September 27, 2013

Good Leaders Get Out of Their Own Heads


A recent Harvard Business Review blog about team members who derail meetings, reminded me of Whitman's famous quote, "Be curious, not judgmental." Over the past few months I have shared this quote quite a bit. 

My current role has me working closely with a team in Copenhagen. Since I live near San Francisco, that's not very "close". In fact, it's over 5,000 miles, an 11 hour plane ride and a nine hour time difference. So in a typical workweek there are only about 10 hours of overlap "working" time - and that's only because I start my days with meetings at 6:30 or 7 am.

Yes, we use video conferencing and of course we use social business collaboration tools for managing team workflows and communications. Technology is how we can make it work. But it's absolutely not easy.

This experience has brought home for me just how easy it is for people to be influenced by 'group think' and subtle biases. In psychology it's called ultimate attribution error and it can be summed up as "when members of our group make a mistake, its an accident or an anomaly, but when members of another group do so, it's typical of them." 

Ultimate attribution error is apparent among people who interact every day, and it gets exponentially amplified when distance limits personal interactions and communications are primarily written and asynchronous.

In my situation, the two groups in question could not be more different. One group is the acquired start-up: a less than 20-person team, mostly co-located in one office in Copenhagen. And the other group is the acquiring multi-billion dollar company with thousands of team members in a division spanning multiple locations in California and around the world.

Even for seasoned leaders like myself who have gone through required hours of "diversity training" and have earned some self-awareness through the school-of-hard-knocks -- in the moment, I can and do get frustrated. It is difficult to always assume positive intent and to be authentically curious about the other team member's actions and point of view all day long, every day.

So multiple times each week I remind myself - and my team members in both locations - to stay mindful of this reality. I find it is especially important to take a moment in those emotionally charged times when you perceive the other person as "derailing a meeting” or “going too slow” or “doing something stupid”.   The HBR blog post says it best: you must “suspend your assumption that you understand the situation and others don’t.”

It takes strong leaders in both “groups” to be mindful of the potentially dysfunctional tendencies and biases that exist between geographically dispersed teams. Leaders must actively self-regulate their own attitudes and behaviors while also proactively address developing these important ‘soft’ skills in all team members.

I think I will post that Walt Whitman quote on my monitor to help me keep out of my own head.  What will you do?