An executive I was working with assigned one of her employees to give a summary of a project. The employee put a great deal of effort into creating a PowerPoint deck and was presenting it in front of senior leadership when his boss stopped him in the middle of his presentation.
“Clearly, he doesn’t know what a summary is,” she said. “I’ll take over.”
She threw him under the bus, but she had not clearly articulated what she meant by “summary.” Did she mean one slide and a five-minute recap? Or did she mean a 30-minute summary of the whole project? The staff member had to guess, and he guessed wrong.
Clear communication — asking and answering questions to clarify expectations — beats assuming, missing the mark, and public put-downs. Humiliation only damages the trust that is essential for high functioning teams and, worse, replaces it with productivity-hampering fear.
Checking our assumptions about other people’s intentions is one way to build resilient teams that can overcome challenges and bounce back from adversity. Working with business teams across the US and internationally, I’ve observed that the most resilient employees, teams, and leaders practice certain habits. To stay focused and productive, they:
1. Communicate a shared definition of success. Many people assume they know what success looks like. But when we make assumptions, we miss context and details. Avoid this pitfall by initiating a conversation with questions such as: How do we define success (short-, mid-, and long-term)? How do we measure it? How do we address setbacks? Ask questions until you are satisfied you can define what success means in each task.
2. Hold effective and efficient meetings. Poorly organized meetings cost US companies an estimated $399 billion this year. To avoid being part of the problem, have a clear agenda that defines the purpose and the outcome you’re seeking. Assign meeting roles. For example, have somebody facilitate to keep the discussion moving along. Have someone else take notes and send them out soon after the meeting, recapping action steps and clarifying who is doing what and by when.
3. Clarify expectations. Sometimes teams start out with a shared definition of success, but veer off course along the way. Establish guideposts to measure progress and prevent confusion and wasted effort.
4. Foster human connection. Building relationships helps teams establish trust. Take the time to get to know the people you work with. Ask them what they are interested in and enjoy outside of work. Do they have kids, love to travel, enjoy some of the same activities you enjoy? You can’t motivate a stranger, but you can influence people with whom you share a connection.
5. Use video conferencing. Eye contact and body language is important for establishing clear communication. With more teams working remotely and internationally, video conferencing allows them to connect better than they could through email or phone calls.
6. Focus on getting it right, rather than being right. In conflict, our ego tells us that winning means being right, even if it is at someone else’s expense. But this can be toxic when it comes to building and maintaining strong relationships. Say you receive a reply to an email you carefully crafted from someone who obviously did not take the time to read it carefully. Instead of forwarding the original email and saying “as per my original email” you could avoid putting the other person on the defensive with a response such as “maybe I didn’t say it in a way that was understood.”
7. Ask questions that move the conversation forward. Resilient teams get curious rather than judgmental. Ask questions such as: “Can you help me understand where you’re coming from? Or, “It sounds like this is a real area of contention. Help me understand why.” Posing nonjudgmental questions helps to deescalate tension and re-engages the pre-frontal cortex responsible for higher-level thinking.
8. Challenge assumptions. We judge others by their behavior and ourselves by our intent. When we do this, we make assumptions that damage relationships. Resilient teams assume positive intent and challenge their own assumptions, especially when it comes to assigning intent to others.
9. Look at failure as a necessary component of success. Rather than assigning blame, resilient teams try to dissect what happened so that they can learn from mistakes. Failure isn’t the opposite of success; it’s part of it. Great teams fail, and great leaders make it safe to do so. Practice a growth mindset and learn to use failure as a tool for improvement.
10. Express gratitude and appreciation. Resilient teams express gratitude and appreciation in ways that are meaningful to each team member. They give credit where credit is due. Expressing gratitude and receiving expressions of gratitude changes our brains. It conditions us to start looking for the good, so we are more likely to find it.
Resilient teams take time to proactively cultivate the habits, behaviors, and skills they need to rise above adversity, navigate change, and maximize performance and potential. Practiced consistently, these habits will build better communication and stronger relationships as they bring out the best in teams.