There are two simple but powerful questions you can use to make sense of what is happening in your team or organisation. They will bring out the ‘silent themes’ that are holding you back.
I was facilitating a team story process recently with a senior management team which is tasked with some hefty targets within a multinational firm. After an hour or so of conversation I observed something peculiar about the way the people interacted with each other. I would pose a question and a handful of team members would respond, taking turns in what felt like a ‘popcorn’ fashion, each throwing their comment into the team space. No one would respond to the comments; it was just a series of kernels popping off.
I was curious and asked the team about the role of silence in the way the team works together. It turned out that this non-responsive pattern was rooted in many experiences where team members walked away from meetings feeling like their contributions were not valued, understood or were down right disregarded within the decision-making process. And so the team, well actually the individuals, opted for the self-preservation of silence in team discussions, only heating up their kernel and allowing it to pop off when it was either safe, or when the conversation was of no real consequence to their job. People went about their individual work, focusing on personal targets, under the guise of ‘being a team’.
Doesn’t this situation remind you of how teams tend to work in organisations? Teams can easily get caught in an interactional pattern that severely limits what can be achieved in a space where we need to co-ordinate our actions. In this case the Story of Silence was holding a team back. It was a story with a history, a real track record. But it was a story that was not spoken about, or addressed.
Question 1:What’s the story here?
Don’t be fooled into thinking that stories are of no consequence in organisations.
If we dig deeper into the stories we have of ourselves, of our team and of our organisation we begin to find patterns, mindsets and ideas in tension. Some of these stories move us forward. Some of these stories hold us back. It’s easy to face up to the ones that move us forward, but it takes courage to confront and re-author those that hold us back.
Asking “what’s the story is here” is a basic sensemaking process we do as individuals. We are constantly trying to make the environment around us sensible, and we tend to do this by fitting events and experiences into a narrative pattern. This is fine and well, except that in organisations we tend to do this individually. We do not speak to each other about these stories, these patterns of interaction. We do not pull them out into the open to explore their influences and figure out whether these are the stories we want to be living out in our interactional contexts and organisational worlds.
Ascertaining “what the story is here” cannot be done in isolation, otherwise it’s just your interpretation. It has to be done in community, in ‘relatedness’. And it is in the process of naming the stories that both bring us together and pull us apart that we begin to figure out what a future of possibility looks like in a team.
Question 2: What will we co-create together?
Having acknowledged “what the story is around here”, we are then well-placed to ‘negotiate’ a new way of being and interacting, a new story. The answers to the question of what we will co-create together are the mutual agreements that make team and interactional contexts relational, connected, meaningful and most of all, effective.
But here’s the thing: we know these stories are there; we know they hold us back; we know that there must be a better way to interact; and yet we turn a blind eye to them. This is the very thing that makes these silent stories so powerful – they fester in the dark.
Doing this is not about therapy, nor about unearthing previous experiences that may have been hurtful (which is needed sometimes). No, this about a look forwards with the aim to create meaningful ways of working together, where our interactions are relational and constructive.
This is what it means to re-author a team story.