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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