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Spaghetti & Marshmallow Case Study / Round Two
Key Ingredient: Safety
I recently wrote blog about kindergartners besting collegiate business students that I found really interesting in terms of team building. A team of kindergartners and a team of college students were each tasked with building a structure. Their goal was to construct the tallest structure using only tape, string, uncooked spaghetti, and a marshmallow.
The kindergartners built the taller structure! Daniel Coyle, author of the book The Culture Code, suggested the youngsters prevailed because “they worked together in a smarter way.”
First, some detail about what Coyle meant by the phrase “in a smarter way.” Then I’ll also identify and define the first of the three essential team building blocks: safety.
I believe Coyle missed that there was a subjective, elusive element in the kindergartners’ problem-solving: It is the fact that they are kindergartners!
The kindergartners were not influenced by adult “programming” that comes with natural interpersonal development. Partially developed interpersonal skills likely interfered with the graduate student group. I hold that the kindergartners weren’t necessarily smarter, but they were unimpeded by some social skills because they simply didn’t have them.
The graduate students likely needed better command of foundational team building blocks to succeed. The foundational building blocks Coyle enumerated are part of a model that effectively explains part of the teamwork process.
The first of the three – in my 35 years of experience – essential team building foundational building blocks that I’ll talk about is safety.
The kindergartners’ interpersonal safety never felt threatened by their team dynamic. They lacked the social skills for their safety to feel threatened. Perhaps the graduate students were not able to create a successful sense of safety in their team dynamic.
Safety: Critical in Team Building
Creating a sense of safety while building a team comes from ensuring a sense of security for each individual member of the team. So, what do I mean by the term “safety”? Where does it come from? How do we build safety into our team environment? How do we avoid being out-done by kindergartners?
Experiencing a sense of safety in a work setting means that all individuals in the group believe that they will be accepted for who they are, and that any contribution they make will be respected, if not accepted. The team members understand there is no guarantee that the group will agree with each suggestion made. They also understand that everyone is passionately committed to the group’s work goals and objectives. When all this happens, each team member feels safe to express themselves freely. They know they are valued for their opinion, and they expect the team will work to achieve their common goal.
I have decades of personal experience working in organizations and researching the critical ingredients for successful groups. Through that experience, I’m convinced that we humans instinctually need a sense of safety. That experiencing a sense of safety has its roots in our need as human beings – as social animals – for a sense of belonging. We need to feel valued and cared for as unique and essential members of our group.
The most important question when building a team is, “how do we build safety?” The recipe for creating safety has within it seven important ingredients. I will list them and briefly describe the first here, then the others in my blog following this one. The necessary ingredients for building safety in a team are:
1. Active Active Listening,
2. Leadership’s Willingness to Communicate Humility and Vulnerability,
3. “Hugging” the Messenger (even if it is a bad message),
4. Effusive Thank Yous,
5. Tossing of Bad Apples,
6. EVERYONE Given a Voice, and
7. Picking Up Trash (aka the Wooden story)
You know how you make a stew, and you taste it on the stove and you can’t put your finger on how – but you can tell one key ingredient is missing? The stew just doesn’t work; it doesn’t taste the way it’s supposed to? The same is true of these seven ingredients in the manifestation of a sense of safety in a team.
Here, I’ll tell you about what I call Active Active Listening, and in the next blog I will discuss the remaining six.
Active Active Listening
(See how I added the second “active” to emphasize active rather than passive aspect of active listening, or AL?)
There is an art and science to “good listening.” It is manifested through verbal and nonverbal cues. In my experience and training, graduate clinical psychology and clinical social work, students are taught AL as a matter of course. But how do you know if you are doing it if or the person you are observing is doing it?
AL is characterized by a number of factors. It comes from the person-centered therapy of Carl Rogers. And for the record, it is not just used in therapeutic settings. Active listening is an essential component of any effective communication. Active active listening requires that we be truly attentive to what the other person is saying. Active active listening demonstrates that the recipient feels truly respected and understood. The listener is actively communicating that they understand the feelings and perspective of the person who is speaking.
- Posture: head tilted forward, body leaning in toward the speaker,
- Eyes: no excessive blinking, nor eyebrows arched,
- Body: still,
- Verbal: absence of interruptions from other team members. (There is a difference between interruptions emanating from excitement and those borne of a lack of awareness and connection.) At times, especially in a therapeutic context, the listener reiterates concisely what the speaker said.
Active active listening is a learned skill and critical to a sense of safety. You don’t have to have the right DNA to be an excellent active listener. Some of us, as a result of our family history and life experience, are initially more adept than others with this skill. But the fact is everyone can do it with practice.
Try it out – just turn up your awareness next time you are in a listening situation. How many of these AL tactics do you follow and consistently display?
No judgment from me if you’re not a great active active listener yet! You can practice it. We all must consistently practice active active listening to get better.
As stated previously, active listening is relevant and applicable in all different kinds of settings. For the purposes of this blog the focus is on task and work-groups that are of part of any organization.
In my next team-building blog I will define and explain the remaining six team safety ingredients.
