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How to Balance Autonomy and Authenticity to Support Positive Team Dynamics

Enhancing psychological wellbeing by building trust and rapport.

Black woman raising hand at work
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I will never forget the day I was sitting in a leadership class in business school and I had a major “aha” moment. My professor was taking us through Dr. Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats® framework, which separates thinking into six distinct categories. Each category has its own colored metaphorical “thinking hat.” The idea is that a team can efficiently get to an ideal, well thought out outcome, including the diverse viewpoints at the table, when the framework is used.  Each person wears a particular hat during the meeting. And it is important that team members have the opportunity to rotate hats from meeting to meeting.

Why is it important to wear different hats? Because each hat serves a different purpose and if you wear the same hat over and over again, how you are viewed within the group can become fixed. That day in class, I realized that I often wore the Black Hat. The Black Hat is judgment. It plays the role of the devil’s advocate and gives voice to why something may not work. (Why does the hat have to be black? Hmmm. I’m just saying…)

Being Seen as Critical Rather than a Critical Thinker

That “aha” moment was a turning point on my leadership journey because I realized that, slowly but surely, the role I had been playing became how many people saw me as a person. Instead of a critical thinker, I was simply viewed as critical. And when I had conflict, it was typically because I was pointing out what was not working. Personally, I had always viewed myself as analytical rather than critical…but I am, of course, biased. And I know that I am multi-dimensional, so I did not spend a lot of time focusing on how I could act differently. (Spoiler alert: Blindspot!)

What was the context within which I was actually operating?

What was I missing?

With respect to my career, I had spent my time as a consultant poking holes in arguments, looking for the counter argument and ensuring that all potential gaps were accounted for and mitigated. That served me well when I was designing HR systems, creating or overhauling business processes and thinking about downside risk when I was liaising with legal and compliance. I also wore other hats; however, I made my name and was very comfortable wearing that Black Hat. And, real talk, living in the skin that I am in, that did not help me.

The Method to My Madness

I happily played the contrarian at work because I believed that my voice helped the group get to a better solution. Owning that role made me feel like I had autonomy and freedom to do my thing. I was comfortable expressing my opinions because, in my mind, that was part of my job. It was easy for me. 

I admit that I constructed high standards for a particular outcome that I wanted to meet and I desired for others to join me on that journey. I would describe the majority of my past work relationships as positive because I willingly gave my time, attention and energy to my team in service of meeting that standard. That is the context that I sought to create for others. But what was the context within which I was actually operating? What was I missing?

The Power of Rapport and Values

After granting myself time for reflection, I realized two things: 1) that I was critical of others because I was critical of myself; and 2) that conflict existed with those people with whom I did not have strong rapport; within those relationships that I did not build trust. People with whom I required buy-in and support to move forward that, for one reason or another, we did not align on a personal level. Overlooking the importance of those relationships and collaborations undermined my ability to truly master my domain and led to a tremendous amount of stress. That stress ate me from the inside out.

I realized that the conflict existed because of a perceived disconnect with our core values.

What was the disconnect? Was it related to my identity? In some cases, yes, I believe that was  true. But I also experienced conflict with people who looked like me. When I dug deeper, I realized that the conflict existed because of a perceived disconnect with our core values. Everyone lives by a set of values that may be implicit or explicit, and those values tend to change over time as we have new experiences. 

When I had strong rapport with someone, I easily found our common values and built upon that. We developed trust. We did not make things personal. We focused on the situation. However, with those persons with whom I had conflict and weak rapport, subconsciously, I focused my attention on where I believed our values differed. What was not working. That made it much more difficult for me to create a positive vision for my relationship with that person because distrust was the foundation. And, again, that did not help me.

Finding the middle ground to close the distance between “me” and “them”.

Moving Forward

Wearing the Black Hat is still natural for me…and I am happy to be me. However, I am much more conscientious of the other hats that I get to wear, like the Yellow Hat for optimism or the Green Hat for creativity. I also am more consistent about looking for alignment with others. I intentionally create rapport with people rather than believing that it will just happen organically. I ask people what is most important to them so I can get a better understanding of how I can meet them where they are. I ask people about their intention before a meeting to bring clarity into our conversation. And, most importantly, I share who I am and what is important to me. 

I take out the guesswork so we can find middle ground, closing the distance between “me” and “them”. I feel more confident in how I represent myself and in the quality of my relationships. This takes effort and energy. And I get to decide where to place that energy and effort. I have learned, however, that with practice, it gets easier and can be energizing. You can do the same! Building trusting relationships and rapport happens one conversation at a time. Play with it. Explore. Learn.

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