Cohesion: “The action or fact of forming a united whole.”
Do the teams in which you are currently active feel fragmented? Do you have each other’s back? Does conflict lead to more connection? Are there things unspoken that should be talked about? Does everyone have a voice? No, I am not fantasizing about a utopian vision of teams, I am speaking into a possibility. No team is perfect, and one of the things that will characterize a team is not if there are breakdowns, but rather how are they handled.
A well-defined set of a team’s cultural practices is the first step, but only a first step, a beginning. Best case, the team leader defines these practices in conversation with the team. Left to its own accord, team practices will define themselves, which can lead to team chaos; everyone playing their own game, lack of cohesion. The next step is team alignment to the practices. Full commitment to team practices means that even if one disagrees, there is still commitment to the practices with a positive mood about it. There would never be any intentional action to undercut or controvert the agreed upon practices. And if one is not willing, maybe it is not the right team for this person. This may seem rigid, but no, I suggest this is one of the fundamental necessities of world class teams. How long would a soccer player last on a team if they didn’t play by the rules of the game or refused to be a “team player?”
What does a cohesive team feel like? I say “feel” rather than look since from the outside, teams could look the same, but can certainly feel very different. In the teams you participant in, is there:
• Consistent upbeat, positive mood
• Personal accountability
• Informed, graceful leadership
• Ongoing support vs finger pointing
• Everyone has a voice
• Conflict is resolved quickly
• Honesty and authenticity
• Trust is ongoingly built on purpose
There is a look and feel on teams that are well structured. And it’s not just that team members get along or whether they are friends or not. It becomes more about respect for each other, support for each other, interest in each other, listening to each other, and let’s not leave out high levels of expertise, effective and efficient coordination, clarity or roles and responsibilities, and clarity of action both on the giving, receiving, and defining of actions. Everything mentioned here is a kind of practice or can be practiced, and when well defined and well trained, great things can happen. Well trained means that the defined coordination practices are practiced and refined on purpose, that the skills are supported through conscious recognition and application of support as needed. And support won’t always be technical, like defining the pragmatic structure of effective request, it will also look like the personal support of the Self when old issues get in the way. There is recognition that not everyone can do everything with ease and grace, that we sometimes must take on personal issues to develop an embodied competency.
It will never be a perfect ride. Humans make mistakes, we occasionally mess up, and we may inadvertently create breakdowns. It becomes a necessity with world class teams that assessments are regularly offered regarding performance and team behavior. Real time, straight forward, honest assessments with grounding: “It appears you are not being careful enough with your work, and I say that because you did this at this time, and you did this at this time, etc.” Issues are addressed as they occur, not once a year in a review (worst case scenario). This requires that the assessor be willing to step into what might be a difficult conversation, and the listener to be open and curious about what is being offered. It may not be easy or comfortable to attend to these kinds of things on a regular basis and keeping the air clear of unresolved issues can and will prevent frustrations and resentment and reduce stress levels.
A word about Mastery. This is the difference between good enough, which is totally reasonable in some domains, and an ongoing effort to be the very best. Mastery is only obtained by the latter. The process and effort of becoming the best is at the least a challenge and will ask the best of ourselves to be fully involved. But wouldn’t this be just a marvelous way to live life anyway?
What is a human being? Who are we really? There are so many ways to answer this question, so many different aspects of humanness to consider. There is our physicality, our physical bodies. There is our mental capacity, one of the things that define us as humans. There is our emotional state, moods and emotions that can gently affect us, or emotional states when we can feel frozen, panicked; where we can “lose it.” And there is an energetic self, the energy and aliveness that courses through us all the time, and there is a spiritual self. Why is this important for our “team” conversation?
Most of us reside most of the time inside of our “thinking self.” It is recurrently drilled into us subtly and overtly that our thinking is who we are and is clearly the most important part of ourselves. Without a doubt, the ability to think clearly, to be able to focus our thinking, to be able to think through problems and to innovate are all very positive skills and abilities which our thinking-self offers us. There is the power of effectiveness that comes from these skills and abilities. Because this is so important and is the domain where we often get the biggest rewards, it can be easy to minimize or ignore the rest of ourselves.
One of the biggest complaints when working virtually, is lack of human connection. Feeling isolated, alone, missing that touch on the arm, or a well-placed hug. For many, it was not noticed how important human connection is until it was gone.
