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Tell your story and change your team’s performance

“Ironically, teams succeed because they are exceedingly human. By acknowledging the imperfections of their humanity, members of functional teams overcome the natural tendencies that make teamwork so elusive.” Patrick Lencioni

Teams are successful because they are exceedingly human. Not because they follow complex protocols or management models. Not because they master predictive analytics or any number of other technologies.

When a businessman as successful as Lencioni gives advice people tend to listen. On the other hand, we may find it a bit puzzling to understand how acknowledging our imperfections can increase trust and collaboration on teams.

Many of the imperfections we don’t want revealed are tied to our emotions and feelings. I remember an oilrig worker telling me that the boss had given him a 15 minute break after he saw his best friend killed in front of him. The norm was, “Be a man and get on with the work.” The work does get done, but as we have been finding out there are negative consequences on the long-term levels of trust and communication when people can’t share their feelings, emotions and vulnerabilities.

The idea that success comes from acknowledging our imperfections is a radical one. Most cultures drive hiding them to ensure greater acceptance and belonging. Leveraging our imperfections for success is even more radical, however that is exactly what I have experienced.

Some of the most significant research supporting this perspective has emerged from the latest research on psychology and the human brain. Replicated experiments measuring the brain’s reactions have led to the conclusion that humans need to feel included and psychologically safe to perform at their best. If you know people who say they don’t need outside validation we will be showing that people perceive their need for inclusion in different ways, but the need is indisputable.

Exclusion or fear of exclusion is what most frequently creates team breakdowns in trust, conflict and accountability. The resulting low trust levels translate into team members being unable to fully express opposing points of view, and to fear asking questions that might reveal ignorance. Of course, all of this ultimately affects quality of performance, innovation, and results.

The most common cures for this state is to involve the team in conflict management and giving each other personal feedback. I applied these for many years and now believe that they way these approaches are used is misguided. My intuition and noticing what actually worked to recover trust and communication led me to the work of David Rock and Amy Edmonson. For the past five years I reformulated my approach using this new knowledge and have experienced breakthroughs in situations that were previously impassable.

Classic team dysfunctions such as a leader who doesn’t listen or is controlling; a team member that withdraws rather than confront. Or the team’s inability to make decisions and follow through can all be traced back to a failure to establish relationships.

Teams with poor relationships are incapable of having open, passionate debate about things that matter. They fear that conflict will make things worse so they replace it with a false harmony, and often make plans to find jobs elsewhere. The standard solution is to teach that conflict is productive and that members must begin to give constructive feedback.

The new neuroscience is saying, “not so much.” When was the last time you got excited when someone said they had some feedback for you? I admit a few people do—not many. Incidentally asking for feedback is completely different than someone offering it to you unsolicited. I have begun to teach the skill of giving feedback within the context of someone asking for it. When you ask for it you are under control, which feeds into one of five important human needs for inclusion: autonomy.

It may seem odd to equate autonomy with inclusion, but it does in the sense that if you give people the freedom to make choices they feel respected, and therefore included.

Inclusion is also linked with accountability. When team members don’t feel they are part of the decision making process they don’t commit. Neither are they going to hold each other accountable if they haven’t created a common understanding of how they are going to do that. Even with this agreement people get distracted and off track. It takes a persistent leader to remind everyone of his or her original agreements. Blame fixing or shaming members doesn’t work because it causes withdrawal. Tapping into the need for inclusion is much more effective.

The primary role of the leader in creating psychological safety is to lead by example and set the tone for the whole team. This includes being the first one to show their humanness and imperfections, and ask for feedback.

Is there such a thing as too much belonging or inclusion? Doesn’t that blunt the creative edge?

The brain becomes more creative when it senses a reward, but do you need some degree of threat to reach peak of creativity? When there is a crisis the brain is completely focused on those issues. So it feels more productive, but that is not the same as being creative. Answering why a problem exists and how to fix it is much more restrictive than setting a visionary goal. For example, if you ask, “How do we have zero fatalities this year?” you will get more insights than if you ask, “Why did we have fatalities last year?” The brain experiences avoidance goals as threatening versus the reward of an approach goal. The way we frame the question has a lot to do with the outcome. Threat creates a lot of noise in the brain. The challenge is to quiet the brain’s threat responses to encourage greater development of trust and open communication on the team.

