A Nod to Normalcy in the Midst of Chaos

If you have only recently begun reading this blog you probably think that much of my time is spent thinking and writing about Trump and politics. I can forgive you for that error. During this age of the COVID-19 pandemic and the incredible incompetence, perhaps even malice, of Trump, he has consumed a fair share of space in this blog. I cannot say I am happy about that. In fact, I spend as little time as possible thinking about Trump. While I am politically active, I am not an activist. However I am gravely concerned about the direction of our country under the “leadership” of Trump and those who fallen mindlessly in line with him.

Last night’s opening broadcast of the Republican National Convention only heightened my concern. At this point I am going to leave my comments at that. Perhaps as a cleansing of all the yelling and hate I heard last night, and because I could not sleep afterward anyway, I am posting at least one piece today that reflects how I really do spend my time: working to find ways to animate nonprofit organizations to achieve the greater good in their communities.


On Connection and Teamwork

Throughout my career I have led and participated in a variety of different teams. Each experience has been unique. Some have been comprised of volunteers. Some have been comprised of professionals. Some have been multi-sectoral or multi-organizational and sometimes both at once. Some have been geographically diverse and some were made diverse by age, gender, race, ethnicity, and religion. Some have been in person and some have been via telephone conference call, before the age of Zoom. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, like so many others, I have also led and participated in teams virtually.

There is something very important I have learned from my experience on teams. Regardless of how they meet it is important to make a connection with team members. This is true whether I am leading the team or participating in the team as a member. 

What do I mean by a “connection?” A connection is more than simply knowing who another person is or knowing their name. It is even more than having the ability to call them up or email them and expect a response. To have a connection is more personal, even in a professional context. 

There are three features which define a personal yet professional connection with another. 

  1. One is that you can present your ideas and opinions and know they will be thoughtfully considered. 
  2. Another is that you can be unguarded. Now that does not mean you have to be able to tell your deepest secrets but it does mean you can be open with others.
  3. Finally a genuine connection is mutual – you each experience that connection with the other.  

Team connectedness is important because it is the foundation for high-performance that gets the job done.

  • When team members are connected they more easily arrive at agreements needed to move their work forward.
  • All teams face challenges in their work. Connection helps create the camaraderie and unity which push the team through to success.
  • There are also times when team members do not agree with one another. At these times a sense of connection makes it easier to disagree productively, compromise when needed, and arrive at common solutions. 

A few years ago I was leading a team based in the same organization and housed in the same office complex. When I arrived for the day I would drop by the office of each member of the four person team. Sometimes it was to offer a quick greeting to begin the day and sometimes the dropins included brief conversations. Often they were a mixture of both personal and professional. For example, I might ask about a team member’s family member whom I knew was ill and then briefly preview a meeting we had together later in the day. I would also offer something more personal of myself, such as sharing about a movie I had recently seen, a book I was reading or a family event that was coming up. I wanted to have a connection with my team that said, “We are more than cogs in the wheel of this organization. I want to know you as a person as well as a colleague, and I want you to know me in the same way.” 

Making that kind of connection is pretty easy in an office setting of course. It is a bit more challenging when our only contact is virtual. However, it is not impossible. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I saw video conferencing as a poor substitute for in-person meetings. Today I see it a little differently. It is still a substitute for in-person meetings for many reasons. However, I have learned it is not as poor as I originally thought it would be. 

In fact, during the physical distancing required by the pandemic, I have belonged to at least three groups that developed deep, personal connections with one another. 

There has been research on the qualities that contribute to making effective and connected teams. Gallup, a household name in research, has conducted and published some of this work. Specifically, Gallup studied the qualities of partnership which, in turn, contribute to creating high performing teams. These qualities of partnership are the qualities of connection.

Gallup identified eight qualities. As I think about my best experiences with teams, I can easily recognize each of the qualities in them.

First of all, complementary strengths help forge connections. All of us have our strengths and our weaknesses. Connections are often formed when a team recognizes how much the members need one another. Where we are strong, others may be weak; where we are weak, others may be strong. Acknowledging that we need one another is an important first step in a connection and forming a high performing team. 

Second, connections can be built around a shared mission or purpose. Teams get in trouble when the individual members have different ideas of why the team exists. In my experience different ideas about the purpose emerge when team members assume it is already so clear it does not need to be stated. That is the time when it needs to be stated the most frequently and clearly. A shared mission or purpose can be incredibly powerful for a team. When a team’s purpose is so compelling that every member owns it personally then each member is more likely to do whatever is necessary to fulfill the purpose. That includes making connections with team members they might not otherwise be inclined to connect with for the good of the team and its mission.

Third, there is fairness, also known as equity. One of the most important lessons I have learned in teamwork is that equality is not a substitute for equity. When I first started leading teams I thought all would be good if team members were treated equally – if everyone received the same thing in the same way. I learned pretty quickly, though, that focusing on equality privileged some and shortchanged others. For example, in one case I learned some team members needed very little one-on-one time with me to build a connection and working relationship while others needed considerably more time than I had planned. If I withheld the extra time from those that needed it in the spirit of equality, I felt guilty and also found the connection was not as strong as it needed to be for effective team work. Coming to understand that equity and equality were not the same was one of the hardest lessons I learned. Today I understand that equality is important sometimes, but fairness or equity is important all of the time. 