“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” ~ Brené Brown
This is not something we can think into existence, this is a conscious, energetic practice. Having an energetic connection to others as a skill and requires a strong connection to our own energy, life force, aliveness, however you want to name it, and it is not a given that we are connected to our own energy. It is always there in us, but over this last few thousand years, humans have learned to disregard, minimize, or deny this aspect of our humanness. We have all met people for the first time and are immediate drawn to them. The opposite also, when we meet someone for the first time, and we are repelled in some way. That is mostly an energetic reaction.
When forming and constantly improving high performance teams, this underlying energetic connection is critical, and it can be created and lived in a conscious way. We can extend energy into every interaction and meeting to not only be smart, but to be intuitive and aligned with each other, to be able to “feel” when something is off, and to sense when it is appropriately accurate.
Managing our moods is a capacity humans have. It is a practiced skill, and it not about denying our pretending what is happening to us in the moment. And, we can bring forward the “appropriate” mood for the occasion. For example, I am in a meeting where the team commits to a decision that I fervently disagree with, and I am angry that this decision was made. Instead of being a complainer, or using one’s, “I told you so” voice, I put that mood into the background and bring forward an upbeat mood of commitment and alignment with the team for the sake of the success of the team.
Our moods and emotions are also part of the feedback loop of our humanness. Have you ever left home with that feeling you have forgotten something? Do you notice that it is a visceral feeling and not a thought? Feeling guilty is often a message suggesting the need for an apology, feeling resentment is suggesting the is an unfinished past action that has not be completed, and on and on. Deep ongoing connect to ourself is living our humanness.
Connection to the Natural World
In 2003 I had the opportunity to visit a hunter/gatherer tribe in Africa. Having already spent two and a half weeks in the bush, I was living in a beautiful hyperawareness, and as a Somatic observer (how people live in their bodies), I could see and feel that the people in this tribe are the forest they live in, there is no separation. It was the realization of the distance we, particularly as westerners, have come from an embodied connection with all life. It is clear there is a necessity for that connection as their life literally depends on it. I am not suggesting we all go back to living this way, our daily lives don’t require this as a necessity for survival, and the distance we have come from that connect has, among other things, allowed us to wreak havoc in the world. We suggest that part of our humanness is the capacity and role of caretakers of the world we live in.
Conflict is not an if, its a when. Conflict happens and regularly gets a bad rap, as our culture has mostly defined conflict as a negative. But is it?
Conflict: “A serious disagreement or argument, typically a protracted one.”
For a whole group of people, conflict can be much more encompassing. Even the slightest disagreement can feel like conflict with an associated negative, limiting response. How often have you experienced an over-the-top reaction to some statement or assessment you have offered? It is important to understand that everyone has an historically derived, built-in response or reaction to what will land on their Self as conflict. We can give a dictionary definition, but in reality, we’re all across the spectrum of diverse reactions in real life. Conflict is a kind of pressure or stress we feel coming at us. Under pressure and stress, we will react instinctively in one of several ways. Our reactions may be domain specific or determined by who we feel is pushing against us. Unmanaged, our reaction can range from moving away from conflict, moving against the conflict, acquiescing, or freezing. Our own individual, unmanaged reactiveness will most likely not resolve the conflict and will often just make things worse. As a likely cultural response, it is often assumed that conflict is negative and often our worse fears will surface.
Another “natural” response is to defend and explain. I use the word “natural” here due to seeing this human phenomenon show up almost everywhere, even in myself. But it is not a thing that happens in us for no reason, it has been infused into our personality from multiple directions.
So, what is the alternative? No conflict? Avoiding conflict? Pretending it’s not happening? I would suggest conflict is best addressed by walking into it. “Oh, boy!” you say, “fun!” And obviously not an automatically easy answer. Aikido offers the possibility to reinvent how we move with conflict, not against conflict. Is it easy? No. Will it be a skill that can be applied just because I know the idea of it? No. The reshaping of our individual and team practices related to conflict requires a focused practice and is a requirement of team cohesion with world class teams.
The first requirement is the practice of a new narrative. Our stories produce our reality, so let’s change the game:
Conflict is inevitable, useful, even generative, and can produce increased intimacy.
The new practice is to turn towards and face into the conflict. For most of us this is counterintuitive. And by turning into and facing, I do not mean pushing it away or fighting against it – now we’re in the old paradigm again. Part of the new practice is how we face into conflict, the mood with which we enter into the conflict. This new practice asks for patience, curiosity, empathy, and compassion. What?? In the face of what feels like an attack? Yes, that is exactly what I am suggesting. This also means that I am willing and able to take a stand for dignity and integrity in this moment. I am NOT becoming a target; I am offering an alternative to the clash of conflict. I am suggesting that we can learn to manage the automatic, limiting reactiveness and shift into our best Self.