How Telling Your Story Creates Inclusion

A tool that has proven successful in resetting the threat responses and reopen opportunity to reset trust levels is “telling your story.” It is frequently used in executive retreats and I have begun using it in new employee onboarding sessions to create relationships across functional and hierarchical lines. Also known as the “lifeline exercise,” each member of the team shares highs and lows in his or her life, which contribute to who they are today, each at their own comfort level.

People share more than one might imagine and at the end of the experience express a sense of belonging and understanding that allows for conversation far above where they started. Why might this happen, and why do we tend to avoid these types of activities?

Let’s use David Rock’s SCARF model (2009)[1], which has identified the five dimensions that our brain recognizes as essential to survival: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.

Status is sociometric, economic, and includes respect. People with higher status live longer, are more creative, and have a better immune system. In story telling you are able to talk about your accomplishments, the difficult circumstances in your life that you overcame, and what is important to you. You can actually feel the status of each team member rising as they disclose a degree no one knew they held, a difficult challenge or a loving relationship.

Certainty—when you can’t predict what is going to happen you experience threat. When you get new information you get a little more certainty and you feel a reward response in the brain. As you gain insight into a team member’s formerly hidden emotions and feelings you take a little uncertainty off the table. You discover you have more in common. When you let go of that unconscious fear of not knowing someone you free up resources.

Autonomy is the freedom of choice. The effect of story telling on this factor may be in how the exercise is set up. Each person has the choice to be as deep or superficial as they want and still be considered part of the group. Some people do find it very stressful to share their private life so giving them control over how much to reveal is key. Studies have shown that control over a stressor may lessen its impact. How well this activity is facilitated in crucial because success will improve the dynamics. If people feel diminished, the situation will worsen.

Relatedness—this means in-group or out-group. Before the story telling you may have been part of the out-group. You are in control of how much you reveal, but the more you reveal the more likely you are to reveal something that connects you to other team members. This makes you part of the in-group both because others know more about you, and because you’ve shared the risk of making yourself vulnerable by revealing challenges and successes. This is important because you must be part of the in-group to be trusted. When you think someone is like you, you can imagine how he or she feels. The threat response however invisible begins to melt away opening the way to listening and understanding.

Fairness—you will always get a very strong threat response when unfairness is detected. I have noticed that in story telling the sting of unfairness can be lessened when we learn how others have experienced it and made it through. As one participant said, “We’ve all been through some low lows and continued. We can now know that even though we may experience failures and setbacks as we implement our strategy, that this too shall pass if we stick together and stay focused.”

What can you do as a leader?

Tell your own story to strengthen your connection to others. Plan short conversations to let people share what is going on with them. If you are kicking off a project plan a longer event where team members can share more about who they are.

[1] Rock, D. 2009. Your brain at work: Strategies for overcoming distraction, regaining focus, and working smarter all day long. 1st edition. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

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Rosa Antonia Carrillo

Rosa Antonia Carrillo, MSOD is a leadership and culture expert with an emphasis in environment safety and health. Her upcoming book, The Relationship Factor in Safety Leadership, is scheduled for publication by Routledge Publishing has been called required reading to understand the foundations of "safety culture" by Edgar Schein. Her ground breaking articles on relationship centered leadership, safety culture, mindful conversations, trust and open communication have gained the attention of of leaders world-wide. In recognition of her contributions, the Safety Institute of Australia invited her as the Wigglesworth Memorial Lecturer in 2015. She is president of Carrillo & Associates, Inc. a provider for employee engagement, leadership development, and coaching services for leaders of companies that want to achieve high performance in EHS while delivering business results. The C&A team delivers engaging leadership development workshops to executives, managers, supervisors and employees to help them transform into leaders who build collaborative, trusting, and motivating work environments. At the same time, given the unique challenges of operating a high- hazard facility, the training focuses on managing and enhancing employee performance as well as effective decision-making. Ms. Carrillo holds a Masters of Science in Organizational Development and is former adjunct faculty for the Presidential Key Executive MBA program at Pepperdine University.