‘Smoking can fix a lot of our (team) problems’

(Source: press.ikidane-nippon.com)

An executive made a casual remark in a recent intact team development workshop, ‘Smoking (together) can fix a lot of our problems’.    Health hazard aside, his quote does highlight something important on team effectiveness.

With context, what he meant is that when co-workers go out of workplace / meeting rooms and smoke together, they can talk more freely.   A global CEO once said, ‘What our organization needs is more ‘agenda-free, non-transactional’ conversations….’

Often, such free dialogues help resolve deadlocks in the formal meetings or email exchanges.   They are less bound by rigidities like seniorities, office norms / protocols, meeting objectives, etc.   They feel more comfortable to ask questions (which often do not happen because it is associated with not-knowing, and thus a scary thing to do in formal settings) and express potentially controversial view.  It is the ‘off-the-record’ thing.  

In addition, psychologically, smoking together can also be taken unconsciously as ‘doing “bad” things together’ and such common experience generates sense of togetherness.  Camaraderie lubricates team to work through difficult issues among members – easier to advocate and enquire. 

Reflecting further, this argument has interesting implications to team effectiveness intervention.   First, it then makes sense to design such space into team interventions e.g. ‘World Café’, even better ‘Open Space’, and even even better ‘Walk and Talk’ with a simple instruction ‘Please have a walk and talk about things you two need to talk about but have not had chance to talk about’.   

(A side question – would a simple team BBQ be a good team intervention?   Definitely yes, if the purpose is primarily on having fun and gaining a sense of togetherness.   But if there are specific issues to be worked on, some gently-structured yet open processes like ‘Open Space’ will be more appropriate.)

There is another implication – despite the argument above, team days / retreats are more often than not fully packed with centrally-determined topics and structures.   Sometimes, even ‘normal’ open spaces like breakfasts, lunches and coffee breaks are ‘invaded’.   Why?   First, not all realise the benefit of the ‘agenda-free, non-transactional’ conversations to team effectiveness.   Second, whilst effectiveness of team effectiveness intervention is not easy to be evaluated, coaches and sponsors are easily drawn to gain comfort by having more ‘activities’ and ‘deliverables’ given the money and time spent.   

What does all these mean to coaches for team development?

To start with, coaches need to recognize the usefulness of such free space.   Perhaps the question to be pondered during the design stage is ‘Given where the team is, how much do the members need some “white space” to have dialogues on things determined by them (not centrally), in pair or small groups?’   

The Cynefin framework would be helpful here – ‘What questions the team need to work on and where in the framework those questions belong?’   Such free space is useful when the team needs to tackle ‘Complex’ problem, where diversity and experiment are important.  

Further, coaches need to be aware and thus resist the temptation to fill the workshop with ‘activities’ and ‘deliverables’….. often unconsciously.  Sometimes, the temptation is about the desire to be seen as ‘doing things’, instead of just ‘letting the group talk’.  We need to be conscious how we define our role – ‘I am here to lead the conversation or even tell them the “answer”’ vs ‘I am here to hold the space for necessary conversations to emerge’.   All these require continual inner work in understanding own intra-personal dynamics.

But also inter-personal dynamics – Often, such temptation comes, sometimes unconsciously, from the clients’ desire for control e.g. certainty on what the team members will talk about.   After all, the client / sponsor can experience a great deal of anxiety in putting together a workshop e.g. spending the money, asking the leadership team (some less friendly than others) to put daily tasks aside, etc.   Such anxiety can drive the person to go for high(er) control in workshop design especially in those ‘high-control’ industries like manufacturers, banks, airlines.   Like in 1:1 executive coaching, we need to work with the sponsor THROUGH such anxiety to realize what the task really calls for.  

(Yes, intervention starts before the workshop.  In fact, magic happens before and after.  This is also why I always prefer to work on cases starting from diagnosis phase.)

How do you help teams having such space…… smoking or not :)?

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