There are some aspects of teamwork that are easy to wrap your head around. For example, my last article in this series shared why having a sense of belonging and knowing your purpose can make teamwork more motivating. But our research shows there are also some invisible, harder-to-achieve forces at play among great teams: awareness and inclusion.
We’ve all likely seen a team interaction that just felt “off.” Maybe it was a manager having a sensitive conversation in an open work environment, or someone feeling called out on a large chat thread. This could also take more subtle forms, like your team excluding you from a meeting on a topic you are passionate about. This is lack of awareness and inclusion in action; if not addressed, it can quickly erode your team’s culture and comradery.
Building a successful team is more than bringing together the skills need to complete the task. It’s a fine art that constantly needs attention, where finding the right balance between personalities, personal objectives and temperaments is critical. So, Microsoft recently set out to study all kinds of teams, from search and rescue squads, to CEOs and TV producers. In this research, we learned there are three types of awareness that consistently contribute to great team dynamics and promote inclusion. Specifically, we saw first-hand that teams with a strong sense of self awareness, co-awareness and situational awareness have a more inclusive culture where team members can more easily navigate challenges, conflicts and interpersonal dynamics. For example, we interviewed Shane Snow, the author of the book Dream Teams. He told us the best teams he’s observed, “have people who think differently, are fully willing to engage, debate, bring their full selves to the party.” But this can be tough if the team hasn’t built up the trust that’s created by having awareness about how their words and actions impact their team.
Building a strong sense of awareness takes practice, but it pays off. In my experience, those skilled at harnessing the diversity of their team with awareness and inclusion often soar high in their career – or frankly, in life – because they are trusted and respected. As Malcom Forbes once said, diversity is “the art of thinking independently together.” When people feel heard and understood they want to walk beside you no matter the challenge at hand.
This article will dig into what a strong sense of awareness looks like and share practical tips for how you can build it yourself, and on your team.
Three types of awareness
Self awareness is the ability to recognize your emotions and why you might be feeling them. For example, have you been working long hours and feeling especially exhausted? Did you have a previous negative interaction with someone that’s clouding your judgement? By pausing to reflect on your emotions before engaging, you’re able to gather your thoughts and move forward in the most objective way possible.
The search and rescue teams we studied embodied this well – because their lives depend on it. When one team member, Alex, had difficulty leading a search and rescue training team due to fatigue, he tapped into his learnings from emotional awareness training and asked a colleague to take over rather than tough it out. Being able to identify how he felt and then communicate it to his team helped keep them all safe.
Co-awareness in the simplest sense, is having empathy for your teammates. It’s the ability to sense others’ emotions and recognize the impact your actions have on others. Could you have a conversation in the group chat so others feel included and can chime in? Is your colleague drowning in work and one more task could send her over the edge? When giving feedback, could you put yourself in their shoes and deliver it in a way that focuses on a way to move forward together, rather than his or her personal shortcomings?
Co-awareness is particularity crucial in a world where most of our team communication happens digitally. Research from social scientist Dr. Mary Donohue shows a great deal of context is lost in digital communication. In one study she led, subjects reported understanding the full context of only 20 percent of work emails they received. Donohue says it can be emotionally taxing to communicate this way because it simply takes more energy to decode what our teammates are trying to say. Having co-awareness means taking extra time to ensure our points and emotional context are clear. In some instances, it might mean starting a video call, rather than trying to handle a sensitive topic via chat. In others, it might mean adding additional context, changing the punctuation or adding an emoji to lighten the mood.
Situational awareness is about considering the context your team is in – such as the time of year or even the room you’re in. For example, should you have a sensitive conversation elsewhere? Are there team dynamics you should be sensitive too when in large meetings? Is the sales team under more pressure than usual to meet end of year goals? Simply pausing to think about the situational forces impacting your team can help you be more effective in your team interactions because you’re meeting people where they are. It can also help avoid interpersonal frictions caused by misunderstandings caused by lost context.
Putting this into action on your team
How can you build awareness and inclusion on your team? Using this thought starter guide, take time to individually reflect on when you’re at your best and when you might not be. If it helps, imagine you joined a new team today. What are the top things you’d want your teammates to know before they begin working with you? The profile might include things like: things you can count on me for; things I may need help with; my preferred way of receiving feedback; ways I’m looking to grow; I’m most successful when, I get stressed if. Use this information to develop a profile of how you like to work that you can share with your team.
Reflecting on the conditions that make you successful, and sharing them with your team, helps everyone learn about each other’s needs and preferences, and consider how to best support each other each day at work.
Check back in two weeks for the last article in the series which will dive into trust, vulnerability and constructive tension. In the meantime, you can also check out our Art of Teamwork toolkit which provides additional examples, thought starters and facilitator guides to help you team better.