It’s half an hour into one of my recent team-building programs — a treasure hunt offsite at the Bronx Zoo in New York  – and Janine  is clearly struggling.   For 30 minutes straight she’s been sitting on a bench, 20 feet away from her “Team Indiana Jones” teammates, poring over a particularly difficult clue and getting nowhere.  I can see the frustration on her face, eliciting wrinkles around her temples mingled with stress lines of determination and irritation on her forehead; like a Labrador protecting her bone, Janine is simply not going to surrender this clue to anyone, let alone to one of her four, treasure-hunt teammates.

Quietly, I sidle over to her take a knee at her side.

“Hey Janine, is there anything I can help you with?”
“No thanks.  I’ve almost got this.”
“Seems like you’ve been toiling away at that clue for a pretty long time.  Don’t you think it’s time to call in reinforcements?”
“NO!   My team entrusted me with this task. It’s my job to finish it, and that’s what I intend to do.”

Janine’s dogged refusal to ask for help – or at least to seek a different perspective – neatly embodies the first of three productivity stumbling blocks that I see time and time again during my team-building programs.   These stumbling blocks are 1) Silence  2) Lack of Empathy  and 3) Tribalism.   Let’s explore each one briefly.

Stumbling Block #1:  Silence
Janine may eventually solve the puzzle she’s been working on – but her lengthy, silent pursuit of a solution is putting her team in danger.  At some point, she has to realize that self-reliance is a virtue – up until the point where you risk missing a deadline.  But let’s not minimize her dilemma.  Janine has a devilish choice to make.   On the one hand, she’s clearly at a dead end with the clue tasked to her; her efforts to “brute force” it are proving ineffective.  If she remains quiet, the status quo is bound to continue and the work won’t get done.   On the other hand, by conceding defeat and asking for assistance, she risks shame, embarrassment and a loss of status – at least so she thinks.   After all, by asking for help, isn’t she admitting that she wasn’t smart enough for the job?   Worse, by failing to perform the task, Janine imagines being seen as untrustworthy.   She swore she could solve this clue!  And Janine always does what she says she’s going to do!

Janine’s urge for “self-reliant silence” afflicts all manner of organizations.  Although eminently understandable, stubborn solitude can be an absolute killer for teams under deadline, especially when a more collaborative approach might have cracked the problem in record time.

Stumbling Block #2:  Lack of Empathy
While Janine is slogging away at her assigned task, her fellow Indiana Jones teammates Pete, Linda, Will and Victor are sitting nearby at another bench, working on treasure hunt puzzles of their own.  Janine’s supervisor in the department, Victor, has barely looked up during these last 30 minutes plus, so fixated is he on his own clue-solving responsibilities.  Nevertheless, as an experienced project manager, Victor has noticed Janine’s conspicuous absence.  But does he approach her, either to offer assistance or to check in on his teammate?  Nope.   From past experience, he knows how Janine can be when she’s got her teeth into something.   And hey, she did say she had that clue covered, didn’t she?   Victor’s wariness of conflict combined with his belief that co-workers should get their own work done, prevents him from experiencing a shared moment of empathy with Janine.  A supervisor with higher EQ than Victor might’ve asked himself, “I wonder how Janine is getting along?   I see the strain on her face and it’s been half an hour.  From what I know about Janine, she’s probably too proud to ask for help, even though that’s exactly what she (and the team) needs right now. I better go check in on her and find a way to give her a hand while preserving her pride.”  That’s empathy:  walking in another person’s shoes, trying to imagine what he or she might be thinking and feeling, and offering assistance.

Organizations without empathy are organizations without trust.  Think about it.  How can you truly trust someone who doesn’t care about your thoughts and feelings?

Stumbling Block #3:  Tribalism
While Janine and Victor are struggling along silently, unwilling or unable to work together to solve a problem, Rick – the captain of team “Sherlock Holmes” – is also feeling the strain.   You see, he has come across a clue that is clearly written in Braille.  The challenge is that there’s no Braille decoder sheet in his clue packet.   On the other hand, Rick has discovered two copies of a Morse Code decoder sheet – which is great; he can use one of them to solve that tricky Morse Code clue in his packet.  “But why the two Morse Code sheets?” he wonders.  “Hmm, you don’t suppose that one of the other teams might have two Braille sheets?!!”   By swapping their extra decoder sheets (Morse for Braille and vice versa), both teams would have what they need to solve the two clues – at no real cost to either of them.

The logical action would be to approach the Indiana Jones team and offer a swap.

“But wait a second,” thinks Rick.  “They’re the enemy!   I can’t talk with them. Better to make do without the Braille sheet than to help our nemesis!”

Such tribalism afflicts nearly every grouping of people, at work and at play, most especially when scarcity of resources is part of the equation.  My team is my tribe…everyone else is an outsider — the enemy, the other.   And thus tribalism compels organizations to build barriers and boundaries, to miss out opportunities achieving mutual benefit through cross-team collaboration and cooperation.

So what can we do to counter the 3 Stumbling Blocks to team productivity?

  1. For Silence:  Set a timer!   For a specific duration, you make an agreement with yourself to work alone on a task.  But when that timer goes off, it’s time to get help.  No debating!  Take your pride out of the equation.   You’ve made the solitary effort.   The priority now is getting the job done.  Seek a collaborator.
  2. For Empathy:  Make it a regular practice of asking yourself, “What might other people be struggling with?”  After all, if you’re a human being who struggles with life (as we all do), it’s a safe bet that others are struggling with their own issues as well.  Although no one can read another person’s minds with 100% accuracy, the act of trying to put yourself in others’ shoes takes you out of your own ego, into a space where empathy can flourish.
  3. For Tribalism:  Expand your circle and redefine the “enemy”.   For example, if your department is the tribe and other departments feel like the enemy, consider expanding your tribe to encompass your entire organization.  All of a sudden, the new “enemy” becomes rival organizations.   But don’t stop there.   Make the new your industry, competing against other industries.   Or perhaps your country against other countries.   Or humanity competing against global warming.   The tribe can always be expanded, opening up opportunities for collaboration and cooperation.

You’ll be amazed how many of the world’s most intractable problems can be solved by simply speaking up, caring about others, and cultivating a mindset of participation.  A road without productivity stumbling blocks is a path I look forward to walking.