At some point in my life, I had a challenging situation in South Africa when I worked for one of the largest social marketing organizations that dealt with behavioural change work for young people in preparation for the workplace, transitioning from high school and tertiary education. This was some deep work that employed serious theories of behavioural change and one got the sense that if you were involved in that kind of work, you were in deeply, and it affected even your own life as a facilitator of behavioural change.
I went in deeply and sometimes found myself swimming either alone or with a few individuals in the deep end. This kind of work came with a lot of conflicting and jellying energy. There was either a deep connection or conflict amongst the facilitators themselves and the candidates even. It was a hight energy place and I am reminded as I write of a specific conflict I had to deal with where I was confused; what I could have done better to avoid the conflict.
It was about a module called Personal Mastery that was of keen interest to me and the challenge was to think outside the box and produce something we had not presented before for a new client whose approach was more entrepreneurial than work as in job.
This was new and we had to be creative or we risked reproducing something we had always done which would not suit our new and unique client. We were a team of three creatives and a project lead, a white lady who was keen on seeing this project done. I was clear at first that this was purely a creative process inviting the best of our creative moments and juices. I did not realise that we, as a team were coming from different angles.
I was coming in as a creative and personal mastery coach, with a colleague whose experience was with a less complex audience and another whose bias was administrative and speedy. The project lead on the other hand wanted work done and you got the impression that the box ticking drive was indeed big on her part.
The emphasis was to a large extent an MVP one, that is to say a minimum viable product. Without taking care of these angles and seeking to understand what others were looking for we were a conflict disaster waiting to happen.
The adage, what can go wrong will go wrong applied to our situation and we found ourselves at first going round in circles and later presenting a product to the lead that was disjointed with our different fingerprints all over it. I must confess I had stretched it regarding depth and made it unnecessarily complex.
My colleagues had found it difficult to share their different views and so when we got to the pitching moment and the lead said she thought we had overstretched it they set back with a sigh of relief and pointed fingers at me saying I had to explain. We had failed as a team and at that point I expressed my disappointed at their waiting for the lead to point out what they could have pointed out before we pitched. There was a lot of unexplained stuff that underlay our relationships. We had all come from different angles with different emphases and with different specializations.
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We unconsciously held opinion about each other, maybe admiration and maybe contempt unconsciously or consciously even. These things happen and when they are unconscious, we are bound to be affected more and relationships degenerate, sometimes irretrievably and work suffers because we run in our directions without stopping to listen to what the other person wants or what their bias or even their mandate is.
I am not going to sit here and encourage anyone to surrender their bias just like that without pushing back where necessary, but I think sometimes we push back too hard and sometimes even egotistically, pushing our own limited agendas with the belief that things have to be done in a specific way.
The project lead in particular had numbers to present for the stats, I had a personal mastery as a specialisation to represent while my other two colleagues had a facilitation and administrative agenda to push within the same process. I remember at some point the facilitation biased colleague pleading with me that I had to be part, not only of the design, but of the facilitation as well.
I realise now that I had probably gone too esoteric and left her behind. Conflict brewed until it got really messy, culminating in that disaster when we pitched.
I was confused and hurt and I felt that my colleagues had no respect for a specialised field. I can imagine that the facilitation biased colleague was thinking that we were being too inconsiderate and not taking into consideration the fact that she had to be in the fore front presenting the actual work alone.
I can also imagine that the project lead was concerned that we did not seem to understand that she had to submit completed work to her senior and that the stats and dashboarding people were waiting to record and file. We did not listen to each other and so found ourselves in conflict.
Being big on relationships and with a desire to resolve conflict, I went to see my “shrink” friend to whom I am also some kind of a “shrink”. I told her that I had experienced a difficult moment with colleagues and I was feeling bad.
After sharing my side of the story, she softly said to me that in the workplace we are there to get sh*t done. The four-letter word being a favourite of mine, it suddenly dawned on me that yes indeed I had tended to stretch things too much even when I needed to just present and let others contribute their biases.
I must emphasise that pushing back and pushing one’s side of the story is important but one has got to understand what their collective agenda is and who brings what for what reason.
We cannot afford to be rigid as a team and this is not to say that the quality of the work being done has to be compromised because that is the crux of the matter, after all, in the workplace we are there to get sh*t done.
If we run without checking and listening to what the collective agenda that has different pieces is saying, we are sure to fail, not just in the quality of the product, but in relationships also and as Mayer Angelou put it “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
One’s colleagues are important in the workplace, their work, their contributions and how they feel.
Bhekilizwe Bernard Ndlovu’s training is in human resources training, development and transformation, behavioural change, applied drama, personal mastery and mental fitness. He works for a Zimbabwean company as Head of Human Capital, while also doing a PhD with Wits University where he looks at violent strikes in the South African workplace as a researcher. Ndlovu worked as a human resources manager for several blue-chip companies in Zimbabwe and still takes keen interest in the affairs of people and performance management. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org