Fourth, connection requires trust and trust is the “high wire act” of teamwork. What do I mean by the “high wire act”? If you have seen a circus you know that one of the acts with the highest level of risk to the performers are those that involve walking on a tight wire high off the ground or stage. It is risky and it requires the performer to trust at so many levels: trust the wire to be tight; trust that it will not break; trust that if she or he fell they would survive – with or without a net below. To connect with another person is an act of trust because it requires us to believe the other person will honor that connection and protect it. 

Fifth, acceptance is an essential part of connection. All of us are informed by our training, education, and life experiences. As a result, we have different ways of seeing the world. When we connect with someone, and they with us, acceptance makes it possible for each of us to honor and respect how the other sees things, even if our view is different. 

Sixth, forgiveness makes it possible for us to stay connected when either of us “blow it” or make a mistake. Because each of us are fallible human beings, there is always a risk each of us will do something wrong. Without the ability and willingness to forgive, the relationship can become adversarial and the connection will dissolve. 

Seventh, the most basic way to coordinate with a colleague or a whole team is by communicating. We may think others are mind readers, and we may occasionally think we are as well, but none of us are. At the start of our efforts to build a connection with another person or our team, communicating minimizes misunderstandings and builds trust. Think about that a second…it is easy to mistrust another when we do not know what is going on with them. Trustworthiness is established between two people and among whole teams through open communication. As our relationship grows, communicating consistently, continuously, and clearly makes it easier for us to work efficiently and effectively together. 

Eighth, and finally, there is unselfishness. How do we know when we have made an unselfish connection to another individual? When we celebrate their success as enthusiastically as we would celebrate our own. I know that might be oversimplified a little. Still the idea is the same…unselfishness means we want for others on the team what we want for ourselves. A spirit of unselfishness means that the team is well on its way to forming a powerful, effective collaboration which is able to do far more together than each could do on their own. That is what teamwork is about, right? 

These eight qualities of partnership and connection do not just – “poof!” – appear like magic. They take some effort and intentionality. 

Our ability to form high performing teams is related to our ability, and willingness, to build and maintain connections. This is true whether the team is able to gather in person or virtually over distance. Connection makes it easier for our team to achieve high performance and get the job done. 

What I have noticed is that the process of building and maintaining connection is the same, whether in-person or virtually. It takes time. It takes courage to risk being open with one another person. And, it takes a willingness to respond in kind – to also be open.


References: Wagner, R. & Muller, G. (2009). Power of two: How to make the most of your partnerships at work and in life. New York: Gallup Press.


A Worthy Read

I have been receiving Letters from an American everyday now for the past couple of weeks. The letters are from Heather Cox Richardson and, no, they are not personal letters. I signed up for her daily letter at the recommendation of my friend Dave. I have been enjoying them a great deal. They are politically oriented, however, they offer much more perspective than punditry. Each letter offers a summary of the political news of the day with Richardson’s perspective sometimes woven in. In this time of fast moving news, I have found it very useful to have this letter awaiting each morning when I wake up. I do wonder though when this woman sleeps? Today’s newsletter was particularly interesting and I do consider it worthy of your and my time and effort today. Here is an excerpt from today’s Letter that may tempt you to read more:

The Republicans have written no platform to outline policies and goals for the future. Instead they passed a resolution saying that “the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.” The party appears now to be Trump’s.

Heather Cox Richardson, August 23, 2020 – Letters from An American

You can quickly and easily see some of Richardson’s back issues at Moyers on Democracy.


A Matter of Character

Not long ago I started reading again David Brook’s The Road to Character. The more I have read it, the more I have become troubled by Trump and his alliance with White Evangelicals. After reading Mary Trump’s book about her famous uncle, I was not surprised by the content of the recordings that were released this weekend in which Trumps sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, castigated her younger brothers on his core character. I was surprised, though, that Mary Trump released the tapes. It would appear that the gloves have come off in the Trump family, which should make for a very interesting holiday dinners later this year.

This morning I came across the video featured below. I have debated whether I would share it here because I have tried to differentiate between Republicans and Trump because I do not believe, philosophically, Trump is a Republican. He is all about himself and has, in fact, changed party affiliations no less than five times since 1987. As recently as 2009 he was a member of the Democratic Party. Had he had the opening in the Democratic Party the Republicans gave him in the GOP, I have no doubt he would have run as a Democrat and today it would the Democratic Party that would have been taken over and become “Trumpist.”

This phrase come to mind for me: “There but for the grace of God…”

The video is compelling because it uses only the words of other Republicans who ran against Trump in the 2016 primaries. The assessment each one makes goes to the issue of character. It raises an important question for my Republican friends: Now that we all know very clearly the character of Trump, I respectfully ask, do you really still want this person, in the name of your party, to have so much power in our country?


Chickenman – Episode 95 – Only 2 Episodes Left!

The Winged Warrior, fresh off his defeat in the election for Police Commissioner, is called upon to quell a riot at the Saturday afternoon matinee.


Stay safe, be well, keep calm, keep washing your hands, keep wearing your mask, and keep striving for justice, peace, and health for all.

Tom

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