Team Language

Small, passionate teams need to stop using certain terms if they want to get it right.

Team members don’t always agree. In fact, sometimes they argue and it can get heated. When heated conversations arise at Anthroware, I believe it's driven by the fact that we hire really passionate people that all want the end result to be great. They believe in the work they are doing, and have a strong opinion about what’s best for the project. The big question is - how can we focus this passion toward constructive conversation?

It’s all about posture.

The simple answer to this is communication. But maybe there is more to it than that. It’s too easy to say we need to ‘communicate’ better and not get practical about how to open up our conversations to allow for more creative thought. Posture becomes very important. When we are trying to solve a problem or come to a decision, we try looking at a whiteboard while standing side by side instead of sitting across from each other at a conference table. We are all on the same team and looking for a solution for the same problem, so let's face off with the problem and move in the same direction.

Almost without fail, when I hear people in our office having a heated conversation they are seated across from one another. Just the other day this happened; two people were in locked in un-productive, heated conversation sitting across from one another. Later that same day, we had a meeting with the same two people concerning the same topic and all sat or stood in front of a whiteboard to work on the problem together— we had one of the most productive meetings we’ve ever had, there was genuine collaboration, the personal “my idea against yours” posture was gone, and we stayed focused on the best way to accomplish the task. It was awesome! I’m not suggesting that not sitting across a table is the only thing that affected how that meeting went, but it helped.

“It’s just too easy to say we need to ‘communicate’ better and not get practical about how to open up our conversations to allow more creative thought.”

Language is important.

Just like physical posture, certain words we use frame a reaction from the listeners. Confrontational words like “but” and “I disagree” put up a wall between sides of a conversation- the more walls we have, the less communication we have. Do you know how hard it is to “win” an argument? We have to stop framing differing viewpoints as being against one another— the solution to the problem is almost always a combination of ideas.

Instead of “but," we try “yes, and…”. Instead of “I disagree,” we encourage “we need to consider…”. The posture of our language can either divide or disarm. Everyone in the room has something to add. If they don’t then they’re in the wrong room!

If everyone has something to add, then lets build from each perspective until we find the best solution. It’s amazing what we can accomplish when we remove “I disagree” and “yes, but” from our vocabulary as a leader or a team member.

“With some gentle reminders, teams will change their language because at the end of the day, we all want to do good work.“

I am so bad at this one. The tongue is the hardest thing to control, and it is so easy say “I disagree!“ Often, when we have great collaboration on ideas where team members have differing views, someone has taken on a bit of a moderator role. With some gentle reminders, teams will change their language because at the end of the day we all want to do good work.

Jason (VP of Anthroware) and I are great friends and have been since we met. We both feel very strongly about meeting our customers’ needs. But, our approach to meeting those needs is very different because we come from different backgrounds and have different skills. As a result, we spend a lot of time early in Anthroware’s life biting each others’ heads off. We hadn’t yet built a communication framework that allowed us to stay focused on how we could benefit the client — instead conversations would devolve into making sure our voice was heard. We joke about it now, but the reality is that with a few vocabulary updates, we could have avoided a lot of frustration and strain.

Don’t be afraid to get stuck.

Lastly, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Sometimes people (especially leaders/managers) can get frustrated when solutions or decisions aren’t made quickly. Often for really big decisions the ‘ah ha’ moment of clarity comes when you’ve walked away from the problem for a while and then come back. We do a lot of processing subconsciously, and it’s good to keep that in mind (pun intended). We often have half the meeting one day, then after everyone has had a chance to walk away from the subject, we come back and finish up the action plan. Better decisions are made, and it’s often less stressful.

These are just observations I’ve made running our custom software and product development shop. There are so many cases where I have had the wrong posture and been very ineffective at these techniques. And while these simple cases will help, they don’t tell the whole story. Every person on your team is different; some are more straightforward, some are timid, introverts, extroverts, sensitive or thick skin etc. It’s a challenge to foster great communication on your team, hope these ideas will help you out.