The importance and power of connections

“If you want to travel fast, travel alone. If you want to travel far, travel together.” African proverb

Given how much depends on people working effectively together in organisations, it’s remarkable how little time and emphasis is devoted to connecting on a personal level. Whether it’s the broad-scale execution of an organisational strategy or a more focused project-based deliverable, success will, to a large extent, depend on how effectively the individuals involved work together, the level of trust that exists and how much the people involved share a set of values, beliefs and behavioural expectations.

Predominance of the Functional over the Human

However, we see teams frequently thrown together and expected to deliver without any consideration given to how the team can work together effectively. Team members from a variety of backgrounds, with different reference points for principles such as accountability, team work and decision-making inevitably find it difficult to align when left to their own devices.

Alternatively, leaders are often running at such a ferocious pace that there is no time step back and take time to work on aligning mindsets and behaviours and creating the alignment that everyone (if they allow themselves a moment to reflect on it) know they need. The urgent takes precedent over the human.

The result? Teams suffering from either (or both) of the above symptoms struggle to make decisions and cooperate effectively. They lack a shared agenda as well as the mutual respect and common language necessary to generate adequate levels of listening, constructive debate and the joined up decision-making that characterise a truly effective team.

This usually leads to the leader feeling that he/she has to take more control, dis-empowering the team and creating a reinforcing cycle of lack of empowerment which in turn feeds lower levels of cooperation within the team.

Sound familiar?

Taking another’s perspective

What’s missing from the examples above is the emphasis on connecting people on a human level to generate greater trust, mutual support and appreciation within the group. Consciously generating a shared language and experience underpins healthy levels of listening which are necessary to leverage the wisdom in the team and make effective group decisions.

It all starts with the ability to take another’s perspective, but when we are overly focused on the functional, or stuck in a hierarchical mindset, this is difficult and present a profound barrier to effective cooperation and ultimately, execution.

Working with the leadership group of a listed UK company last week, I asked them to do an exercise designed to raise awareness of how hard we find it to take someone else’s perspective. The exercise is simple and involves asking people to draw the letter ‘E’ on their forehead. I originally saw the exercise from a commencement speech that Dan Pink recently gave at Georgetown University but I wanted to give it a twist by asking half of the group to sit facing each other and the other to carry out the exercise individually.

Some of us more naturally take an external view (drawing the ‘E’ as it would be seen by others) whilst many of us draw the ‘E’ as we see it looking outwards (apparently as feelings of power increase, the more likely we are to take our own perspective over others’ and I expect the same is true when we are over-busy and our stress levels increase). Sure enough, in the group that did the exercise individually, roughly 50% drew the ‘E’ from their own perspective. However, the group who were sitting facing one another, less than 20% drew the ‘E’ from their own perspective, overwhelmingly taking the other person’s view.

The pairs had not spoken, touched and had been deliberately selected as being from different areas of the business, yet the mere act of sitting facing another human being was enough to create a pronounced shift in empathy and their ability to take another’s perspective.

‘High Performance Connecting’

Many organisations are in the throes of creating ‘Agile’ or High Performance’ cultures, yet these programmes often don’t go beyond structural change with some sensible sounding new ‘values’. Without the underlying mindset and alignment in the team or organisation such efforts produce limited results and sometimes only serve to increase the level of cynicism. Too many times I signed a behaviour ‘pledge’ as a member of a leadership team in GE which was subsequently framed and hung on the boardroom wall, only to see it scowling down at us in every meeting because our behaviours had not changed one iota as a result.

I’d argue that high performing organisations are underpinned by a deep human connection among its people resulting from a specific focus on this as a leadership skill and an organisational practice. This can be stimulated by any leader in the organisation using simple techniques. Fundamentally, it’s about being interested in the person as well as the idea and creating a space where people feel safe to bring their full self to work.

Some teams we work with use a process of ‘Checking in’ at the start of a meeting where each individual briefly shares how they are feeling. This has the powerful effect of everyone speaking equally at the start of the meeting (instead of the meeting being dominated by the loudest voice) and results in the team making allowances for everyone’s emotional state. It also helps everyone get present to the meeting which is often a challenge if you rush between meetings.

It also pays dividends to take the time to get to know each other on a personal level. One leader I spoke with last week told me how profoundly improved the effectiveness of his team was after they had taken the time to share their personal stories with each other; their motivations and what shaped their beliefs and behaviour.

These may sound like fluffy nice-to-haves but in truly high performing organisations, you will find these practices – and more – already in use.

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