Have you seen the More Cowbell sketch from Saturday Night Live? It’s more than just comedy. It’s a powerful metaphor for a successful work life. And it provides insight into the kind of people you need on your team, and what makes an effective team.
Everyone has at least one cowbell — it’s your unique, profitable talent people pay you for or your company’s unique offering. It’s something people have a fever for. When you discover it and give those people a ton of it, you gain success and happiness for both yourself and others. It’s a win-win.
A cowbell is simultaneously something you love doing and something other people really want as well (though you still may have detractors and critics). A cowbell creates joy for you and other people. They can’t get enough.
It’s awesome to have a group of peers or tight team of coworkers. You could have your own Blue Öyster Cult! (Yes, that’s the band from More Cowbell. And it’s proof that obscurity was an essential part of their DNA that they are the focus of one of the most famous SNL sketches ever, but not much more famous for it!)
Your group will not always be right, but they’ll still be awesome.
We need teams. You never see anybody seesawing by himself (we hope). Similarly, your cowbell requires someone else. It has to be played within an ensemble. Honestly, nobody wants to hear a cowbell solo. Someday there might arise a Jimi Hendrix of the cowbell, but to achieve that level of “artistry,” he’d have to be on even more drugs than Hendrix — and to enjoy it, so would we!
If what you think is your cowbell isn’t helping anyone else, it may just be an experiment in psychotic selfishness!
A cowbell has to add something. It has to make a contribution. Your cowbell should allow you to be part of a community. It gives you a role to play. The cowbell is rhythmic, but often that beat is established by the drummer. Do you understand how your cowbell fits in with others?
It’s important that your cowbell meshes within a community. In the sketch, the cowbell had to fit in. In fact, that was the source of most of the conflict.
Because a cowbell adds value to your community, it makes you an important part of that community. You may not be accepted at first; but stand up for your unique contribution, and others will acknowledge your value.
The overall meetings and conferences Brian and Garrison speak at go on for from one to several days. As keynote speakers, they’re not the only focus. They’re part of the process — a necessary part, but only a part. The speaker has to learn what conference is about, what the other speakers are going to talk about, and what the goals and theme of the conference are. Why is the audience there? What big issues are they working on? What big changes have happened and how have they affected the group? When speakers discover those answers, they can make a bigger contribution and become part of that community of being successful together.
So, how do you get your cowbell to fit into the community that needs it? There can be conflict in the process of fitting in, but everyone needs to figure out the best fit.
You need to be willing to say, “My cowbell doesn’t fit here the way it is right now. How can I make it fit?” New employees often go through that sort of transition. You ask, “What’s important to everybody else?” You get trained. You get the lay of the land. You learn the power structures. You learn that you can’t say certain things to certain people. You learn which things you want to do might step on somebody else’s toes. You adjust yourself to fit in.
People skills, diplomacy, and being helpful are critical for successful teamwork. If you don’t handle people well, your cowbell can rub them the wrong way, and then it’s not valued. Your behavior can eclipse your skill. A ton of people are fired every year despite their skills.
There’s a lot of talk in last 30 years about how to be an individual. We tell kids, “You don’t have to fit in. Be yourself. You’re good as is!” Absolutely you should be yourself, unless you’re naturally a bigtime jerk. Then don’t be yourself. Try to be nice. Read books written by people whose cowbell is diplomacy.
You can’t be part of community if the community believes you’re not making a contribution. You can’t be so different that they can’t relate to you. If you can’t adapt, you might need to find a different community. There’s nothing wrong with finding out you belong somewhere else.
Are you flexible enough to make adjustments along the way to reach the goal — both your goals and the team’s? In marriage, it’s not necessarily a 50-50 arrangement; maybe your spouse simply can’t change certain things and you should adapt to that.
An important part of being influential is listening. Make sure people feel heard, listened to, and cared for. If people feel that way, they’ll see you as a good fit. People accept you if they feel heard and listened to and valued.
Consistency vs. Change
Have you ever met anybody who’s a real character? These people are unique but we love them. We let them get away with more than we do the people we don’t like. If you don’t like someone, you can just suspect they did something, and you feel like you have cause to act (or speak) against them.
