I recently attended a project meeting in which a senior level manager popped in unannounced to complain that a process change she initiated hadn’t been implemented by the team. She scolded people for “dragging their feet,” and when team members asked questions about the implementation plan she responded that she had already explained it and therefore had “no compassion for their inability to get the work done.”
Although I could understand the manager’s frustration about not getting things done, I was dazed and dismayed by the way she handled it, and moreover, by the fallout of negativity, anger and confusion that followed when she stormed out the door. As it turns out, several individuals on the project team needed additional information and discussion with the manager to move forward. However, the manager’s accusations and refusal to communicate made them more hesitant than ever to work things out. Her intervention had the opposite outcome that she had intended, delaying rather than expediting the project.
This story illuminates how human dynamics encompass not only communication, but also the positive and negative dynamics and outcomes of our human connections one to one, in groups and across power differences at work. The ways that people interact and relate with one another can help or hinder the flow and coordination of information and ideas between people as well as encourage or discourage their motivation and ability to get things done.
This article highlights some of research and best practices for creating good human dynamics at work and ends with some strategies for you to consider.
The human brain will have its way
Leadership coach and researcher, David Rock, advocates that the higher the trust level among people at work, the better the collaboration and bottom line results. Although this idea isn’t new to most experienced managers, Rock takes the concept to a higher level of understanding by tapping knowledge from the field of neuroscience. His brain-based SCARF model describes five social domains that can apply to any situation in which people collaborate in groups: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.
The five domains of social experience are extremely important because they can activate the brain’s response to a perceived reward or threat, with the consequence of either shutting down or promoting the ability to think and act productively. For example, the domain of “relatedness” has to do with a sense of belonging and is linked to trust. The domain of “status” is similar. An individual’s sense of diminished dignity or status from public embarrassment or “loss of face” can trigger an automatic threat response, casting him or her into a negative spiral of fear, flight or fight.
I suspect that the manager in my opening story who came from outside the group and barked insults and threats did, indeed, trigger such a response among the people in the project team. While she intended to motivate them to produce more quickly, her fear tactics resulted in confusion, anger, and ultimately, a much longer timeline for the project.
According to Rock, it’s difficult to regain trust once broken, but fostering safe connections between people can be accomplished through dedicated social time such as networking and events where people can exchange more personal aspects of themselves than they do during their regular work time. These kinds of events can increase trust between people at work by creating a sense of familiarity and belonging with people in a common clan. They can also increase commitment to the larger organization by strengthening the sense that we are all in this together.
The human brain is soothed by positive and safe relationships, which help to overcome the natural response of fear to anyone or anything new or out of the ordinary. Evidently, social time between people at work is more than just fluff! It serves to build familiarity and trust, which is the foundation for productive collaboration.
Everyone watches the boss
It’s hard for me to believe that Daniel Goleman’s seminal works on emotional and social intelligence (i.e. Emotional Intelligence at Work, Primal Leadership, Social Intelligence) were published more than a decade ago; these works are more alive and useful to me than ever before. For example, in Primal Leadership (with McGee and Boyatzis, 2002), his New York Times best-selling book on leadership and emotional intelligence, Goleman planted the idea that everyone watches the boss. He shared research and examples demonstrating how leaders create resonance by generating positive emotions, bringing out the best in people. Negativity on the part of the leader has the opposite result, working against the emotional foundation that helps to promote confidence and productivity. Goleman advocates that leaders’ positive or negative interactions are like ripples in a pond. Workplace relations are modeled by leaders, interpreted and emulated by employees and passed on to clients and customers. Ultimately, patterns of human dynamics define and broadcast an organization’s character and culture.
Empirical evidence reinforcing the importance of positive human dynamics between managers and employees was documented in a well-known Gallup research project involving more than ten million workers in companies across the world. The research revealed that five of the twelve most important indicators that inspired workers’ best work were related to relationships with their leaders, supervisors and each other: recognition and praise, someone at work cares about me as a person, someone at work encourages my development, my opinions seem to count, and I have a best friend at work. If you don’t already know about this important study, you can learn more about the five indicators above as well as the other seven in 12: The Elements of Great Managing, Wagner and Harter, 2006. This great little book with big ideas summarizes the Gallup research and provides helpful applications in a quick read.
