Imagine that you have a metal bucket to take water to the barn so the animals can hydrate themselves on a sunny, warm day. As idyllic as it sounds, you also have holes in the sides of your bucket—so by the time you get there, there is hardly any water left in it.
This is frustrating, so you sign up for a course to learn how to fill the bucket up more quickly, but the poor animals are still very thirsty; they don’t get enough water.
Something must be done, so you invest in a course to learn how to run more quickly, as you have read several scientific-sounding articles about the benefits of jogging and the ability to carry a heavy load in a more efficient way.
You order personalized reports about your raw talents and your innate strengths, but they are little help. They all indicate that you should be very good at filling and carrying buckets. One report even confirms your “type” is “water carrier.”
What all this fails to take into account is the actual holes in your bucket. Fixing the bucket first would make much more sense.
Self-learning courses and psychometric assessments are very popular in the coaching industry; many clients love reading about their strengths, their type, how they can stand out, etc., but facing their potential weaknesses and learning about their actions under pressure, their biases and their blind spots is less pleasant (although this information can sometimes be even more useful). Some people just want to focus on developing their strengths, and they ignore their weaknesses. Other approaches emphasize focusing on just fixing weaknesses. I believe people should do both, not one or the other.
What I have learned from assessing several teams is that on paper, they often have all the technical skills and potential to succeed, but in reality, they are wasting most of their abilities because of misunderstandings, frustration and professional disagreements that can quickly turn into deeply personal conflicts. The issue—the holes in their bucket—typically is not that they are not good enough. Team synergy and high performance are not natural consequences of individual skills but rather the quality of interaction among team members and within themselves.
Feeling that something is not right is not enough to address the root causes of the problem. It is extremely hard to optimize something without being able to measure it and have a meaningful conversation about it while getting the right tools to deal with it.
I would argue that interpersonal friction is often the root cause of team issues. So how can interpersonal friction be reduced?
Amy Edmondson and Google’s Aristotle project have proven beyond a doubt that psychological safety is the foundation of high-performing teams, so for this and many other reasons, organizations need to be inclusive (as inclusion leads to feelings of psychological safety). But companies do not provide psychological safety or offer inclusion—people do.
Further complicating this is the fact that nobody can read your mind or correctly guess your intentions; they can only see your behavior and subjectively evaluate your actions. The meaning they attach to your actions will determine if they feel included, safe and understood.
As an example, when I came to the U.K. over 18 years ago, a lot of people asked me where I came from. It is true that those types of questions are often asked to check someone’s perceived “power” and “value.” As a citizen of a newly joined EU country straight out of university with no real skills, I could feel it, and it drained me a lot. Later on, I realized that most of the time my low self-esteem, negative news and bad experiences of other immigrants had likely distorted the situations. Once I started taking responsibility for the way I reacted to that question, how I interpreted it, the quality of my interactions dramatically improved.
What if at least some of the “insults” and microaggressions you have experienced while working on a team were actually genuine questions with good intentions? Or what if, even if they were insulting, they stemmed from pure ignorance, lack of cultural intelligence or a poor choice of words?
What if next time when you feel your blood start to boil, you were to ask the other person what they meant exactly, or you were to answer them kindly and see what happens?
What if next time a team member annoys you, you take that as a sign to get to know them better and find out how you can create better rapport with them instead of avoiding them?
Most human potential at work and in life in general is lost due to interpersonal clashes, when wildly different perspectives are driven by diverse underlying values, beliefs and needs we are not even aware of. This starts draining relationships and motivation; the bucket starts leaking, and those holes gradually get bigger and more difficult to fix. This is especially true if you cannot see them, and you just feel that something is wrong. In these situations, you might invest time, money and energy in the wrong solutions.
The highest level of growth happens when we fix the bucket: when we are able to accurately measure, visualize and optimize the invisible forces that make or break a team and its future. It is not about faking it until we make it; it is not about being so politically correct that it suffocates all opportunities to discuss what matters to us. It is about getting rid of our limiting beliefs and outdated biases and getting rid of who we are not so we can become who we are meant to be and work better as a team.
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