Monthly Archives: March 2011

Third Rail

Is it wiser to back off and leave well enough alone when a team issue is so hot that controversy is a certain result?

Chicago’s elevated railway trains are powered by the continuous delivery of electricity supplied by a conductor that feeds a “third rail” next to a pair of rails upon which the passenger cars travel. Anyone who rides Chicago’s “L” public transportation system knows that you never touch the third rail. The consequences are immediate and deadly.

In team dynamics, “hot button issues” are sometimes called “third rail issues” because almost any position taken is sure to please one group of people and offend another. The polarities generated by extreme reactions can be deadly to a team’s ambitions.

Viewpoints become easily entrenched. Competition ensues. Collaboration requires letting go of things that seem vital to the survival of an idea. Team members assume a protective stance. Differences grow dialectically opposed.

How does a team move forward? Is it necessary that one side acquiesce to the other?

Classic dialectics involve a dialogue between two opposite points of view. A dialogue, by its nature, seeks understanding of the other person’s position. Ideally, understanding leads to acknowledgment, appreciation, and then, synthesis of opposing perspectives into something new.

Synthesis enables something innovative to emerge from contrasting positions. Human service professionals call it “working through” where the mutual effort to understand the other person’s position creates collaboration and trust. As a result, rather than attempting to move forward with a chasm of inclusion versus exclusion of ideas, common goals are re-established on a platform built from mature dialogue and understanding.

“Us and them” becomes “we.”

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Defining Moments

At its most basic core, what is your contribution to your team? I’m not talking about the easily visible actions. I’m asking about the themes and patterns that define your life and, as a result, get played out in your professional role.

Our professional roles are merely extensions of our life themes. Each of us selects roles and teammates based on complex clusters of needs that fulfill lifelong agendas.  At first glance, it appears you have located a passion that expresses your natural wiring. If you’re lucky, work seems like play because you’ve selected a path that ignites an energy from within. Most often, however, our role on the team is influenced by historical events with deeper roots and more compelling stories. If you take a microscopic view, repetitive patterns become evident.

I was engaged in a conversation with a senior leader from a global financial services company last week when the conversation turned to “defining moments.” We were reminiscing about the turning points of our careers where single events shaped our personal and professional character.  She recalled being summoned to resolve a potential workplace violence situation when, at 5’2″, she was required to disarm an angry employee that was literally over twice her body weight. She described a sense of calm and clarity overcoming her as she entered the crisis situation and navigated the room to safety. As the conversation ensued, it turned out that this was not the first situation in which she had been called upon to remain poised under stressful circumstances. It was, in fact, the key trait from which she had become professionally known. Always cool under pressure.

When we dug a little deeper, we discovered that remaining calm and focused during adversity had been a character requirement of her childhood and adolescence. The numerous examples that dotted her 30-year career as a team leader were simply extensions of the role she had assumed as early as her memory could excavate.  Since this discussion, I’ve been asking teams to more closely consider their roles, not as defined by their job descriptions, but as determined by the circumstances of their life path. This exercise has certainly added depth to conversations about strengths.

What are your themes?