Every client I work with complains that they need more effective cross-organizational collaboration. They say that collaboration is more crucial than ever, due to increasingly complex environments and the speed of change. Yet people still work in their silos and spend more time competing than collaborating. As I listen to their grumbling, I wonder, “Why are we still dealing with this?” After all, the need for cross-organizational collaboration wasn’t invented yesterday.
I can’t blame you if you greet this post with skepticism. Leadership and poetry seems like an oxymoron, like rain and San Diego. I’m even a little surprised you are still reading. But here are lessons from two senior executives who recently used poetry to align their teams and build healthy cultures.
Ann was upset with her boss. During a leadership program I was conducting she complained that he scheduled team meetings every Friday at 5pm. Oh, I said, 5pm on a Friday does sound like an unproductive time to meet. When I asked what her boss said when she confronted him, Ann responded that it was impossible to do that because he doesn’t like to be challenged. She even got angry with me when I said it wasn’t impossible to confront him. Rather, I said, she simply didn’t want to live with the consequences of challenging him, despite knowing it was the right thing to do. Ann sulked the rest of the afternoon. By the way, Ann is a vice president of her company.
Two founding partners of a technology startup asked me to resolve some of their conflicts. Hal initially convinced me that Dave was an antagonistic bully. Dave then convinced me that Hal was a scheming weasel. Yet when I met them individually, they both seemed quite pleasant. Was either of them right? No, they were both wrong. Hal and Dave fell into the Fundamental Attribution Error trap. The FAE is a cognitive bias, or thinking error, through which we ascribe other peoples’ irritating behavior to their personalities (i.e., ‘he completely took over the meeting because he’s a control freak’). But we attribute our own behavior to the circumstances we are in (‘No one was stepping up so I had to move things along’).
A client from Amsterdam used to watch me facilitate leadership programs for his company’s executives. At the end of each session I’d ask him how he thought it went. Mark would look very serious and say, “Robert, not everything is AWESOME.” He’d pronounce ‘awesome’ in a Dutch inflected fake New York accent, and we’d both crack up laughing. Even though it was funny, Mark was sending me a message. In Mark’s culture, drawing attention to oneself and one’s work is discouraged. In fact, to express approval, Mark would often say to me, “it could have been worse.” Some praise!
Google recently conducted a study of their internal teams to answer the question, “what makes teams great?” After rigorous analysis and over 200 interviews, they found the most significant factor for team performance is ‘psychological safety,’ trusting that you can speak your mind without feeling insecure or embarrassed. I wish it were that simple…
Your boss passes you in the hallway a few hours after you led an important meeting. She stops you and says, “Hey, about that meeting this morning. I have some feedback for you.” At that moment, what do you think: “wow, that’s great,” or, “oh crap, now what?” If you are like most of us humans, you will want to flee rather than endure your boss’s ‘feedback.’ But this is an odd reaction when you consider the research on professional development. These studies reveal that people are hungry for feedback and believe that feedback is essential for their progress. So, we say we want feedback but we would sooner run for the hills when it is offered. Why the contradiction?
In a PBS interview, jazz pianist Herbie Hancock described the magic of collaboration as he learned it in his twenties while travelling with improvisational genius Miles Davis. During one performance, Hancock remembered feeling a unique connection with the band, the crowd, the overall vibe. The juices were flowing. Suddenly, loudly, Hancock played a chord that was completely wrong. He panicked. Miles Davis took a breath, and then improvised a series of notes that “made the chord right.”