Teamwork: A Matter of Perspective

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Teamwork: A Matter of Perspective
By Justin Wright

What makes a great team? What are some of the factors that can help us determine the likelihood of a team’s success or failure? There are countless factors that go into building a winning team. Successful collaboration relies on effective communication, shared vision, transparency, honesty, the list goes on. There is one factor that may not be as obvious, however: perspective.

Understanding perspective, and how it can affect our interactions with others, is critical to building strong relationships. A team succeeds or fails based upon the strength of the relationships within that team. In order to develop this bond, understanding perspective, particularly the perspectives of other people on that team, becomes a key factor in long-term success.

Perception management

Perception management is a topic I discuss often with teams I work with. This concept is about understanding how people may view certain things, regardless of the objective truth surrounding them. For example, business owners often have to make changes that affect their employees financially in the short-term in order to strengthen the business in the long-term. While this is a positive action that provides a strong future outlook for the team, the perception of this action is often negative due to the immediate, short-term effect. It is difficult for most people to see and appreciate the long-term vision, and thus managing the perception of these actions becomes important.

You must understand how your actions or comments will be perceived by those around you when working in a team environment. Regardless of whether what you are saying, or doing, is true or false, it will have a ripple effect on the team. This requires us to step outside of ourselves and focus instead on others. This external, versus internal, focus is at the heart of embracing different perspectives.

Most of you have probably heard the adage that “if you want to truly understand someone, you must walk a mile in their shoes.” The reason for this is that we all have a unique worldview based on the sum of our life experiences up to that point. Everyone is taking the exam of life having studied different information. This means that our responses to life’s many questions will all be entirely different, because our experiences are unique. If you think about things from this perspective, debates and arguments are no longer black and white. It is the grey area between each end of the spectrum where team cohesiveness is developed.

Avoid judgement and embrace understanding 

Understanding this grey area allows us to better connect with those around us. With regard to developing a strong team, this connection is critical. Arguably most important, this understanding will make us less likely to judge others without better understanding their individual situations.

Think back to the last time you negatively judged someone else. Likely they made a statement or took some action that you disagreed with. Think deeper still. That reaction was likely based on your personal life experience. The information you have available, the experiences you have had, the specific upbringing that you have been through all shape how you react to certain situations. Step back and try to think about that same situation of judgement from the other person’s perspective. Maybe their life experience has contributed to their differing viewpoint, or their particular history causes them to act differently than you would in a similar situation.

We have an innate need as human beings to find acceptance amongst those around us. This need is primal and evolutionary: those who traveled in packs were more likely to survive their environment. Animals still exhibit this trait in the modern world. At our core, we are all pack animals. This need for acceptance also requires us to feel safe in the presence of others. Hostile environments set off physiological responses in the same manner as if we were staring down a hostile predator in prehistoric times. We must feel safe and accepted to thrive. Successful teams are the ultimate example of this phenomenon at work in the modern world.

Safety and teamwork 

Author Daniel Coyle analyzes the intersection of cultural acceptance and effective teamwork in his book The Culture Code. One powerful example is a study in which an individual was planted in business meetings at various companies, in various teams, and instructed to play a certain role. This plant would either be combative, insulting, or disinterested and had the goal of derailing the meeting and negatively affecting team morale. Most importantly, this individual was incredibly effective in this regard.

Meeting after meeting went off track, and teams that typically worked well together were left bickering and aimless. By introducing one bad seed, even groups who were often productive and successful in many capacities started to crumble. There was, however, one shining example of a team that held strong and kept forward momentum throughout the meeting despite the constant negativity of the subject in question. How did this team manage to succeed where the others had failed?

The team in question had a strong leader, and not in the traditional sense. This individual was not particularly powerful, was not firm in his speech, did not have a commanding presence, yet despite all of this he was able to completely negate the negativity and keep his team on track. He was able to do this because he made the rest of the team feel safe, feel important, and, most importantly, feel respected. Any time the plant made a negative comment, the leader included him in the discussion. He flipped the script, asking how the actor would handle a certain situation. He also defended the team and their opinions from any negative commentary, facilitating an open discussion where everyone involved felt like their voice carried weight and had value.

In short, he made the team feel safe. He created commonality and respected the viewpoints and perspectives of everyone. He even allowed the negative individual to contribute openly to the discussion, showing that even someone who was clearly being combative had an opinion worth hearing. He actively facilitated debate and discussion.

Debate, don’t argue 

What is the difference between arguing and debating? Arguing is often combative in nature, it is our attempt to force our perspective down someone else’s throat. We don’t want to cede any ground and there is often a winner and a loser. More often still, there is the intent of isolation and separation, of making someone feel bad for having the opinion that they have.

Debate, on the other hand, is more collaborative in nature. It is perfectly acceptable to disagree with someone else. Oftentimes, some of the highest performing teams in the world have disagreements amongst their members. This is not inherently negative, and open discourse is important for ultimately getting closer to objective truth. When debating, we agree to disagree; we try and understand the perspective of someone else while providing evidence to the contrary. We defend our viewpoint while being open to new information. Debate often leads to compromise, or to a common ground where both parties shift slightly from their initial positions.

Debate is critical for building trust and for fostering a feeling of safety within a team environment. Members of that team need to be comfortable offering up a differing opinion, knowing that it will be met with critical analysis and not by hostility, aggression, or personal attacks. The only way to get closer to the truth is by discussing the merits of both sides of that truth. All of this requires gaining a better understanding of the unique perspective that each individual brings to the discussion. We cannot understand someone’s view unless we look at the point of contention from their side of the lens.

Shift your perspective to strengthen collaboration

While you may disagree with someone’s viewpoint on your team, it is important to understand why they have that viewpoint. Looking at a situation from the perspective of that individual will provide you with more evidence and information about the subject being discussed. There is a parable about multiple, blindfolded individuals all touching different parts of an elephant and being asked to describe what they were feeling. Instead of sharing this information and collaborating effectively, they instead argued and bickered about how the other perspectives were wrong.

In order to collaborate effectively, we must compile all available information in order to make the most well-informed decision possible. In the parable above, this is the equivalent of taking off the blindfold. Had the individuals in question shifted their perspectives, they may have more quickly realized that they were all describing different parts of the same thing.

The modern workforce requires us to be agile. Effective teamwork relies on a number of attributes, but trust, safety, and collaboration are at the heart of all of them. In order to strengthen this collaboration, in order to build winning teams, we must understand the role that different perspectives play in the larger discussion. The next time you are faced with a debate and a discussion about differing viewpoints, do your best to see things from the other individual’s perspective. You may just find that you are both describing different parts of the same elephant.


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