Why do we trust real characters? We know they’re being who they are, so we’ll let them get away with more. With a shrug and a grin, we might explain, “The laptops? Oh, yeah, ol’ Jimmy just stole ‘em… He’ll bring ’em back. You know Jimmy!” Now, this section is not written to demonize people named Jimmy, but our research shows that people named Jimmy tend to get in a lot of trouble — Jimmy Carter, for instance… to whom Brian is not related.
We all know a Jimmy type, don’t we? And their character is consistent.
People trust consistency. If you’re the same person in front of family, friends, loved ones, and coworkers, then you’re consistent.
It’s common for some guy to get promoted and suddenly be managing people who last week were his peers. Sometimes the new manager puts on a leadership mask, which creates a problem. He dresses and acts differently. People wonder what the heck’s going on, and it kills the trust they used to have with that person. “That ol’ Jimmy’s putting on airs now!” You’re not trusted as much anymore. You don’t fit in and you don’t have as much influence, especially if your name is Jimmy. Resist the temptation to be someone else. Be you. Be consistently you! You have authority now by virtue of your new position. Explain what’s going on and you’ll be good.
The hardest change for people to accept is a change in a person. We love to say that people don’t change, but they do. Changes in people cause a variety of problems. That’s one reason marriages fail. One spouse looks at the other and might not see who they married anymore, because they’ve changed so much. People lose trust. Women complain that men make money and become successful and change. A lot of people don’t deal well with fame (even microfame) or success.
So, how can you relate to people more effectively?
- Listen and make people feel valuable.
- Clearly explain the value of what you have to offer.
- Make sure people can see their input in your solution.
- Ask questions. Find out what they think and want.
- Know what’s important to them. What are their goals?
People who like you will adapt to you. And you can adapt to people you understand.
We’re not suggesting you make such radical, “community-approved” changes that your cowbell no longer resembles your cowbell. But if you can make subtle changes that enable your cowbell to intermesh better, you build stronger community for your cowbell. Community feels more tied to it/invested in it
Why Disagreement Can Be The Foundation Of Unity
Pro quarterbacks come onto a new team and are often released as soon as four months in. They may have their own way of doing things that doesn’t fit with the new team. Garrison went from playing public high school football to private. His new team had a completely different playbook. He tried to make improvements to what their playbook, but also had to accept their approach.
In the real world, change can cause more trouble than the theoretical benefit of the change itself. Small changes, if accepted, can create real improvement.
But keep in mind that people won’t accept change from someone who doesn’t care about them. Listen to your coworkers and try to understand them, and they’ll make changes for you.
To that end, Garrison developed a process called Ask – Listen – Agree – Recommend.
- Ask a question.
- Listen as they answer.
- Let them know that you agree.
- Recommend something that includes their input.
People love to hear their ideas in your solution. The things people say are the things they believe in and are committed to. Agreement is a critical step, because people hold very tightly to their beliefs and commitments.
The foundation of true agreement is disagreement. Let people be honest and put their cards on the table. Try to find out where you all agree. What can we all commit to, since we’re not on the same page? Look for middle ground that’s effective. It’s not about everybody contributing one weird piece, because that’s how you get a Frankenstein that won’t survive or thrive.
Want loyalty from your team? A person on a team in which members are allowed to disagree will be loyal to that team. Unfortunately, sometimes people mistake disagreement for disloyalty. Yet, it’s often observed that families whose members complain a lot are paradoxically loyal to each other, whereas families that don’t express how they feel are disloyal and dysfunctional. To build a strong team and community, everyone must be allowed to not agree.
And the sense of unity that comes from disagreement is exactly what you see in the “More Cowbell” sketch.
This post is an excerpt from the forthcoming book The Cowbell Principle: Career Advice On How To Get Your Dream Job And Make More Money, by Brian Carter and Garrison Wynn. Brian and Garrison will be giving away a limited number of digital copies at launch time. To get notified when they’re available, sign up at http://thecowbellprinciple.com/getnotified And don’t miss the cowbell launch giveaway, with $8,005 in prizes available!
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