Finding the balance between too much personal involvement among employees and no emotional connections at all is one of the challenges of the modern work culture. It is about inclusion and exclusion. It is about too tough, too weak, and “just right.” If Goldilocks could find the balance point, hopefully we, with a little testing of food, chairs and communication (let’s forget about the mattresses), can come up with the right standards at work.
If people are given the opportunity to find their own set point and are neither forced nor excluded from bringing the best of who they are—the whole person—to work, real progress can be made toward establishing healthy team connections.
The big question concerns what we need and want to know about each other to make relationships move along in a smooth and collaborative manner. And it is vital to consider an important caution: work is not a rehab facility!
An offsite event several weeks ago, in which I worked with a newly established senior leadership team, proves how critical it is to have just the right amount of personal information without crossing boundaries and making individuals feel uncomfortable. The meeting took place at a retreat center rather than a more traditional hotel. The room was set with a circle of chairs and music videos welcomed us into the room.
The team of seven senior leaders was having its second meeting together. This was a high-level global team of scientists, each skilled and respected internationally for their expertise. They were a no-nonsense group of three women and four men. Most knew each other peripherally; all had been with this biotech company from five to fifteen years.
The task was to take these hardy individuals and meld them into a team that would support other areas of the company internationally. The first order of business for the two days was to help them get to know each other better and to find the boundaries of acceptable (and unacceptable) behavior. They wanted to leave with an action plan and commitments on how to move forward.
The morning stayed in the play-it-safe range. No one was willing to even admit that there might be some gorillas and elephants hanging around the edges of the room. By the afternoon we were able to establish four ground rules that would lead the group into the realm of a functioning team with healthy, sustainable and flexible boundaries.
- Treat truth-telling as a precise art form. Telling the truth is not spilling your guts! The question in the back of your mind at all times should be: How can this action forward the situation at hand and make a positive difference?
- Make sure that work is not a rehab facility. You can offer to give others your suggestions, but then you need to back off. The capacity to observe and include emotion-laden content, rather than ignore or discount it, is at the crux of powerful and creative dialogue. Don’t back away, yet allow room for others to react.
- Listen for emotion and repetition. You have a responsibility to monitor your assumptions and your “BS-detector.” When someone says “It really doesn’t matter” or “I’m not upset” and in your head or gut you hear the buzz of the detector go off, trust it and ask some open-ended questions to get to the heart of the matter.
- Be open to outcome, not attached to it. Being clear and decisive does not keep you from changing your perspective and following a new direction. This is the time to not only gain facts, but to learn more about how each teammate thinks and feels and how you will work together.
These boundaries took the group to a level of collaboration they did not think possible in such a short time. For example, two of the folks admitted that they are short on patience—that when someone takes too long to get to the point, they zone out. In response to this revelation, Peter said, “How can you stand to talk with me? I am a slow processor and my mind is not like a pinball machine.” Whereupon Sue looked at him and apologized, saying, “That really hit me hard. In the past few weeks when I have seen you in the cafeteria I have downloaded paragraphs and barely waited for you to reply. Now I know what not to do. It was stupid and insensitive.”
At that point Peter could have come back with a knee-jerk, “It’s really okay.” But since the group had created strong and flexible boundaries, he instead responded, “Now that we know how our brains take in information, we can adjust to each other. Thanks—that means a lot to me.”
They left the offsite meeting with a deeper knowledge of each other and a desire to be trailblazers for transparency and authenticity. Now, that is the basis of an unbeatable team.
About the Author
Dr. Sylvia Lafair, author of Don’t Bring It to Work, is the President of CEO-Creative Energy Options, Inc., a dynamic consulting firm optimizing workplace relationships. Visit her websites, www.sylvialafair.comandwww.ceoptions.com; Sylvia can be reached at
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