You may have noticed that workplaces have become a little ... intense.
In fact, many businesses have co-opted a military acronym to describe it: VUCA, which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Essentially, it means that the working environment has become so tumultuous that people are struggling to find their place in it.
Our cultural climate is partly to blame. At the same time that millennials are assuming their position as the dominant segment of the workforce, many of them fear that automation will eventually put them out of a job. Fifty-six percent of Americans, including tech-native millennials, believe that technology will destroy more jobs than it creates. These changes are injecting a lot of chaos into the workplace.
To make sense of the VUCA environment, business leaders need to exercise more emotional intelligence than ever. In addition, they need to empathize with their employees and learn how to foster collaboration — and not just any old collaboration: the sophisticated, strategic kind that breaks through typical workplace boundaries like hierarchy and demographics.
The Team-Building Emergency: How We’ve Been Doing It Wrong
Team building is one of the most important (yet undervalued) uses of emotional intelligence in the workplace. Business is an inherently social act. To innovate and think creatively, people need access to collective energy and ideas.
When employees feel disconnected and alone, their brains don’t function at full capacity; their ability to think outside the narrow confines of basic tasks is impaired. But when they’re part of a healthy group, their work life is eased and empowered. It’s a phenomenon that James Coan, a neuroscientist and researcher at the University of Virginia, calls “load sharing.” When individual pressure is reduced, creativity thrives.
But while many business leaders understand the need for team building, they often take a makeshift, unscientific approach that actually results in increased friction and division.
For example, leaders sometimes assume that all their employees should be best friends, as if employees who don’t sprint out of work to get together for happy hour are doing something wrong. Despite our fervent hopes, this is never going to happen, nor should we want it to. Though employees need to respect one another to work effectively, the best collaboration often takes place between people with vastly different perspectives who would rarely socialize outside of work.
I’ve also met leaders who think that team building should be a magical, life-changing experience — something that involves holding hands in a circle and doing trust falls and crying at the end. While team building should be positive, the real work is incremental, ongoing and much less dramatic.
But even effective team-building practices only go so far if you’ve assembled the wrong team. Unfortunately, when putting teams together, leaders often overvalue skills and undervalue motivations. They pair their best employees with their lowest performers, assuming that their top employees will lead and motivate those who need it. Instead, the low performers tend to demotivate the more dedicated employees, undercutting the very people who used to give the business the most value. Truly great teamwork happens when motivations — problem-solving, curiosity, empathy, etc. — play off one another in a complementary way.
How You Can Master Intelligent Team Building
Leaders can engineer an environment that empowers employees to motivate and support one another. Here are three starting points:
1. Create conditions where trust wins
Teamwork frequently brings with it an atmosphere of trepidation rather than trust. Often, employees are scared to share their ideas, fearing that they’ll be misunderstood or criticized.
Leaders can create an atmosphere of psychological safety to promote trust and encourage team members to openly share ideas and perspectives. One way to do this is by opening your workplace up to feedback. Enact a system of regular, structured feedback in which you go around and ask everyone on the team to share something. Appreciate and listen to the feedback, whether it’s positive or negative. This will gradually increase the feeling of trust throughout the team.
2. Manufacture team-building opportunities
Healthy collaboration doesn’t just happen — you need to carve out opportunities for it. Don’t let your employees develop ideas in isolation. Instead, plot collaboration sessions into their work schedules.
With every problem you’re addressing in your company, think about how you could solve it collaboratively. Could you host a weekly brainstorm with different members of the team coming together to thrash out ideas? Could you make the process social by alternating quiet work time with open Q&A time?
Most successful problem solvers don’t solve problems immediately or in isolation. They are curious and ask questions in a group setting. Create an atmosphere where this can happen.
3. Prioritize diversity
Leaders often group employees who seem to have something in common, be it background, skill level, or personality. Sometimes this tendency is subconscious — certain pairings just seem to “make sense.”
While it’s natural to want team members to see eye to eye and become friends, assembling more diverse, counterintuitive groups could actually lead to more productive collaboration. Diverse teams motivate each other to think independently and dive deeper into issues.
Promote all kinds of diversity in your team. With each new opportunity for collaboration, ask yourself how you can mix up the members of your team to challenge the status quo. Consider gender, ethnicity, age, and personality. Get your employees out of their comfort zones — that’s where they’ll create the good stuff.
In this VUCA environment, employees need all the help they can get from their leaders. Teams that let the chaos overcome their working relationships will suffer, but teams that stick together and learn how to collaborate will win. Their collective intelligence will boost performance and allow the individuals within the team to soar.