One day recently a woman who had been in my team building class stopped by to say hello. She wanted to tell me a story about how she had been courageous in addressing a safety problem in her building, something that supervisors had tried to brush under the carpet. She said, “So it would be nice if we could all focus on this nice, cozy team building you talked about, but sometimes we can’t.”
I was flabbergasted. How could I have spent two days with this woman and failed so utterly in conveying my message?
I thought about it for days. My message has always been that high performance teams are composed of members who say what they really think and engage in passionate debate. My approach to communication skills has always been that we must learn to be “effective” and not “nice” (although sometimes being effective requires being nice, or at least diplomatic). How does this message come out sounding like “nice cozy team building”?
I’m left with no thoughts other than the power of the preconceptions we have about team building, or about soft skill development in general. For some folks there is a strong mental model that pits getting work done against developing your relationship-building and communication skills. It’s a model that says one is strong, the other is weak, and you can’t have both.
There’s another thought that troubles me. In my open enrollment team building classes there seem to be two broad categories of participants: the folks that already get it but could pick up a few new tools; and the folks that are mired in this mental model and have been sent to class unwillingly by their supervisors because of poor team building skills. The question becomes, how to reach that second group? I can (and do) keep the session interactive and fun so they don’t get bored, but that only reinforces their idea that the training is fluffy and non-essential to the work they do. Keeping the focus on skill-building doesn’t help when they think the skill-building is aimed at making them nicer instead of more effective.
It’s a question I have no answer for.
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