In my previous article I talked about how important team self-awareness is for effective collaboration, especially for teams with different personalities working together.
What makes a team self-aware is understanding and consciously building on the interpersonal dynamics of its members. Whatever issue you may face, if you can decode what’s going on within the team on an emotional level, you’ll be in a much better position to come up with solutions that will actually get the results you want.
If a communications training program that was meant to solve your organization’s problems with giving open feedback, proactively sharing ideas, and flagging issues has ever failed to bring you long-term results, not acknowledging this interpersonal layer is likely the reason why.
Before you can effectively work on building your team’s self-awareness, there is one essential element you need to focus on: you.
You can only bring to the team what you’ve first cultivated in yourself. For interpersonal dynamics to change, each team member has to be able to take ownership of the part they play in how things are going.
I once held a collaboration training where a salesperson complained endlessly about a client he had. He was frustrated because he felt like the client didn’t understand anything he was saying, communication was going in circles, and he didn’t understand “how someone so incompetent could be in such a high position”. This is a pretty common scenario I hear from experts working on the agency side.
It’s possible this person was justified in his frustration, but that’s not the point. What’s important to note here is that by getting stuck in blaming the client, his behavior became a barrier to collaboration.
In Radical Collaboration (the main methodology I work with to help organizations build highly collaborative work cultures), this is an example of defensiveness.
When we get defensive, the emotional part of our brain overrules our rational mind, and our behavior can easily go against our best interest. These reactions are often automatic. Reflecting back on them later, we might realize that acting differently would have led to better results, but in the moment, we’re unable to see things clearly. This gap negatively affects both our experience at work and the contributions we’re able to make.
On the other hand, if we can learn to maintain a calm, non-defensive presence, we will be able to recognize what’s actually in our best interest and choose to act accordingly. As a result, not only will we feel more aligned, but our work relationships and our impact will also improve.
In the story about the “incompetent client”, a self-aware person might notice that his own fear of incompetence was triggered: “Maybe my explanations aren’t clear enough and I don’t know how to make myself understood or communicate with someone who is not an expert in my field”. He can also recognize that it’s in his best interest for the client to understand him and be able to deliver the information to their team, otherwise he will have to face even more frustration in the future.
With this realization, he can shift out of blame and find more effective ways to act, like asking clarifying questions in a curious way or creating a visual to better illustrate his point. This, in turn, will help him earn the client’s trust and move the needle towards his company’s goal of establishing a long-term partnership.
When people are able to manage the short-term discomfort of looking at their own ineffective behaviors like this, that’s when the possibility of a radically collaborative work culture is born.
There are many great initiatives and structural models organizations can embrace to promote collaboration, but how effective they end up being depends a lot on people’s willingness to engage with them.
No matter how well-designed or evidence-based a workshop is, it will only bring about results if team members are open to learning and applying the new information.
Taking an honest look at how our own behavior might hinder collaboration can be difficult, but we have a personal responsibility to ourselves and to our team to do so. If we aren’t willing to hear how our behavior is triggering for others and when we might be overreacting, we aren’t being collaborative.
Start taking responsibility for your own part in work relationships by learning about your defensive signs. Get curious about those red buttons inside your psyche that, when pushed, cause you to react automatically instead of consciously choosing your behavior.
Once you are familiar with these, try looking at interpersonal situations through the lens of interests. What is it you are actually trying to achieve here? What are the interests of everyone else involved? If you act a certain way now, will that serve your and the company’s best interest in the long run?
You might think that your employee asking for a pay raise so soon after getting hired is ludicrous. “Who the hell does he think he is? I never would have been so bold at his age”, you might think. Your first reaction could be to put him in his place and quickly dismiss him.
But is this actually in your best interest? If your goal is to make sure your employee feels valued and like he has a future to look forward to in the company, then probably not.
Does this mean you should automatically give him what he asks for? Not necessarily. Even if you thought he actually deserved the raise, you might have a budget you need to stick to, which is also one of your interests.
How you will respond in a situation like this depends on a variety of different factors, and there isn’t one right way to act. But getting clear on your interests and considering whether your response will actually help you achieve them is crucial for navigating it without causing damage. If you can also learn to put yourself in the other party’s shoes and empathize with his interests, you even have a chance of strengthening your relationship.
Want to dive deeper into building a radically collaborative work culture? Need help teaching your team how to recognize and change their ineffective behaviors when it comes to collaboration? Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s get strategic together!