In the timeless classic Peopleware, the authors tell the anecdote of an employee who was, at first glance, not visibly standing out in terms of any particular ability. One thing was striking, though: Projects she was involved in had a significant higher chance of being successful than projects she was not a part of. The secret? Tom DeMarco writes:
“After watching her in class for a week and talking to some of her co-workers, I came to the conclusion that she was a superb catalyst.”
The downside to that story is that DeMarco could not make her boss see how being a good catalyst was of any importance. Catalyst? What kind of a fancy term is this, anyway?
What is a catalyst?
In chemistry, a catalyst is a substance that increases the rate of a reaction between other substances. For example, finely divided iron serves as a catalyst for nitrogen and hydrogen, whose reaction yields ammonia. Chemical catalysts are hugely important: They play a vital role in the production of synthetic fuels, in the production of acids, in food processing, and many other processes. According to Wikipedia, “estimates are that 90% of all commercially produced chemical products involve catalysts at some stage in the process of their manufacture”.
In an organization made of humans, catalysts are just as important. Ideally, an organization makes full use of their employees’ talents and ideas. In reality, though, this is rarely the case.
How many meetings pass with only two or three people talking, instead of gathering ideas from the whole group?
How many people are stuck in the wrong role, and cannot do what they do best every day?
Like with nitrogen and hydrogen which produce ammonia, the basic ingredients are there: People with remarkable creativity on the one side, and the need for good ideas on the other side. Here, people with great talents. There, an unfilled role requiring these talents.
However, in many cases, these situations do not get improved by themselves. People might be too shy to speak up, or might not consider their ideas relevant. Maybe they are new to the company, and do not feel they have the standing yet to make a suggestion. Maybe they do not know about an open position, or do not trust themselves to be up to it.
In these cases, a good catalyst — also called a facilitator — can make all the difference.
She can moderate and guide a meeting so that everyone gets to speak. She can encourage the quiet ones, and ask the more outspoken ones to respect other people’s talking time. She can read on someone’s face if they are holding something back, but would like to get it out. And she can spot somebody’s special talent and find the perfect role or task for them.
The common theme is: On the one side, you have some resource slumbering in a person - knowledge, ideas, talent, skills. On the other side, you have your organization, thirsting for the performance of its people.
If they do not find their way to each other naturally, you need someone in the middle — a catalyst, or a manager, or a coach. What exactly you call them is not that crucial, as long as they are observant persons with the will to help.
In fact, catalysts come in many forms and roles. For example, being a catalyst is one of the core responsibilities of a people manager, because they are supposed to turn individuals’ talents and potential into performance for the organization. Organizational coaches (e.g., agile coaches) can improve the performance of entire teams by helping them find their optimal way of collaborating. Finally, my current employer is blessed with some great facilitators who can jump into any meeting or group discussion and make it more productive.
What is their secret? How can you become a catalyst, or facilitator? I will first discuss one-on-one situations, before I turn to group situations separately.
Probably the most important skill in one-on-one conversations is listening, closely followed by asking good questions that make the other person think. The guiding questions I have before a one-on-one are usually:
- Are there any immediate problems that my employee wants to talk about, and that I might be able to help with?
- If not, or after we have dealt with them: Which non-urgent yet important topics could we talk about?
Obviously, immediate problems should be tackled, because they threaten day-to-day peace, focus, and productivity. However, as a catalyst, it is your job to help the other person develop over time. It helps a lot if you come to a meeting armed with three questions. Maybe you will not need them, but if the conversation stalls, you can fall back to these prepared questions. Before a one-on-one, take a couple of minutes to go over your previous notes, and check if new questions come to mind now that some time has passed since you took them. Additionally, you can check out this great list of one-on-one questions and get some inspiration there. I have a printout of them in my notebook all the time.
Andrew Grove, the long-term Intel CEO, described the manager’s job in a one-on-one as follows:
“What is the role of the supervisor in a one-on-one? He should facilitate the subordinate’s expression of what’s going on and what’s bothering him. The supervisor is there to learn and to coach.”
Note the word “facilitate” in Grove’s quote. Facilitation means to help, to empower, to enable. Frequently, people do not know exactly how they want to develop, where they want to go, or what exactly doesn’t feel right for them. In those cases, they need your help and facilitation.
Dave Zwieback shared a great article about a developer who was dissatisfied, and, during subsequent one-on-ones, erratically suggested changes his manager should make - first, a raise, then a promotion, then a role transition. Finally, he realized that what was actually bothering him was that he could not do the work he wanted to do in his current role. He wanted to move into mobile development, and this was not possible at this company. The “solutions” he suggested previously would not have solved the root problem at all. That was where his manager came in as a facilitator: He helped the developer to gain insight about what he really wanted to do. He did so by listening and asking good questions.
Here are some examples of questions you can use to get to the bottom of issues, and to encourage thinking:
- “Have you thought about…?” This is great to gently push people. “Have you thought about writing a TechBlog article on your performance optimization project?” Or: “Have you thought about submitting a talk proposal to the conference in autumn?”
