Back at a time when boys and the girls still polarized on the playground, there was a day when the teachers pulled us into the gymnasium and pushed us together for an experience that was so repellant and exciting that memories of the incident still resonate.
While we were all secretly praying to be paired with the cute one, the teachers proceeded to lecture us about the etiquette of dance. It was the first time I heard that word etiquette, and I viscerally hated it. At the time the word translated simply: “do the exact opposite of what you feel like doing right now.” There were a million other things a 10-year-old would rather be doing than holding the sweaty hands of our random partners as we fumbled across the dance court. But still we had no choice. We suffered through it, and we were all awful.
Over the years these rules have grown on me as I’ve worked with good and bad ‘dance’ partners in the creative field (and I have been a good and sometimes bad partner). They grow on me because a culture of collaboration is one of the most valuable assets of any creative team. And intangible things like positive team momentum have a tangible impact on the final product.
So here’s how the rules began and an adaptation to creative collaboration:
Never blame your partner for anything that may happen on the dance floor. Not if you want him/her to dance with you again.
Don’t throw your coworkers under the bus. Just don’t — even if they dance worse than left shark. Andrew Glasnow once wrote, “A good leader takes more than their fair share of the blame and gives more than their share of the credit.” That quote equally applies to a good teammate.
A request for a dance must be accepted under almost all circumstances. If you decline a dance, you yourself cannot dance until the end of that song.
Don’t intentionally exclude others from conversations or projects. Sideways conversations are the kryptonite to a healthy, transparent culture. If you are excluding a teammate just because it’s easier without them, then you might be working around a problem that will exist again and again until it is directly addressed. In the end, flexibility, understanding, and appreciating others’ differences wins out over being right, smart, or just loud.
No unsolicited teaching on the dance floor! There is a good chance this will make your partner feel small and humiliated. Not exactly a great way of encouraging him/her, or others, to dance with you.
Sharing what you are learning or have learned is different from correcting a teammate. Correction infers an air of superiority. There’s a time and place for teaching — The whiteboard room is not one of them. In front of other teammates is not either. If you hear the words “in my experience” coming out of your mouth, you might be doing it wrong.
Do not monopolize a partner on the dance floor. Dancers are polite and rarely say no to a dance, but this is no carte blanche to impose on their kindness. Dance with everyone, and let everyone dance.
Don’t bogart the conversation. If you are waiting for the other person to finish talking so that you can say the next brilliant thing but not actually hearing their ideas, maybe sit out a round or two. Good follow-up questions and listening skills are some of the greatest tools in collaboration.
On the floor, be considerate of the other couples. Exercise good floorcraft; do not cut other couples off; no aerials or choreographed steps on the dance floor.
Be considerate of other teammates’ thoughts, ideas, and objectives. Giving feedback is hard. Receiving feedback is hard. It can feel like getting the gift of a self-help book on your birthday. If you are receiving feedback or differing ideas, remember you don’t have to implement it all, but you should at the very least give it an honest consideration. Otherwise it sends a message to the other person that you don’t value their ideas or opinions. If you are giving feedback, be sure it’s logical, actionable, and helpful. Comments like “I just don’t like it.” are the worst because they’re impossible to translate into specific action.
Oh, and celebrate your teammates’ victories — even if you’re not on the project.
To be a great dancer don’t aspire to be a great dancer, but aspire to be a great dance partner.
And it always helps to remember that we all have days that we’re still sweaty-palmed children stumbling across the gym floor.