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The Achilles heel of communication

Weathering the storm

In Greek mythology Achilles, born as a mortal to an immortal mother, was made to be immortal by his mother dipping him in sacred water holding him by his heels. She didn't realize that the parts of his body untouched by the sacred water remained vulnerable and mortal. During the Trojan war this great, unbeatable warrior fell when a poisoned arrow hit his vulnerable and mortal heel and the term Achilles heel became synonymous with a weakness in someone seemingly invincible.

In the modern world our battles are different than what it used to be during ancient Greek and Rome. Our current day battles are between minds, not fists and swords. Communication is now the single biggest weapon in a word of words and thoughts.

Yet, each tool has it’s limitations and weakness. In communicating with others, our Achilles heel is something often seen as a peace keeper rather than an enemy, making it even more dangerous.

Our Achilles heel

Have you ever refrained from saying what you truly think of a solution or a behavior, just to keep the peace? Have you ever talked around a subject to avoid any criticism from your peers? Have you ever tried to hide information, intentionally leaving it out in a fear of hurting someone else’s feelings, or possibly scared of being punished?

That’s our Achilles heel.

Feedback.

Either not getting any feedback, or not doing anything with the feedback we've received, both are detrimental to the ultimate success of a team. When even one member in the team refuses to give or receive feedback, they put the entire team at risk.

Being agile means that you are able to adapt to the changing environment around you. Without adequate feedback loops, you’re not agile.

Feedback loops are built into agile practices, yet it doesn’t ensure that it is used correctly. It’s up to each individual in the team, not only the leader, to commit to honest communication whatever it takes for a team to succeed.

You have to weather a storm together before you move towards a highly productive team.

The character traits of good communicating teams

All great teams I’ve worked in, had people who were exceptionally good with communication. Specifically, they had three characteristics which resulted in great communication:

  1. Each person knew what their and the rest of the team’s responsibilities were. The respected their individual boundaries and knew who to ask for what and when.
  2. No one was afraid to engage in conflict when discrepancies or disagreements popped up, which also implies a commitment to honesty. Sometimes it got personal, other times it felt like a soap opera or drama. But once the drama’s over, we were closer than before and even better at getting the work done. Never did someone keep quiet or engaged in passive aggressive behavior to maintain the false image of harmony.
  3. Everyone had great relationships with both the team and the customers during working hours and after. If you’re not willing to go out and have a beer with your team and your customers, you shouldn’t be working with them, it’s as simple as that. I’ve never seen an instance where people who dislike each other have good, effective communication.
It’s the conversations next to the coffee machine and in the corridors that make the organizational wheels turn.

They all also underwent the storming phase of team development once everyone settled into their domain. Storms, however, are never pleasant, which is why it doesn’t make any sense reshuffling teams after each sprint.

Stormy waters

I vividly remember the best team I’ve ever worked with engaging in a full-contact, emotionally, conflict session unexpectedly after a training session on team facilitation practices.

It started with one person subtly complaining about another person in the team. We saw the red flag and asked whether we should continue and the facilitator allowed it, inviting the person that was criticized to respond. I tried to become invisible where I was seated, hoping that I’ll be exempt from the waves crashing around me.

However, no-one was left out. Everyone in the team was included in the emotional onslaught with each person throwing more coal on the fire in defense of their standpoint. Ultimately, the entire team’s weaknesses and dislikes were ruthlessly and boldly put on the table for everyone to see.

Bruised ego

It took my sensitive and shamed ego a few days to recover after the onslaught. I know I’m not perfect, but I try my best and growing up in a house where absolutely everything about me was always criticized, I dread the pain that is inflicted by harsh words. No matter how hard I tried to do my best, it was never good enough and to this day still isn’t.

It was with shame that I walked into the office the next day knowing what each person really thought of me. I knew exactly what I did to annoy each person and they knew exactly what I disliked about them.

I don’t know what hurt more, yet somehow, it hurts more being the truth teller than receiving an uncomfortable truth. It’s so much easier to be the hurt one than to see someone else hurt, knowing you were the one that caused it. It always, however, hurts more not knowing what other people think than having to deal with an uncomfortable truth, something I’ve had to do many times in my life.

No secrets or skeletons were left in the cupboard during the session and we all hurt for a while as we processed the stab to our ego’s.

The phoenix rises from the ashes

Yet, I was wonderfully surprised to discover that after the dust has settled, I was more liked and more appreciated by the team. By allowing myself to engage in the conflict as the new person in the team, I proved my worthiness to be part of the team. It was as if I’ve received a rite of passage and were finally accepted as part of the team. With my weaknesses. In fact, exposing my weaknesses was what made me more likable.

Suddenly we were all just human. Just people with emotions, irritations, dislikes, bad days and good ones. The crude exposure of our innermost emotions to each other made us in a way more acceptable to each other. We all realized that the one was as guilty as the next. There was no super human among us, or the belief that there ever will be. We all had our strengths and we all had some weakness. I wasn’t any different from the others and had no reason to feel ashamed.

It was as if the dark, stormy clouds gave way to the sun to shine through.

The gift

The shame dissolved in the light of the sun and what surfaced was awareness. The knowing what each person’s weakness is as well as my own and that we are all human.

The awareness that surfaced after the conflict was what changed everything going forward.

Now that the elephant in the room had a name, we weren't so scared to call it out when it happened and we didn't take offense when it was, trying to protect our fragile ago. The obstacles that kept the team from performing were cleared and we could focus on the work without spending so much time and energy trying to tiptoe trying to get around the elephant anymore.

Strangely, the whole drama made us all feel so much safer, able to express our deepest frustrations with each other without any repercussions. It was as if suddenly what was our individual weaknesses, our Achilles heels, now was what gave us extra protection.

It was no longer seen as criticism, but rather protection when the elephant was called out by either one. There were no more shadows, no more secrets and we were better than ever.

The choice

It’s not often though that an entire team is willing to be so vulnerable in front of each other. In fact, this was the only team who totally committed to being vulnerable in front of each other and it was the only team who ever made the impossible possible.

Other teams I’ve worked with either avoided the conflict in fear of criticism, or only some of the more outspoken team members engaged in the teams where we did reach the inevitable stormy phase of team building.

It’s always a choice. Being vulnerable can never be forced upon someone and when there is a risk of being fired, chances are close to zero that anyone would be willing to embrace such a session.

We were also presented with a further choice after the session.

Each one in the team was free to take the feedback and attempt to improve, or ignore it. All of us chose to take it and change. With that, our mortal parts became invincible. The team was stronger than ever, united and supported on all fronts. Unstoppable.

The sad truth however is that most people are afraid to be vulnerable and would rather choose to protect their ego and image to the outside world than be honest about what they really think and feel. These teams will never reach their full potential. They might be good, but they will never be great. It takes accepting the whole package, the good and the bad, for high performing teams to exist.

The only choice you ever need to make is between your ego and your true desire.

What do you choose? False harmony while you remain in the harbor or stormy seas as you venture to new destinations?

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