When Susan and Roger were both asked to become the co-leaders of one of the most prestigious marketing communications firms, they were excited proud to have been selected by the previous head of this very dynamic, and growing team. Little did they know this would become the most challenging experience of their professional lives! For 5 years prior to this momentous event, they were both reporting to the previous head, along with 25 other executives. The department was establishing their brand, working hard like all communications firms to attract clients. During an unprecedented 2 year period, clients were calling the firm for their expertise. It’s what every business prays for – when clients want them and there is wonderful business to go around! All of a sudden a really big engagement came in and a team was assembled to work the clients issue day and night. It was an incredible time for the special team of 9, carefully picked to handle this opportunity. They became the envy of the department. Nights were spent late at the office. They had most meals together, and sometimes found themselves at work so late the office became a sleep-over. Forming the Inner Circle The big and exciting case went on for 6 months and during that time this team of executives bonded. Without realizing it, they became the “inner circle” and all the others were now the “outer circle.” Once you’ve been part of a professional experience so incredibly energizing, it creates a desire for more and they found themselves playing favorites with the inner circle, bring them into other engagements. And soon the cliques and “us-them” became an unfortunate way of life. It was no ones intention to make this happen. It did, and the result was a highly political, cliquish environment that was referred to as “dysfunctional” by everyone. Human beings have a need for inclusion, and when they feel rejected, they reject back. The inner circle became very close and spent more time together, causing the others to feel pangs of jealousy (and rejection). Now, facing their greatest growth spurt, the team was splintered. People felt they needed to fight to get into the inner circle or defend friends who had been left out. The culture became an environment of distrust. Under these quite ominous conditions, Susan and Roger were made the new heir apparent, with the mission of helping heal the fractions and cliques. The team was in a negative downward spiral; deep infighting, people wanting to befriend their friends. Susan and Roger knew law but they didn’t know how to turn this business battlefield into a harmonious team all focusing on the same common goals. Creating a New Platform for Success When factions and cliques, politics and “us-them” become the air we breathe, the environment becomes competitive, stifling and threatening to everyone’s health. It’s often the time when an outside point of view can help create a new anchor and help create a new set of aspirations for a team to turn fear into hope, and conflict into collaboration. The ability for organizations to reach their next level of greatness is determined by the atmosphere. The atmosphere is determined by the quality of the relationships. The quality of the relationships is determined by the quality of the conversations. The key to turning breakdowns into breakthrough is to shift the atmosphere from distrust to trust, and to rebuild relationships. New research has shown that conversations trigger either our survival instincts or our vital instincts. If our conversations contain the following triggers, they will send people into survival, reinforcing the “us-them mentality.” Check yourself and your impact on others. Ask yourself: 1. Do I make others feel excluded or included? 2. Do I judge others and label them, or accept and appreciate them? 3. Do I withhold for fear of loss, or do I share openly? 4. Do I see others as enemies for friends? 5. Do I carry grudges or let go of them? Vital Choices Here are a few things you can do to create a more inclusive environment, we-centric environment. You have the ability to create a more cohesive work space through your conversations. 1. Focusing on the future rather than the past: Research indicates that 80% of the conversations center in the past rather than the future. We talk about problems we have had, or relationships that are bad. We talk about negative experiences and how to fix them. We talk about what went wrong, and about unmet expectations. We focus on the past and reinforce the past. Instead, focus on the future and what you want to create with others. a. TIP: Talk about what a “10” relationship would be. Ask people for what they would like to see in the future to enhance the working relationships. 2. Focusing on positive rather than negative: If you were to take a tape recorder around your office, and just record the interactions among executives and employees, and tabulate the dialogue according to comments that are positive, against comments that are judgmental and negative, you will find an overwhelming amount of comments on the negative side. We are judgers and critiquers. When we listen to others, we rarely listen with a neutral ear, we listen with an inner voice that’s often thinking of that “I could do better than that” or “your idea is stupid” or “you are stupid.” a. TIP: Focus on listening from a positive, non-judgmental place. Listen for what is good in what others are saying rather than labeling them in an adversarial way. 3. Focusing on asking rather than telling: In addition to negativity, we are tellers more than we are askers. In meetings, take the temperature on asking vs. telling and see what shows up. Again, the phenomenon is very “telling.” When we combine telling with negativity, we are creating spaces that close down creativity. a. TIP: Monitor your conversations. When you find you are in a “telling mode” catch yourself and shift to asking. Telling creates more resistance, asking opens people up and helps them experience the other person from a more personal light. Encourage people to ask each other “questions” about their feelings to draw upon each other’s expertise, perspectives and capabilities. Learning to share feelings, and concerns in a healthy way, brings people together, and creates enthusiasm and commitment to the end game. 4. Keep the end in mind: Most work environments become dysfunctional battlefields, when their sense of well being is threatened. Team Interventions open executives up to a new way of working together to strengthen leadership capabilities, build trust and loyalty, and become ambassadors of the brand. a. TIP: Focus on discovering “what a 10” looks like – 10 being the best we can be. Have everyone write down what 10 means to them and share this at small tables, discussing common themes and desires. A Partnership of a Lifetime Susan and Roger knew when they stepped up to the challenge of co-leadership, that it was a challenge beyond what they had ever experienced before. Each felt they were facing some of their own fears – handling conflicts, rejection and fear of not have the answers for how to bring the team together. Susan and Roger learned that when breaking down “us-them” and cliques became everyone’s job, frictions disappeared. By focusing on “how the environment felt, and how to create partnerships through conversations, the whole team began to focus on mutual success. Susan and Roger discovered, as did the team of 25 incredible executives, that when they work together to discover and achieve audacious goals, then anything is possible!
Judith E. Glaser is the author of the best selling book Creating We: Change I-Thinking to We-Thinking & Build a Healthy Thriving Organization, and The DNA of Leadership, Platinum Press an imprint of Adams Media.