Human dynamics for an interconnected world
A broader perspective about the importance of human dynamics at work comes from a global workplace study by the McKinsey Company, which highlighted a growing trend for workers needing to network within and across organizational boundaries to collaborate for achieving shared business goals. The giant study found that four out of five non-agricultural jobs in the world today require interacting with professional and customer networks to get the job done. Just fifty years ago, this trend was reversed; only about one in five jobs required intensive networking and collaboration. (McKinsey Quarterly, Competitive advantage from better workplace interactions, 2006)
Because of the complexity, sheer volume and interconnection of relevant workplace information and technology, workers need to share their expertise and knowledge to create solutions for their customers and work processes.A real example of the trend and need for intensified networking comes from the field of healthcare. One of the many recent changes in healthcare in the United States is the effort to provide a more integrated approach to caring for patients. This requires mobilizing teams of professionals across the fields of behavioral health, addictions, physical health and others to pool their knowledge and resources for more holistic and coordinated treatment.
The McKinsey study also tracked indicators for the most and least successful companies in the study. It’s not surprising that those who were more successful were committed to providing intensive training and support to employees around human dynamics and communication. Their training initiatives increased employees’ capacity to network and interact with diverse individuals and groups both internally and outside the organization.
Good human dynamics require more than just “being nice”
A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a colleague who’s been trying to create better human dynamics with the employees he supervises. He told me he was being “nicer” to one of the people he worked with by slacking off on some of his goals and looking the other way when he was occasionally late for work. With as much patience as I could muster, I said, “Hey, creating better human dynamics is not about being nice or laissez-faire–it’s a serious workplace strategy for increasing employees’ capacity to get things done together!” So, for my colleague and for my readers, here are five (serious) strategies gleaned from this article for creating better human dynamics in your company:
¨ Provide intensive human skills training for all employees to develop effective communication and relationship skills. Trusting relationships with supervisors and co-workers are powerful workplace motivators. Without these basics, people tend to be less motivated, even shut down.
¨ Educate leaders and supervisors about what truly motivates (and demotivates people). The most important factor for an employee’s motivation, productivity and commitment to the organization is the relationship with his or her immediate supervisor or manager.
¨ Recognize that most jobs require us to interact and relate with others to exchange interconnected sets of information and ideas. Workers in the modern world of work need encouragement and skills for working with people both inside and outside the organization to exchange and integrate knowledge and strategies for products and services.
¨ Build the workplace community. Opportunities for people to get to know each other foster familiarity and trust. Interpersonal connections can promote a sense of belonging and commitment to the organization.
¨ Establish the mindset that good human dynamics is good for business. Elevate the importance of effective human dynamics as a business success strategy along with other important strategic initiatives such as constant improvement and information management.
The team in my opening story did eventually get back on track with their project. As often happens in organizations, communication about intense happenings flies like wildfire. The supervisor of the manager who awkwardly confronted the team got wind of the event and decided to facilitate a meeting to work things out and get the project going again. In the meeting he asked the team members and the manager to share their perceptions of what was hindering the project and to suggest solutions to move forward. In essence, he facilitated the solutions-focused conversation the team needed. He followed up with coaching the manager about motivational tactics that would help rather than hinder their change process and suggested some participative meeting processes to engage team members. He also sat in on a couple of project meetings and provided additional coaching and feedback to the manager based on what he observed. Eventually, enough trust was developed for the team and the manager to roll up their sleeves and get back to work on the project.
Charlene J. Phipps, M.S., is the founder of Human Dynamics LLC, a Pacific Northwest business consulting and training company. We offer seminars, presentations and facilitation to build the human skills needed by successful people and their organizations in today’s complex business environment. For additional articles and a list of seminars go to www.humandynamicsblog.com.