Try as I might, I don’t understand how a group of 12 individuals can come together and work productively and collectively if each one is a separate island. If my thoughts/agenda/reactions are the most important, I assume that the other 11 people feel the same way. I can’t imagine how you bridge all that isolation to truly collaborate.
Unfortunately, most companies encourage a more individualistic approach to work. Goals, assessments, rewards and promotions are almost exclusively rated on how well one person performs. Sometimes there are team goals that must be achieved but even those aren’t scored collectively. All emphasis is on how well I do my job; not how well WE get great results together.
Yet these same companies insist on team work as the major venue for getting work done. I don’t know about you, but if I’m being scored as an individual, I’m going to have a hard time not thinking about that when I work with my project team. I will be looking at those other members and hoping they don’t screw up my standing! That causes me to bounce back and forth between being the good team member I’m expected to be and looking out for my own best interests. The system is set up to separate us when team work requires that we reach out to connect.
At our most basic level, we humans are wired to connect and care about others. That is what gives us meaning and purpose. It is also what creates health and well being. The more isolated we are, the less vital, productive, creative and healthy we are. Most of us know this on some level and we yearn for it. Our work lives create significant dislocation from each other, making it hard to fathom how we can do our best work.
Despite decades of research that suggests companies need to change structures and reward systems to make collaboration more possible, there has been very little progress on that front. So how do we connect with our team mates and colleagues in spite of the organizational disciplines?
Whether you are a senior executive, team leader or team member, try these things.
Approach others with kindness, respect and generosity. When I treat you with positive regard, you are more likely to relax and make a connection with me. I may/may not pick you as a chum outside of work, but we have some shared goals and needs while we are at work and one of those is to be treated respectfully. And if I am generous with my time and resources, you may return those favors. Like begets like.
Understand that we humans have more in common than not. We all walk into work each day wanting to be our best selves and anything others can do to support that effort will be appreciated. We don’t want to be lonely, we don’t want to take the weight of the world on our shoulders alone, we need help, we have self doubts, we need comic relief, we need a receptive ear, we need interactions. Of course, I won’t admit that to you but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.
Listen deeply to learn new things from those who are different than yourself. I’m certain I’m the smartest person in the room and that the team will do great as long as they follow me. Translation: I’m scared that you may be more creative or smarter or more knowledgeable or more interesting than I am. When we are scared, our egos take over and we stop listening. We completely miss the incredible gems others are sharing because that loud voice inside our heads is shouting “me, me, me!!” Take a breath, sit back and soak in other voices for a change.
Err on the side of the collective rather than the individual. Even when I don’t have lots of faith in this team of people, I need to do my part to create bridges between us. I need to invite others into the conversation. I need to ask more questions, drill down with open curiosity. I need to say please and thank you. I need to ask for and offer help. I need to let my guard down and express uncertainty or vulnerability or share a whacky idea. I need to set the example of what it looks like to make meaningful connections. And for lord’s sake, I need to stop tooting my own horn!
Become a more three dimensional, full person. It seems we leave most of our true nature at the door before we enter work. This is the saddest part of all. We become cardboard cut-outs of the roles we are expected to play and see how many points we can rack up on the board. Much like buying that brand new dream car, it feels good for a minute but it doesn’t make you feel whole or give you meaning. It just says “I alone won”. Work encourages us to be lone wolves. Our emotions, our spirits, our relatedness, our purpose, our creative juices all stay home in bed while we go through the motions. The more we bring our whole selves to work, the more we will work collaboratively. Because that is our natural state.
This all sounds rather simple, I know, but any one of these suggestions is a huge act of courage. These are not the perspectives or behaviors that are rewarded or encouraged in most companies. Emotions? Not here! Relationships that are not purely transactional or a friendly beer? Unthinkable! Putting We before I? Not if you want that promotion! Organizations are not the healthiest environments for human beings yet teams require us to bring more of our human beingness to the office. Tough challenge but so worth it.