There is also the skill of evaluative listening. Most conflict is espousing interpretations and opinions, also called assessments. A practice of curiosity will assist in deeper understanding of other’s viewpoints and maybe even shift one’s position. When dignity and integrity become the ground for difficult conversations, we refrain from meanness, from dumping our emotions on other, from name-calling and blaming, and from shutting out other people.
These skills won’t always come easy. We will often be faced with our own limitations that may have to be dealt with and shifted. One cannot just overlay a new practice over an old practice. What is required is the reshaping of the old practice into something new and different. This sense of reshaping is one of the keys to systemic, fundamental change either as an individual or as a team.
Being accountable, holding others accountable, and clarity of actions occur as breakdowns for several reasons. There is often a lack of a uniform set of cultural standards and practices. While there is a consistent desire to do “a good job,” how to achieve this and having the necessary personal skills is often lacking. The gears and practices of good action are so normal for us that they are often overlooked. No one doesn’t know how to make a request, but few are imbued with the wisdom of the intricacies of request, offers, and promises where all possibilities get covered. Even when all the parts are known intellectually, people can run into themselves in the execution.
Even at the leadership level in organizations, it is frequent that I hear, “Well, it’s just quicker and easier if I just do it myself.” It often stems from the unwillingness to hold others accountable as the conversations could become heated and contentious. There are also the breakdowns of lack of learning from mistakes, lack of feedback, and, well, is there really time to do my job and someone else’s? These are issues of the Self, an historical shaping that makes these actions hard or impossible for some individuals to take.
The accountability breakdown can be solved by putting into place a set of practices relating to the daily activities of human coordination:
• Clarity of request before asking
• Clarity of what is being asked by both requestor and promisor
• Making clear promises
• Declaring completion
• Assessing and declaring satisfaction or dissatisfaction
Done well, this remedies the majority of the breakdowns of accountability, holding others accountable, and clarity of action. Personal skills that often require improvement can include:
• Willingness to commit to timelines and manage commitments
• Personal clarity – asking questions, negotiating outcomes
• The ability to be in courageous conversation
• The ability to say “no” and to accept a “no”
• Honoring competency and capacity, mine and others
When teams adopt and embody these practices, efficiency, effectiveness, satisfaction, and engagement will increase. Done well, trust between team members increases significantly.
Building trust with others is a skill. It is powerful to acknowledge and attend to embodied tendencies and be choiceful about how we want to be seen and assessed. What identity do we purposefully want to create both inside of and outside of our relationships related to having others trust us?
From our shaping, we will be more or less inclined to extend trust or limit trust. There is no right or wrong about this, and one of the values of knowing ourselves is to know this leaning. The knowing offers choice. When deciding trustworthy, we can use the skill of assessing and grounding our assessment in observable actions related to sincerity, reliability and competency.
Trust is intricately connected to safety. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, safety is a basic human need. Everyone, even if not on our conscious radar, seeks safety. If we bend to the will of our historical shaping, we are likely to fall to one end of the safety spectrum or the other. On one end, there must be proof of trustworthiness. Either trusting people or circumstances is difficult, as life experience leans more towards life (and people) are not safe. One’s radar is up and looking for ways and excuses NOT to trust, because obviously, the world is not trustworthy, look what it did to me! Originating from a basic need, this runs deep and is not exorcised easily. Whether or not something is safe or not, is not a truth, it is an assessment (interpretation) of what is going on. It may be easy for us to assess that a person with a gun is not safe. For some, when that person is a policeman, they will assess safety, or they may assess danger. The circumstance is the same, but the viewer will interpret through their experiences. The truth of the circumstance can be argued.
The opposite end of the trust spectrum is over-trusting. Everybody’s cool. Trust will happen until it is revealed as missing.
How is it going with your meetings? Really, another one? Is anything really going to get done? Is this a waste of my time? I have too much to do to attend another meeting!!
Sound familiar? To be clear, there are many meetings that go well and have a lot of value, and the opposite seems too often to be many people’s experience. An effective, efficient meeting is a set of skills. There are skills of the team leader and skills of participants, and there are many possible breakdowns in meetings. One of the most prevalent is that the nature or purpose of a meeting gets mixed and off topic with things left unfinished. There are numerous ways to name types of meetings. What we offer here is not “the” way, but “a” way that supports keeping things simple and clear. We recognize that there are specialize meetings for distinct purposes like a sales meeting, and specialized meeting will fall into one of these categories.
