industry Update
Opinion Article11 June 2013

High Performance Teams in Hospitality

By Arturo Cuenllas

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Cuenllas

"Adam Smith said that the best result comes from everyone in the group doing what's best for himself. Right? That's what he said, right? (...) Incomplete. Incomplete, okay? Because the best result will come from everyone in the group doing what's best for himself… and the group (…) Governing dynamics, gentlemen. Governing dynamics. Adam Smith … was wrong!"

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Russell Crowe interpreting John Nash in A beautiful mind.

Leonard R. Syles explained to us how to measure effectiveness in teams in his 20-year-old book The Working Leader. By observing teams in action, he argued, one could notice certain characteristics that made operations more efficient. High performance teams, he pointed out, used to make decisions based on continuous trade-offs between the real needs of individual functions and the needs of the well-coordinated system. In this way, all team members, he said, were responsive to requests from other team members to consider modifying their own plans in order to take into account the consequences for other functions. These teams were willing to seek out alternative ways of accomplishing their objectives in any given crisis situation. Members in these teams provided each other with as much advance notice as possible regarding how they were progressing with their own assignments and were less likely to get into trouble. They also provided full and open information to others.

We have used the term high performance team to define those people working together but having a wider view of their own interest, instead of a tunnel vision. If any hotel unit is normally made of different functional departments such as the front-office, house keeping, sales & marketing, food & beverages, maintenance, etc., …the whole system efficiency will then have to be measured by the manner in which coordination and communication is conducted towards, not only every single functional department's objectives, but to the hotel final goals. These goals are simple: to provide more value to guests and to make the hotel operations more efficient at the same time. In this way, high performance teams are incentivized to improve both quality and efficiency. Efficiency/quality trade-offs are the rule in most business operations; indeed within a highly competitive market it is the right path towards competitiveness and it implies organizing the hotel culture and its operations around them.

If any company is to be considered as a role mode in this regard, that should be Southwest Airlines. There are many reasons to explain Southwest Airlines' competitiveness since its foundation -in an industry where the exception was to make profits. Many people would say that innovations was the key, but above all what made this airline company success was its culture and high performance teams. Jody Hoffer Gittell, in her book The Southwest Airlines Way, dubbed it as "relational coordination". Relational coordination resulted in fewer delays, fewer lost luggage, faster turnarounds, and higher employee productivity compared to other airlines such as United, American Airlines or Continental. Organizational factors such as shared goals, shared knowledge and mutual respect contributed substantially to effective coordination and, therefore, to quality and efficiency performance.

What is good for the individual is good for the team. We call it a team because its members share both successes and failures. We all win as a team, or we all fail as a team. We all win when each one of us succeeds but, at the same time, we all loose if anyone of us fails individually.

Peter Drucker used the term "gang" referring to groups of people calling themselves a team in many businesses organizations. There is a big difference between what we mean as a high performance team to what most people may think. Trust at work, shared between team colleagues and managers, is the basis for any good team. A good team also has the opportunity to grow together, reinforcing its confidence and reliability among team members. If such trust is not a part of the equation, we do not have a team. Instead, we have a group of individuals –or separate hotel departments - working together. A good team must also share values, conforming to proper hotel culture. Values such as solidarity within the team, confidence, humility, unselfishness, respect for all members, flexibility and, of course, truthfulness.

A bureaucratic mentality, concerned with status and hierarchies -instead of personal capabilities and attitudes –is a barrier towards developing good teams. In companies with such organizational culture it is usually more important who said something rather than what was said. On the contrary, high performance teams stress the importance of being part of a "community" contributing to developing other people's and our own ideas. The important thing here is not who came up with a brilliant idea; what matters most is how can we work as a team to implement that idea while enhancing our individual capabilities and team's know-how.

In fact, there should only be one team, which is the hotel unit. Thus, if we are talking about a hotel group, there is a second team purpose applying to the organization as a whole, which is operating and enhancing the hotel chain brand. Of course, there will be different departments attending to their issues and priorities as well, but above everything else should be the view that what matters most is the customer's satisfaction and improving hotel operations.

We should ask ourselves: how can we contribute, as individuals, within our team, to provide more value to customers? Or, in other words, how can we better serve our guests? At the same time we should ask ourselves as a team, how can we contribute to enhance our learning curve at work in order to make hotel operations more efficient?

Good teams develop knowledge synergies. Because a good team is more cohesive, it is also more effective. Indeed, in those work environments, coordination and communication among team members happen more naturally and spontaneously. We are not saying that there is no need for management when engaging in coordination or communication. Indeed, leadership is always key. However, these tasks are completed in a much easier way within high performance teams. Just because there is a shared vision and shared values in place, work is carried out in a much effortless and smoother way. On the contrary, without a cohesive team, selfishness becomes the rule and most issues to be resolved turn out to be more complicated than they should be. Therefore, what is dealt with as "easy and natural" in a good team, is considered as "not possible, unworkable or unrealistic" in a bad team.

There is no doubt that time is important in getting a high degree of cohesiveness. As human beings we are, at first, more emotional than rational. There will always be conflicts at work among colleagues. Teams are not in an everlasting calm state. Yet, when strong company values are internalised by a majority of the team members, there is usually no need for management in resolving conflicts constantly. Chris Argyris, Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School, in his work about organizational learning, wrote that the difference between a good team and a bad team is the ability to solve conflicts and discrepancies within its members.

This is also our experience. Our management efforts were not directed at solving endless conflicts caused by narrow personal views or functional departments selfishness. We would seldom intervene to solve a conflict unless the people involved would not resolve it by themselves. Does this mean that leadership should not be very involved with behavioural or personal issues? Not at all. However, being more into action does not mean that all sorts for problems should be resolved at the top.

Good teams need their time to grow; day-by-day, issue-by-issue… There is a famous sequence in the movie “Any given Sunday” in which Toni D´Amato, a football coach played by Al Pacino, gives a brilliant speech to all team members during the final game. In our day-by-day work, in the small daily tasks, we will encounter many situations to which the same speech could apply. As a football team they talk about inches but, in essence, they are talking about the same values: solidarity, confidence, respect, sacrifice to the team, and success, or defeat, which finally affects the whole team. The coach says: “…inch by inch, play by play, ´till we´re finished (…) The inches we need are everywhere around us. On this team we fight for that inch (…) you gonna look at the guy next to you. Look into his eyes! Now I think you´re gonna see a guy who will go that inch with you. You are gonna see a guy who will sacrifice himself for this team because he knows when it comes down to it, your are gonna do the same for him! That´s a team, gentlemen! And, either we heal, now, as a team, or we will die as individuals”.

Collective Management in hospitality believes that, in general, the right group of employees, together with their managers, should achieve better thinking as a team than individually. Collective Management ideas such as guest feedback management, in-group dialogues, in-action working or mistakes recognition and sharing, within team members, are not idealistic management dreams, precisely because a good team is a solid pillar on which to build a more innovative model of management.

Arturo Cuenllas

Founder of Conscious Hospitality: a Hospitality Educational Consultancy in Management, Leadership and Sustainability | MBA professor at BHMS –City University of Seattle- in Luzern, Switzerland | MBA associate professor at ESCP Europe Business School in Madrid, Spain | Experienced Hotel General Manager, 20 years overall international experience in the hotel industry; luxury and upscale city hotels and resorts.

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