‘Are-you-ok-I-am-ok’

It was Day 2 of the Gobi race and we were somewhere midway in the 96km race.   Right in the middle of the day, all were tired and some were injured.   Whilst I was at the front using the GPS to navigate, I noticed that Danny (pseudonym) was at the back of the line, and falling behind more and more from the pack.   He did not look good. 

I picked up the walkie-talkie and asked him, ‘Are you ok?’.   He replied. ‘I am ok’    I then carried on the walking.

This sounds like a normal and caring exchange.  But subsequently, I realize that this kind of ‘Are-you-ok-I-am-ok’ transactions is one of the BIG reasons why we performed so badly in Day 1 and Day 2.   This is probably a major reason why teams at work failed to unleash its potential better.

Why so?   It is about what was probably going on…. actually:

Overt >>> ‘Are you ok?’                       

Covert >>>‘‘You do not look good.  You probably need some help to pick up the speed for us all. We do not want to finish last again!   But I do not want to make you look weak.  And I do not want to be rejected if I offer concrete help.  I better just check gently only.’

Overt >>> ‘I am ok’

Covert >>> ‘Man, I am in big trouble.  My leg can hardly move and I am slowing the team down.   But I cannot look weak in front of the others.   And you may not really want to help.  You just asked out of courtesy.   It is better to say I am ok’

Apparently, the ‘Are-you-ok-I-am-ok’ transactions covered up opportunities for the team to improve.    A team can perform better than a collection of people only if the members can share their resources and capabilities.   This means that a high-performing team can transfer ‘resources / capability surplus’ from the stronger to the weaker.   (Note that one can be stronger in a particular aspect e.g. physical strength but weak in another e.g. navigation)

It was a big ‘Aha’ to me as this above ideas came to my mind during our joint reflection.  I felt so shitty – How could I be consumed by the personal pride / fear of rejection at the expense of team performance?   Instead of asking ‘Are you ok?’, it made more sense for me to just go behind Danny and pushed him, or to pull him with a hiking pole.   Whilst I sensed that it was not just me gone off-task this way, I shared in our circle in our tent something like this, 

‘I, may be even we, have been fxxking (deliberate choice of words) too polite to each other…….   This has been keeping us from getting better……   To be specific, we have no option but SHAMELESSLY:

  • Ask for help
  • Accept help
  • Offer help’

Others laughed and we started to talk about this problem. This apparently helped bringing the undiscuss-able more discussable.   Subsequently, with other factors, we did step up our ‘shameless’ exchange of help on Day 3.

Further reflection will lead to the next question – how can a team battle against the obstacles (e.g. personal pride / fear of rejection) to ‘shameless’ exchange of help ?    The ‘triangle’ in the book ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team’ answers the question well.   What need to achieve is the vulnerability-based trust (as described by the model) i.e. readiness to admit mistake, weakness and concerns to the fellow team members.    A key to build such trust is personal disclosure e.g. personal history, personality profile (and stories behind it), among other things mentioned in the book.

I feel so grateful of such lively and personal lesson in illustrating models in books.

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