- “What do you think would happen if…?” In the example described by Dave, the manager might ask: “What would happen if you were promoted to senior engineer? Would you do work you like better? Would you be happier?”
- “If you could freely choose a project in the company, what would it be?”
- “Think ahead six months. What would your future you advise your present you to do?”
- “Why do you think people reacted the way they did when you suggested…?”
It’s great if there is some silence after you pose one of these questions. They are not easy questions, so some silent thinking is actually desired. Easy questions are not a good use of your one-on-one time. Put thought in your questions, so that your employees will follow your example and put thought in their answers. Only by thinking beyond their day-to-day business will they achieve true progress and development.
It turns out that catalysts can have a tremendous effect on a team’s performance. In this context, it is worthwhile to take a look at Project Aristotle, a research effort undertaken by Google’s People Operations department. The Project Aristotle researchers wanted to find out what differentiates excellent teams from mediocre ones. A lot of candidate criteria were considered as differentiators:
Do teammates have similar interests outside of work? Do they have similar educational backgrounds? What is the gender balance on the team like? Are the people on the team rather introvert or rather outgoing?
However, all these criteria had to be dismissed at some point. There were no patterns in the data the researchers collected. After more than a year of additional research, the Project Aristotle staff found the answer: The single most important feature that could predict if a team would be performing well or not was the communication culture a team maintained. What were the behavioural norms, what were the unwritten rules a team followed? It turned out that the interaction of people in the best teams consistently had two decisive properties:
- Conversational turn-taking: Team members spoke in roughly the same proportion. This might mean that everyone spoke during every task, or that some people spoke during tasks of type A, others during tasks of type B, and so on. At the end of the day, however, the total speaking time was roughly the same for everyone.
- High average social sensitivity: Team members were, on average, good at sensing how others felt based on their tone of voice, their posture, their facial expressions, their gestures, etc. Moreover, they adapted their own behaviour to these signs.
Traits like “conversational turn-taking” and “high social sensitivity” contribute to the larger concept of psychological safety. Overall, teams where members felt psychologically safe outperformed teams where this was not the case. Their collective intelligence was higher than their individual intelligence might have you think (see this 2008 study by CMU, M.I.T., and Union College researchers for detailed information).
This insight might be surprising, because it means that teams composed of people who, by themselves, do not stand out very much, can beat teams composed of superstars.
However, the explanation is straightforward: If people feel psychologically safe in their team environment, they are not afraid to speak up. They freely share and discuss ideas, without fear of being ridiculed, criticized, or making a fool of themselves. The fact that everyone contributes what they really think - instead of what they think others want to hear - means that the best ideas surface quickly and compete against each other. People’s strengths will complement each other instead of compete with each other. The end result will, on average, be better than if there are only one or two real decision makers.
How to increase psychological safety
Catalysts, or facilitators, can do a lot to increase psychological safety. In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni demonstrates that free exchange of ideas has a lot to do with trust. If you feel that people are holding back in meetings, a lack of trust could be an issue. A facilitator can help establish trust by sharing some personal things, and encouraging others to follow her example. Some other actions you can take to increase psychological safety in a group are:
- Show that nobody has to save face or be afraid of appearing stupid by asking questions. Lead by example and just ask a “stupid” question. As an alternative, ask a question where you already know the answer, because a) it does not hurt to double check, and b) you are not sure if everybody else in the meeting knows the answer. Often, the first question in a meeting or presentation is like an ice breaker. I have been in a lot of meetings where I thought: “I would like to ask a question now, but I am not sure if this question is ok. I will rather ask somebody in private later, in a safe environment.” You can actively create this safe environment by asking one question too many, rather than too few.
- Deliberately ask quieter people what they think, especially when you have a feeling they want to say something, but are hesitant. This way, you can promote conversational turn-taking until others follow your example and it becomes part of the team culture.
- Calmly, but firmly stop people from interrupting each other. Hold everyone accountable for letting others finish their thoughts.
Remember: Measures like these are not just about making everyone feel good (even though it doesn’t hurt), but about increasing the collective intelligence of the group, and therefore getting better results.
Catalysts are underrated
If you want to become a catalyst, that’s great. However, remember the example at the beginning of this post, where Tom DeMarco could not make a manager see the value of his employee’s outstanding catalyst skills. This anecdote happened decades ago, but probably the mindset of many managers is the same even today. The value a catalyst contributes is not easy to grasp, and the concept will seem somewhat esoteric to some. Therefore, you should usually not expect to get a raise, a promotion, or tremendous support if you develop your catalyst skills. Sometimes, the value of a good catalyst goes unnoticed until they are gone - and sometimes, not even then.
You can, however, expect the appreciation of the people you help with your abilities. Even if they cannot put their finger on it, they will know that you enable them grow and succeed. If your motivation is to empower people, developing and applying these skills is very rewarding. So rewarding, in fact, that you don’t even need to see your psychologically safe team outperform the team made up of competitive rock stars and ninjas. However, when they do, it certainly feels good, doesn’t it?
This blog post took me about 5.5h to write and research.
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