By Nick James Smith
What will be different tomorrow, or next week or next year? As I write, I’m looking to the end of the Olympics, Brexit will be a bit closer, your football team won’t be performing quite as well as you would like. What about in your workplace though? Whether you think you work in a fast-changing, innovative environment or not, as time goes on, differences will appear; it’s as inevitable as Ben Franklin’s death and taxes.
Consequently, Amy Edmondson’s ideas about teaming apply to us all but not just because of the changes we will work through. When you delve into the basics of it, the concepts make good teamwork sense. She describes teaming as a dynamic activity, ‘co-ordinating and collaborating on the fly’, but also points out that it is determined by the mindset and practices of teamwork. However static or dynamic we believe our organisations to be, whether we are team members or leaders, there are ideas to review and revisit. How will we have learned to deal with tomorrow?
For anyone working with others, the four core ideas for teaming are useful. Speaking up helps you to be heard but helps the team to gain from your thinking. Experimenting, trying something new even though you might not be successful the first time around, is a way to keep moving forwards, to learn and improve. Collaboration is at the heart of working with others and dealing with the ensuing differences and conflicts is still productive, if occasionally painful. Finally the idea of reflecting, of noticing what is happening and questioning it, discussing your findings with your team-mates helps you to gauge your success and improve on it. These are all things we need to continually ensure we do.
Before we speak, experiment, collaborate or reflect though we need to remember a key idea that Edmondson keeps returning to which is the idea of fostering an atmosphere in which trust and respect can thrive. Trust is essential. Without it our team relationships will struggle at times; in fact, almost any time two of us have a difference of opinions with someone, whether we voice it or not. So ask yourself, do you start from a position of trust and respect when you look round at your colleagues? All of them, really? Don’t try to justify your position. Instead if the answer is no, what are you going to do to change your thinking so that you can work more closely with them? Of course this then has to be mirrored by asking how trustworthy and respectable you are yourself. Don’t ask you though, have the courage to ask someone else. It might hurt but it might kickstart some more learning.
If you’re a leader what are you doing to help your people to team well? If you want them to learn, grow and succeed long term, how can you build new thinking into the way work is carried out? Again there are four pillars and once more I would suggest that they can apply to any organisation where people need to work in a team.
Learning from failure is maybe the hardest to stomach. None of us like it, especially not as leaders when we think it might be witnessed. However, at least occasional failure (a deviation from desired outcomes) is as inevitable as the changes that the world is delivering almost daily. Make it worthwhile by recognising it and gaining from it. I vividly remember being in a bar 20 years ago when a raft guide expounded his theory of life; there are no mistakes, only learning experiences. I disagreed with him then but I’m now adapting to his thinking.
For this to happen though we need to admit we haven’t met the mark. No-one likes to show imperfections; we think it will mar our image and so we cover it up. No amount of cajoling or enforcement will change this. Instead the atmosphere within the team needs to be one of psychological safety. People need to know that when they show their true results, ideal or not, they won’t be judged for them, since the key is to learn from what happens and improve. We need to develop a safe, trusting and respectful environment so that people express themselves, discuss productively and can deal with conflict better. Ask yourself (or someone who knows you well) how accessible and approachable you are (or are perceived to be), how willing are you to show your limitations and mistakes to others (modelling what you want from team-members), how actively do you encourage participation from all levels, and how well can you refrain from penalising failures when they occur? It’s not about lowering standards, you’ll also need to be direct and clear and set boundaries well.
Before this though, we also need to reframe the culture to explain that learning is key to moving forward. It doesn’t need to take precedence over getting the job done and meeting targets in the short term, but is essential for longer term success. Explaining to people at all levels that they have an important role in this bolsters ideas of interdependence as we move together towards our purpose. Engage people, prepare for the learning, trial things and then reflect.
Finally as leaders we need to reach across boundaries and help others to do so as well. Teams of people who are different can be very strong; we’ve always known that. We’ve also been aware that it breeds conflicts, disagreements and misunderstandings. Whether it’s physical distance, hierarchical status issues or varied knowledge-pools that separate people, as leaders we need to be inclusive, explicitly encourage sharing and emphasise the value brought in by each component of the team. Do you spend enough time working on this or have you assumed or convinced yourself that people are dealing with it all okay?
Ultimately, it’s all about acknowledging and working towards a shared goal or purpose and working together in a spirit of trust and respect despite our differences – that’s nothing new. Maybe the only novel bit to focus on is the learning, to gain from the failures and find the silver lining.
Continuing professional development gets badmouthed in many quarters, especially industries or organisations where it is compulsory. Leaders are learners though, and never more so than in the fluid workplaces in which we swim; tomorrow will maybe only be subtly different, but what can we learn today that helps us into the future?
Nick Smith is an Outdoor Life Coach and Trainer. Within his company, Square Pegs Coaching, he uses outdoor experiences to help people develop themselves. By walking and talking together, people discover how they can take further steps in their journey of life. Although working mainly in Glasgow and the West of Scotland where he is based, Nick also travels around the UK – if you want to be coached by him then get in touch through his website at http://www.squarepegscoaching.com. There is more information there to help you understand the concepts of outdoor life coaching, background on Nick and the opportunity to book coaching when you are ready. The articles Nick writes appear first in his regular newsletter – to sign up to receive new articles and other offers, go to http://eepurl.com/fXEm. He also posts other thoughts and challenges on his blog on the website.