Does this situation sound familiar? It comes from a real team I worked with some time ago. All names have been changed.
Marc, a new manager, is hired and everyone is excited about his experience and outside perspective, especially Anne. She was on the search committee and was a part of the team who recommended his hire.
Soon after starting, Anne notices Marc routinely use two phrases. The first typically happens after she shares a problem. Marc says, “You know what you should do…” and proceeds to offer suggestions without asking for context.
The second frequent phrase comes right after the first, “Here’s what we did…” referencing work at his previous job. Marc proceeds to share an example that sounds to Anne at best ill-informed and at worst, arrogant or dismissive. It is shared in a way that sounds like his previous job handled the challenge in a superior way.
Both phrases are often met with Anne’s well disguised eye roll.
Anne wasn’t the only team member who felt frustration with Marc. The feedback was consistent across the team. “If he just asked a few questions and learned about what we do, he would understand the challenge better. We want his expertise to help us, but he’s got to understand the context.”
Fair point. However, the opposite was true as well. When I asked Anne and the other team members what they knew about the Marc’s strengths, goals, or pressure he was under from his own boss, they didn’t know. The team members hadn’t spent much time getting to know Marc and had little understanding of him and his priorities.
Feeling misunderstood is an all too frequent dynamic on teams. Employees feel misunderstood by their bosses and the bosses feel misunderstood by their teams. Everyone is well-intentioned but the group gets stuck in a cycle of judgments and perceptions that ultimately hold the team back from what they want to accomplish.
The good news is the remedy is simple though takes practice.
In this article, we are exploring the first of Five Essential Components of High Performing Teams: Communication. This broad topic is boiled down to two vital behaviors that, when employed regularly, will set a foundation of learning and position the team for performance: ask questions and listen.
Foster a learning mindset
Let’s talk about the importance of a learning mindset on teams. Harvard University Researcher and author, Amy Edmondson has published extensively on this topic. She has found that leaders and teams who demonstrate learning behaviors (such as asking questions, seeking feedback, and listening) foster a psychologically safe team. To feel psychologically safe at work, a person does not fear rejection or punishment for speaking up. This means there isn’t a fear of judgement for admitting you don’t know or understand something. It also means that teammates can question their boss or their peer’s ideas and invite feedback and critique of their own ideas.
To do this, the team asks questions and listens to each other. Each person’s voice (opinion or perspective) has equal value. What this does is develop a sense of safety in each person because they know that if they have a different (better or worse) opinion, they won’t be judged or excluded for that opinion. This safety also positions the team to learn from failure. When things go wrong in their work, a psychologically safe team looks at it from the perspective of learning, rather than blame.
This type of environment gives the team the freedom to truly innovate. What Edmondson has found is this openness, or psychological safety, is the most important factor in team performance.
Our brains hold us back
It is no wonder, then, that the first essential component to a high performing team is centered on fostering psychological safety. Asking questions and listening are two basic and simple actions to set the foundation that leads to performance.
Why isn’t this intuitive? Why do so many (including myself) struggle to simply ask more questions and listen?
Let’s go back to Marc, the new leader at the start of this article. When Anne came to him with a problem, what prompted him to say “You know what you should do…” ? Did he want to demonstrate to her he knew what he was talking about? Was he worried she wouldn’t respect him if he didn’t have an answer?
And why did Anne interpret Marc to be ill-informed or arrogant? What was it about those words “you know what you should do…” and “here’s what we did…” that led to the eye-roll?
Psychologists and neuroscientists blame our brains. Our brains are wired for threats. It is how we evolved into the humans we are today. This plays out when someone does something we disagree with (like state their opinion before we ask for it). Our brain often clicks into threat mode and we assume negative intent first. This is the threat.
While this wiring originated from the need to protect our safety and survival from, say, saber tooth tigers and giant kangaroos, this trigger is still active in today’s social interactions. We negatively interpret another’s words or behavior when it is counter to our own beliefs or opinions. It is these misinterpretations between colleagues that chip away at building the psychological safety the team needs to perform.
If you’d like a deeper dive into how our brain’s evolutionary responses impact our leadership today, read Dr. David Rock’s article Managing with the Brain in Mind.
So, when Marc, a new boss says to Anne “You know what you should do…”, she interpreted this negatively. Anne thought “Oh. Marc thinks he knows better than us.” Which leads to annoyance or frustration and then that well-disguised eye roll.
Which Marc saw, by the way. Eye-rolls are rarely well-disguised. This then led to his own annoyance with Anne. He thinks “What’s her deal? She told me in the interviews how much she valued my experience. I’m just trying to help.”
Thus, begins the “ping-pong” interactions of leaders and teams misinterpreting each other.
Approach it differently
What if Marc or Anne responded with curiosity?
On Marc’s side, instead of telling Anne what he thinks she should do, what if he just asked questions and then listened? Such as finding out how she has attempted to solve the problem before, what the contributing factors are to the problem, or how the team solves all problems, not just this one.
The same goes for Anne. What if when she heard Marc say “You know what you should do…” she hit pause and asked questions and listened to his perspective. What if she had inquired more about his background, his history with similar problems, and the context that led him to make his suggestion.
By asking questions and listening, both Marc and Anne begin to learn more about each other and the work (a learning mindset). By gathering more information, better ideas and solutions are identified. This is where psychologically safe teams excel.
Yet, it takes practice to overcome our brain’s natural wiring. These skills are like muscles. We all have them, some of us need to do more reps to have them ready when we need them.
Here are some tips:
Practice asking questions and listening in non-emotion driven situations. When emotion is triggered, we sometimes forget our best intentions.
Keep a sticky-note near your laptop to remind you to ask questions first. Also, remove distractions so you can fully engage.
Prepare questions in advance of conversations that you know may create disagreement. If you feel frustration, confusion, or annoyance from the other person, hit pause and ask them questions about their perceptions and experiences.
Communication, Ask Questions and Listen is the 1st Essential Component to High Performing Teams. It sets the foundation and is employed throughout the entire team development model. In future posts we’ll discuss the other four components: Goals, Clear Roles and Processes, Product Conflict, and Feedback
If you’re interested, download this tool that lists questions to ask throughout each component in the team development model.
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Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leadership and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm.