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How wiring works against teamwork

Trust and a willingness to collaborate are foundational to building a successful and high- performing unit, but, as anyone who has ever been on a team can attest, sometimes these attributes are rather elusive.

Trust and a willingness to collaborate are foundational to building a successful and high- performing unit, but, as anyone who has ever been on a team can attest, sometimes these attributes are rather elusive. | Vantage Leadership Consulting

Trust and a willingness to collaborate are foundational to building a successful and high- performing unit, but, as anyone who has ever been on a team can attest, sometimes these attributes are rather elusive.

Excessive arguing, political posturing, passive aggressive behavior and an inability to meet shared commitments are all too often characteristics of teams trying to work together. The underlying reason for this is that an untrained mind is wired to fight effective collaboration. Specifically, the thoughts and emotions automatically produced by the mind often encumber teamwork unless we’re aware of what’s going on and we know how to respond to it.

The mind automatically produces thousands of thoughts a day and some psychologists suggest they’re in the ratio of eight negative thoughts to every positive thought. Many of these automatic thoughts are self-centered and designed to defend ourselves. The automatic thoughts are therefore self-preservation, and prevent us from working well with others.

We don’t pick the majority of our thoughts and we also don’t pick our emotions. We don’t choose to feel defensive or resentful when someone disagrees or criticizes us, and we probably don’t set out to willingly act in a passive aggressive way (Think: agreeing in public but ignoring or sabotaging commitments later on). It just an automatic occurrence as the result of neurotransmissions and hormones released by the brain in response to what happens and what we think about – even if a part of us knows it’s not the most helpful reaction.

These automatic thoughts and emotions drive how we experience life including our interactions within a team. They also drive behavior. For example, think about the last time someone said you were wrong or suggested there was a better idea than yours. How did that feel and how did you react? Did you feel a rush of emotion (e.g., irritation)? Did you feel defensive, surprised, resistant? Did you defend your thinking outright, or even insist on being right? Constructive conflict is critical to high performing teams, so being able to handle such disagreements productively and in a way that preserves psychological trust is key to a team’s success.  

While these automatic thoughts and emotions are natural and are designed to help us as individuals, they can quickly derail a cohesive and aligned group effort if we don’t know how to respond to them.  These steps can help you to productively respond to your thoughts and emotions in a way that works for you and for the team.

Expect the expected

Accept that there will be conflict — it is, after all, inevitable, and tension among people is often necessary for creativity and for making good decisions. As the saying goes, none of us is as smart as all of us. When you expect to have conflict or to have your ideas challenged by others, your mind will be less defensive and more accepting.

Embrace your emotions

Even when you adjust your expectations, you’ll still feel emotions when challenged. This is a productive way to experience and process them. Use the simple acronym S.E.E. which stands for Separate (recognize your brain produced an emotion), Embrace (experience and accept the emotion), and Evaluate (after the emotions diminishes, decide on a productive response).

Control the controllable

As you start to evaluate your response to your situation and emotions, it’s helpful to focus on what’s controllable. Shift into productive thought that will lead to productive action.

  • Introduce humility: Acknowledge your biases, blind spots, and induce a curiosity about the ideas of others.
  • Be aware of a natural propensity to want or need to be right: instead, try to get it right. Be prepared with facts not just opinions and seek both to confirm and disconfirm your positions through the group discussion.
  • Use new eyes: The mind will bring past interactions into your current situation, which is helpful. However, it’s also helpful to interrupt that automatic judgment to look at people and their ideas as brand new.
  • Be all-in once a decision is reached:  It is good to selectively stand your ground about your opinions after you look at everything with new eyes and work to get it right. However, when a decision goes against you, recognize that the deciding process is over, that you cannot control the past but that what you can control being totally committed to getting others to support the team’s vision and objectives. Also, ask yourself how would you want everyone else to act if the final decision went your way?

Team dynamics create a lot of emotion, especially in high-stakes environments. It is helpful to remember there are real chemical processes occurring in our brains that drive behaviors we may not find ideal. However, by being aware of, and executing a plan for productively responding to your thoughts and emotions, you are much more likely to do what is best for both yourself and for the group.

Keith Goudy, Ph.D. is the managing partner of Vantage Leadership Consulting. He has more than 20 years of experience in executive assessment, succession planning and leadership development.

Russ Rausch is the founder of Vision Pursue (VP). VP helps corporations and sports teams improve performance by enhancing the automatic thoughts and emotions of their members. Rausch is an executive with over 16 years of C-Level experience with companies in the hedge fund and technology sectors.

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