Here is our list of types of meetings and their purpose:
The purpose of these meeting is to discuss ideas and possibilities and for brainstorming. This is not where actions are directed or request or offers are made but they allow the flow of the widest range of possibilities. Some people are better at this than others, so knowing who is good at this on a team has value. It is also important to hear all voices, as it is clear it is easier for some to speak up in meetings than for others, and it becomes the responsibility of the team leader to allow all voices to be heard. It is not unusual for the quiet voices to have very creative and valuable ideas.
These meeting are designed to assign actions, to make request, to make offers, and to make commitments. How this is done is vital as this part is the gears and mechanisms to get work done. Questions will arise to clarity, accountability, and trust.
First, clarity. When assigning actions or making request or offers, are the expectations clear? What does success look like? When receiving request, are you clear about what is being asked of you? Do you have a clear timeline, a clear by-when results are needed? For this to work well, there must be permission to ask for clarity of the request or offer, for it to be OK to counter-offer; basically, to negotiate what we call the “conditions of satisfaction.” It becomes important to be able to speak up, to have permission to decline, and to able to receive a decline. As an organization, declining has value and will impact over-work and over-promising which very often leads to lower quality of work.
The skill of being accountable and holding others accountable is one of the leading breakdowns in organizations. It is about making realistic promises and a commitment to fulfilling one’s promise. One possible reorientation is that the promise is not about the task, it is about making a commitment to a person, it is about building a relationship. Fulfilling promises and commitments on time builds trust.
This is when updates and current status conversations regarding projects and outstanding promises and commitments happen. Individuals are reporting, that is the overall purpose here. Per design, that is, by choice of the team and/or the team leader, this time could also be used for making requests and offers related to the report, declaring breakdowns (such as not meeting a timeline), complaining for action, or hearing questions or comments from the team. It becomes even more important to have attention on “straying” in the conversation. Items can always be tabled for later or for the appropriate kind of meeting. If a shift in the function of a meeting takes place, it is important that this is openly declared.
Breakdowns happen, we are human, and we make mistakes. How we handle our breakdowns and team breakdowns will make an immense difference in the overall mood of the team. Process and assessment meetings are not just about the mistakes, more likely they will be around the fallout. What incomplete or unspoken conversations or behaviors are not being discussed? Elephant in the room? Maybe a herd? The team supports clearing the air, not holding “stuff” with other people or processes. Assessments are offered with explicit grounding. The assessment is the interpretation of the event where we will express things like value or aesthetics and are never true or false, never right, or wrong. They are interpretations, opinions, verdicts, or judgements.
These meetings can be difficult for participants which is one of the reasons they are often delayed, or the necessity ignored. I have been in a number of these types of meetings, and are they difficult? Yes, but the outcome of clearing the air and being upfront, authentic, and honest with each other (in a good way) produces a relaxed and open atmosphere within which to work.
What can go wrong in meetings?
Straying off topic is one of the bigger breakdowns in meetings and can produce the feeling that meetings are a waste of time. Another breakdown is the loud voice gets all the attention. This is chronic in some organizations. I worked for someone once who could easily be attracted to high energy, and their listening would lean towards that person at the expense of listening to others. The result was a series of not so good decisions. What becomes useful is to limit how much any one person gets to express their views and to be sure the quieter people are asked their point of view.
These are mostly team leader skills. First to notice, then to reorient to the appropriate conversation. There is always the choice to stay on the straying conversation if deemed relevant, timely, and important to the function of the team.
Diverse Meetings in One Meeting
This is common and has value. What makes this work well is to clearly declare the shift in the type of meeting that is currently happening so everyone knows the terrain being crossed. What might begin as a brainstorming session, once complete, can easily and appropriately be shifted into an action meeting. The important thing is to name the change to allow participants to reorganize themselves from one way of being to another.
The context I am speaking into here is about the relationship people have to their energetic self. Some people are great at getting ideas immediately, what I call “awakening” energy, and others take more time and are “processers.” The processer may not have an immediate response, but given time, their ideas are as good, sometimes better than the awakeners.
When these elements of teams and meetings are practiced, the outcomes I have seen and experienced has meetings be 30% to 50% shorter, and much more gets completed. In the best case, these practices have a shared agreement within the team, and there is a team commitment to the practices.
Do you ever find yourself musing, “I do this thing, I know I do it, I don’t want to do it, and I keep doing it anyway!” In the worst of times, we can find ourselves running on automatic and acting in ways that don’t further our lives or enrich others. In the best of times, our excellent Self will lead the way.
Self-management is the first and most important step when wanting to make changes in our life both personally and professionally. Our humanness demands that we create a “personality” with which to interact with the world. This construct is formed by multiple influences including but not limited to our primary family, the community we grow up in, the institutions we take part in, the historical forces and social context we swim in, and our relationship to “the big energy.” All the influences of this are put on us and happens mostly out of our control.
