One change I’ve been happy to see in the business world in the last few years is that organizations are becoming more aware of the importance of social skills when it comes to getting better results and creating better workplaces. Concepts like self-awareness and emotional intelligence are becoming part of the day-to-day lingo, and if you ask me, it can’t happen soon enough.
Self-awareness in organizations is integral to my work because without it, there’s no real collaboration. If you want a group of people to work together effectively, they need to have self-awareness on both an individual and team level.
I was recently reminded of how essential this is when we were organizing follow-up sessions to a collaboration workshop with a client. We had talked a lot about defensiveness and how it can invisibly hinder collaboration, and the follow-ups would help the team reflect on how this has shown up since the workshop. They would then come up with strategies for how they can better handle these situations in the future.
The workshop went really well, and the client even wrote to me a couple of weeks later to share the positive changes they had noticed since then. But when it came to organizing the follow-up sessions, some interesting feedback came back from the team. Multiple people from the group said the workshop was useful, but they still felt uncomfortable participating in things like this because they were introverts.
As a facilitator, it’s my job to make sure I create spaces where everyone feels comfortable sharing, and even before receiving this feedback I’d always paid special attention to structuring my workshops in a way that accommodates more than one personality type.
When this client initially came to me, one of their challenges was getting people to become more active participants in meetings, share feedback, and voice ideas, since many of the team members were naturally more quiet. And they said the workshop had helped them handle these situations much better.
So this feedback made sense… but it also didn’t make sense. Everyone who is part of a team and wants to improve their collaboration should be able to participate in a 90-minute workshop with other people for the sake of improving collaboration, right?
This made me think.
Is it possible that people are using the introvert label as an excuse for avoiding difficult conversations? Radical Collaboration, as always, helped me take a more nuanced look at the situation.
Talking about things like defensiveness and interpersonal dynamics is hard.Sharing negative feedback is hard. And I know it’s harder for some than it is for others. But it has nothing to do with being an introvert.
If you felt attackedactivated by that last sentence, please know there’s no judgment. But I would like to invite you to reflect on what else might be going on here.
Are there situations where you might be using “being an introvert” in place of something else, like being shy or conflict avoidant, having social anxiety, or not feeling 100% confident in your idea?
And if so, how is this affecting your ability to collaborate and help your team thrive?
Popular personality tests like Sixteen Personalities have helped many people and teams become more aware of things like introversion and extroversion, and this is a good thing. Even though psychologists question how evidence-based it is (Adam Grant explains why here), I know many people who had aha! moments after learning about their type, and who even felt relief because things they’d been struggling with finally made more sense.
On the other hand, I think these categories can become a barrier to collaboration if we become too fixated on them and use them as excuses whenever it’s more comfortable to do so. The problem with type-based personality types is that they are usually the end of the conversation, not the beginning.
This is why when it comes to understanding and improving collaboration at work, I prefer the system we use in Radical Collaboration called FIRO theory. In this framework, we don’t work with personality types, but with behavioral preferences.
According to the research behind the theory, three primary behaviors affect compatibility in interpersonal relationships.
We all have a level of preference on each of these three scales. But what’s different is that in our workshops, we always highlight that the success or failure of collaboration depends on how flexible we can be when a situation would require us to behave differently than our preferences would normally dictate.
Let me share an example for each behavior to make this more clear.
When a leader scores high on the Inclusion scale, they need contact, so they might prefer to start each day with a 15-minute meeting to check in with how things are going. Someone who is low on this scale could find this frustrating and would be perfectly happy with a once-per-week check-in with their boss.
When I deliver the Radical Collaboration workshop, people tend to feel a bit ashamed if they fall high on the control preference. They are afraid of being labeled as control freaks, even though a high control preference simply means someone likes to take control, drive things, take responsibility. The people we label as “control freaks” are usually the people who are rigid on the control scale. This would be the boss who interrupts his employee to add his own comments in order to always sound like the most competent person in the room, just to give a common example. Someone who can be flexible on the control scale can easily be led and influenced by others, no matter their age or position.
High-openness people love to share what’s going on with them, how they feel and think about things, what their reasoning behind a decision was, etc. They might start a meeting with 10 minutes of chitchat where they talk about recent difficulties in their private life that kept them away from work, while those with a lower openness score sit there in silence with their cameras turned off.
It’s important to note that there are no right or wrong preferences, one of these scales isn’t better than any other. What matters with regards to collaboration is our ability to not get rigid around our preferences, but instead be able to consciously choose the behavior that is in our best interest.
For example, for the high-inclusion leader who prefers to check in every morning, being flexible could mean making these meetings optional so those with similar preferences can come together, while also making sure nothing important is decided here so low-inclusion employees don’t feel pressured to participate. Or if it’s absolutely necessary for the success of the project to have these check-ins, then flexibility is needed from the team members to show up and participate actively, even though it may not be their preference.
When this need for flexibility isn’t recognized, categories like introvert and extrovert can become barriers to collaboration. No matter what our personal preferences are, effective collaboration requires us to be able to flex up or down in relation to the circumstances for the sake of the team.
If speaking up in groups is difficult for you, that’s a valid experience and you are absolutely allowed to express that. And if there’s a team meeting where our shared goal is to improve collaboration, it’s also in your own best interest to flex up and share what’s been bothering you, otherwise we can’t do anything about it and it will keep affecting our work.
And this is true for extroverts too. Even if you love to talk and be in the center of everything, being unable to flex down in a meeting and give the floor to others hinders collaboration in exactly the same way.
The ability to stay flexible in our preferences is key to effective collaboration in any kind of team, especially when very different personalities are working together.
In my Radical Collaboration training, I always have people take a look at their own preferences as well as those of their team members so they can recognize where the differences lie. These differences can lead to tension, and talking about them gives teams a chance to come up with strategies to prepare for those situations.
For example, a high-control leader might be justified when she asks a new employee to let her be involved in client meetings at the beginning stages of a project because it’s a high-stakes situation where her added years of experience could be needed.
But she also needs to recognize that it’s in her best interest for the new employee to learn the ropes as quickly as possible and that the client sees him as competent. So effective collaboration in this situation could look like her flexing down on the control scale. She could involve her employee in every step of the process, sing high praises of him in front of the client, and let him lead the next meeting, for example.
On the other hand, if she lacks the self-awareness to be flexible in her preference and can’t stay out of the project even when her team is perfectly capable of handling things on their own, her over-involvement will quickly become a barrier to doing great work. It could even lead to people feeling frustrated and eventually quitting.
If everyone on your team is aware of their preferences, they can also start to recognize their rigid tendencies. And once you learn these things about each other, the way to radical collaboration opens up.
Instead of blaming someone for behaving a certain way and making up stories in your head about them, you can use the language of the three preferences to address the issue. You can proactively put guidelines in place for who needs to be flexible and when for the team to be able to achieve the best results.
Approaching collaboration through the lense of behavioral preferences takes it from a zero-sum game (where a team is either compatible or not) to the field of infinite potential.
By cultivating self-awareness and recognizing the need for flexibility in preferences, any team can learn to become compatible.
If you want to learn about the behavioral preferences of your team members, have meaningful conversations about making collaboration more effective, or bring Radical Collaboration to your organization, you can get in touch with me here.