Recently, I was struck by a conversation with a team of #leaders who had come together to resolve/address some challenges that their teams collectively faced in delivering services. What got me was that since COVID, this team had been experiencing ever increasing pressure and demands on their services, as they tackled increasingly complex problems. Despite of these challenges, they had never truly got together.
It appears that the bar code hell in their diaries just wouldn’t facilitate it (imagine a bar code, turn it on its side and you get a series of numbers with lines next to it, rather like a packed day of meetings, one after another, staring at 8 and finishing at 6 – that is if you are lucky), and new members in this leadership community had never even met face to face. Instead, they had just traded emails, for several months.
A casual observation might be… so, are they really a team then? Maybe it’s slightly more complicated than that….
The challenge as I see it for teams in leadership positions such as this is when do you put in the firebreak and say, “Look we need to get together and sort this out”. Moreover, how do you make a positive step forward in generating a sense of unity, when your days are so packed? And can you do this virtually if there’s an overriding mindset of transacting your way through the day?
As it happened, this team was brought together by a forced set of circumstances (let’s not get into those details). While the start was strained with the usual objections ‘Do we need all this time? or ‘I need to leave at x please’ or ‘Oh they’re emailing me; I just need to respond’ , they soon managed to move towards and start a meaningful discussion about the situation they were all experiencing.
And as the awkwardness evaporated, 3 important things happened.
The leaders had an important and conscious discussion about #collectivepurpose and enrolled new members in the history behind the challenges and problems which were going on. Why was this important? Because I can’t tell you how many times, we work with teams who just assume that they are all aligned to the same purpose, when they actually ‘are not’. This unspoken assumption leads to teams continuing to doubt what they are individually contributing to, or worse, when they walk out the door, they still say “it’s them…not me…that’s got to sort this out… their problem”.
The leaders created a #safespace they could be honest in. Often instigated by one person who tests the response of the group by offering a moment of vulnerability, this safe space is highly necessary for leaders to have an open and honest dialogue. In this specific situation, one brave person said, “Look, I know my team is struggling, we don’t always get it right, and I know that creates problems for others but we are trying.” In transactional situations, this could lead to a pile on “yeah, they are rubbish…you need to sort it out…do you know what trouble they make?” It didn’t. This actually led to others empathising and showing compassion, but also admitting to themselves they all had challenges that impact on each other. Pivotal moment. Heart-felt. Eye to eye. Honestly spoken and honestly received. With no pile on.
And what happened eventually was just simply gorgeous. They all had lunch together. Around a table, sitting, enquiring about each other, discussing some of the problems, whilst sharing something to eat. Old school some might say, but new school post-COVID. There is nothing like breaking down barriers, helping people come together in an equitable way, with time to relax and also remove the guards that they have built up through their bar code hell.
We need these things back in #leadership. We underestimate the power of what one of my colleagues calls, Stripped back Leadership – getting back to the basics of convening people, reconnecting to their collective purpose, helping create safe spaces, build mutual understanding, lighting the creative spark and regaining collective responsibility and also just having some time in our day-to-day working lives to stand back, breathe, reconnect and feel counted.