The part of our life that can be most affected by this shaping is what happens to us under pressure and stress. For some, this is where they shine, and shinning is more rare than being triggered into an automatic-ness of disappearing, fighting back, or acquiescing, and will most likely not be pretty. This moment is when we lose connection to ourselves and other and at the least, we will compromise ourselves, and at the worst it is possible to harm others. Lack of skill here, the skill being the developed ability of self-management, can be very harmful to team dynamics.
When there is a lack of self-control, a disrespect of other points of view and the absence of empathy and compassion, we lose our humanness and begin to see other as object. This will ultimately tear down a team.
One of the impacts of being part of teams that meet virtually, is the difficulty of the lack of human, in-person interaction. This is due in partly because of the venue – virtual – and partly due to lack of skill. High performance teams embody the skill of self-management, and blend together with curiosity, compassion, and dignity.
How We Became Who We Are – Shaping
The immediate “needs” of all of us are present at birth. These needs, referring to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we are naming as Connection/Affection, Belonging, Safety, and being valued or Dignity. These needs are so fundamental to us that we begin to develop our “personality” related to getting these needs met.
The body physically shapes related to our life experiences and getting our needs met in a process called armoring. For example: Consider a scenario in a family where children should be seen and not heard. At times, when the kids get a bit rambunctious, one of both parents get emotional and angry, often with consequences. One of the younger siblings is a target for the others when they get too excited. In other words, when passion and aliveness are expressed, they are marginalized or not safe, or both. A couple of things can happen. In reaction to all this, one can become louder, more demanding. This loudness gets attention, so at least there is attention even if not the best kind. Or, for safety reasons, better to get small and invisible. The former shape could be something like chin up, chest out in a defensive shape, voice loud, taking up too much space. Or the latter shape is somewhat slumped and quiet holding life’s energy tight.
We will all take the shape of our experiences, both positive and not so positive. Look at a group of adults and you will see all different shapes, not tall or short or wide or narrow, but rather how the head sits on the shoulders, is the pelvis recessed or pushed forward, what is the set of the face?
This term was inspired by Dr. Richard Strozzi-Heckler and relates to the embodied practice we developed in reaction to stress and pressure. Karen Horney suggests these three ways we might react: move away, move towards, or move against. This reaction moves on the instinctual level within us, faster than we can think, making it very difficult to interrupt or stop.
Determining and defining a team culture is the ground upon which the team operates. I have worked with organizations and teams with no defined culture, no rules by which to play the game. Very often team members will then make up the rules which more than likely will be different for different people. Consistency serves, everyone plays by the same rules, no exceptions, and when there is alignment with the values of an organization great things can happen. Every person is different when it comes to, “playing by the rules.” Some will defy the rules, other acquiesce to their detriment, others play with dignity and integrity. Humans appreciate just enough structure, but left on its own, a culture will organize itself which often does not a pretty outcome.
Let’s think about this is a different way. Coming from the belief that a well-grounded culture is not just useful, but necessary, how can this be done? One way is to consider that a defined culture is a set of practices a group of people commit to embodying, and is revealed by day-to-day activities, behaviors and habits, and interactions with other team members. It is the aligned practices of effective coordination. The ground is always about holding the integrity and dignity of oneself, each other, and the organization. Who gets to decide the practices? The team leader or team members names the game, and there is always an openness to assessments about the cultural practices made by team members that can increase the value and effectiveness of the team. This is a component of a world class team, part of cultural practices: there is always not just permission or invitation, but a responsibility to speak up when relevant, useful, or necessary.
What is a practice. As used here, a practice is a commitment to a recurrent action. People have writing practices, music practices, fitness practices, dance practices, practices in so many domains in life. Some examples of cultural practices for teams:
• Be kind, be polite
• Be honest and authentic
• Live dignity and integrity
• All actions build trust
• Make promises and commitments – be accountable, hold others accountable
• Make effective request and offers
• Willingness to admit mistakes
• Everyone is responsible for the success of the team
• Provide grounded assessments where useful or necessary
Not everyone is naturally good at all these things. We could say the above list is a set of skills to be practiced and embodied, and for some, personal development can be very valuable. When a team begins to embody these skills, individual engagement increases, effectiveness increases, bottom line increases, do-overs are deceased substantially, meeting are shorter, quality of work is improved – the list goes on. It’s not about perfection, mistakes will be made.
An effective, defined, and embodied culture allows all players to play their best game.