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It is part of human nature for people to make assumptions about everything. Sometimes our assumptions are accurate, but often not. You may feel defeated or embarrassed or foolish when discovering our assumptions do not reflect reality. Instead, I hope that you can experience excitement and a sense of wonder when confronted with a different reality.
Well, this proclivity for making assumptions applies as you know to academic and scientific theories. One of my enduring and ongoing professional interests is in the theory and practice of team-building. I recently had the honor of delivering a presentation on team-building. In preparing for this remote talk I read and reviewed studies about team-building.
The following is a condensation of a story told by Daniel Coyle in his book, The Culture Club (Bantam Books, 2018):
Around 2016, a designer and engineer held a competition to find why certain teams “add up to be greater than the sum of their parts, while others add up to less.” He assembled a series of 4-person groups at Stanford, University of California, and University of Tokyo. He challenged the groups to build the tallest structure possible using only tape, string, uncooked spaghetti, and one standard-size large marshmallow. The contest had one rule. The marshmallow had to end up on top.
Business students made up some of the teams. Other teams consisted of kindergartners.
According to the researcher, “the business students got right to work.” They took a strategic approach and engaged in thoughtful, insightful dialogue. He characterized their approach could as “professional, rational, and intelligent.” Ultimately their planning process led to the selection of one primary strategy. “They divided up the tasks and started building.”
Meanwhile, the kindergartners did not strategize. They didn’t ask questions, propose options, or hone ideas. The researcher states, “their was barely any talking at all. “ They stood very close to each other. Their actions were not smooth or organized. “They would literally just grab materials from each other (not in an antagonistic fashion but rather an urgent one) and start building.” When they spoke their dialogue would be in “short bursts.” The researcher notes, “their entire technique might be described as trying a bunch of stuff together.”
Most of us would make the assumption that the business school students would achieve a superior result. They possess the intelligence, skills, and experience to achieve a superior result.
This assumption would be wrong.
“In dozens of trials kindergartners build structures that averaged twenty-six inches tall, while business school students built structures that averaged less than ten inches.”
You’re probably uttering out loud the same exclamation I made: “how the heck did that happen?” Coyle reports the following: what is important to focus on is the interaction between group members, not individual skills. The business students, Coyle argues, spent an inordinate amount of time in subtle competition with each other. Their attention was so focused on trying to figure out the “rules” for a group process that they failed to grasp the “essence of the problem.” They completely missed that the marshmallow is heavy, the spaghetti is hard to secure. Their initial building efforts collapsed and they ran out of time.
On the other hand, the kindergartners are not competing for status. “They stand shoulder to shoulder and work energetically with each other. They move quickly, spotting problems and offering help. They experiment, take risks, and notice outcomes.” This process guides them in the direction of effective solutions.
The researcher concluded, “…kindergartners succeed not because they are smarter but because they work together in a smarter way. They are tapping into a simple and powerful method in which a group of ordinary people can create a performance far beyond the sum of their parts.”
On an intellectual level, many of you may endorse, based on your personal and professional experience, this theory. We might all assert that superior performance emanates from a group where the “sum was greater than the parts.” Still, how many of us would have predicted the kindergartners surpassing the business students? And how refreshing to have assumptions shaken and stirred, including when it comes to team-building.
I have had over thirty year’s experience in assisting management personnel in a variety of non-profit organizations. I address team-building issues. And, as here, I am often in my consulting work learning new information related to team-building theory and practice. How invigorating!
I hope you take with you the practical lesson: that teams can be greater than the sum or their parts, or less. And that it’s not always experience and skill alone that make a great team. I’d love to help you find the challenges within your team and help your team improve. Talk to me and let’s find you some team-building solutions.
In January, I presented Team-Building in the Virtual World to the Westwood Chapter of the Bruin Professionals. Watch the video here, or you can find it on our The Human Equation YouTube Video Channel. Please go and subscribe so you see every video we post.
If you are a hard-charging person, a Type A person, you make objectives, goals, you are ambitious.
So how does the “Covid Context” interact with your style?
Well you have to be careful so that you are not trapped by the very thing that propels you to success-perfectionism, high standards.
You have to watch out for uour control issues, not just planning but having an agenda for the outcome.
I’m not saying that you have to abandon your focused, perhaps even some OCD flavor approach to your life but this pandamic, consuming health crisis is a wakeup call that in order to survive it, to cope with it, maybe even flourish despite it, we must have a willingness to be flexible and change our old ways of doing things.
Covid will trip you up:
- Stress and worry
- Working from home
- Interuptions and distractions
- The tv
- Computer problems
- The dogs in the room
- Personal phone calls
- Lack of exercise routine
- Loss of your routines
- Sleep and waking our changes
And it is Ok to be tripped up!!!!!!!
Be patient and generous with yourself
You will still get done what you really need to do.
It means changing your internal narrative about accomplishing your daily agenda, weekly agenda, monthly agenda.
In my next blog I will discuss what are specific steps you can take to cope with the stress generated by the “Age of Covid.”