I’ve been reading a lovely little book of late, called “When Things Fall Apart”, by Pema Chodron. If you’re unfamiliar with Chodron (nee Deirdre Blomfield-Brown), she’s a world-renowned teacher and writer living up in Nova Scotia, Canada. Although her books tend to revolve around Tibetan Buddhism, I find that her teachings shed much insight into the way teams operate, both in the workplace and elsewhere.
“When Things Fall Apart” might easily be sub-titled “When Teams Fall Apart” — so aptly does it describe the process teams go through when things start getting shaky. And who hasn’t been on a team like that? As a group, you’ve had a string of glorious successes — one after another. You’ve received awards and recognition from your organization. Seemingly, this success will continue on forever. And then — suddenly — it doesn’t. Your group starts fighting. Internal politics start dragging you down. Or outside forces, like a slowing economy, retard your team’s progress. Disappointment and a sense of depression settles in like a dark, smoky cloud. What do you do to turn things around?
Chodron’s advice is: if you can’t shift the situation, shift your mindset.
Shift #1: Stop trying to convince yourself that success should last forever. Nothing is permanent! Look at the world. The seasons change. Everything is constantly evolving.
“Impermanence is the essence of everything”, writes Chodron. “Impermanence is meeting and parting. It’s falling in love and falling out of love…it’s part of the whole cycle of life” When you’re team is at the pinnacle, recognize it as impermanence and let that intensify the preciousness. And when things are crumbling all about you, trust the cycle. “Everything that ends is also the beginning of something else.”
Shift #2: Stop trying to convince yourself that pleasure can come without pain. As Chodron writes:
“It’s promoted rather widely in this world and we buy it. But pain and pleasure go together; they are inseparable. They can be celebrated. They are ordinary. Birth is painful and delightful. Death is painful and delightful. ”
With team success comes inspiration, and that feels great. “It cheers us up, makes us realize how vast and wonderful world our world is. But when the tables are turned and we feel wretched, that softens us up. It ripens our hearts. It becomes the ground for understanding others. Both the inspiration and the wretchedness can be celebrated. We can be big and small at the same time.”
Chodron’s philosophy can thus be paraphrased like this: Team success will eventually crest and begin a descent. This is a natural part of a universal cycle of change and impermanence. What gets us into trouble — brings about a lot of suffering — is the belief that change and pain are bad things — to be avoided at all costs. In fact, change leads to evolution and newness, and pain develops our capacity for understanding and empathy.
Should we just accept team failure, then, and let it happen without fighting? Absolutely not! But when it does eventually arrive — as it will — don’t beat yourselves up. Celebrate what you’ve learned, and look forward to the adventures to come.