For most of us, our daily exchanges with casual acquaintances and strangers are pretty lame.
You know: “How are you?” “Fine.” “ Glad to hear it.” End of conversation.
Perfunctory. The words just come out.
Sometimes, we don’t want to be rude, but we try to avoid the conversation altogether. After all, it could be a colossal waste of your time. Or the person might be one of “those” people, who will tell total strangers about what hurts, what’s swollen, or what itches.
Most of the time, our conversations with our employees aren’t much better.
“How was your weekend?”
Or fine. Or OK. Or we didn’t quite hear the response, because we were already moving on.
That just goes with the territory when you’re walking to your office. Arriving at your cubicle. Signing on to your Zoom meeting.
Do you really want to know about the weekend’s disasters at their home? That really cool meal at the new Vegan restaurant? The meaningful conversation with the person who might be the ONE? Or the sleepless night worrying about how their child is being treated at school?
Maybe? Kinda? Maybe not?
Two things that you need to know about your team members. And your peers. And your boss. Yes, and you, too.
1. Everyone has personal needs. They may be social, financial, personal, or emotional. The needs will be different from person to person. But we all have one thing in common: we’re human. So we all have stuff. Baggage. Needs. Hot buttons. Dislikes. Dreams.
2. Everyone has a story. Some are inspirational. Some will break your heart. Some you can relate to. Some you won’t understand at all. Life is an adventure. Each of us arrived at the point we are today based on the experiences, events and relationships in our lives.
Sometimes these two elements intersect. If you can find out someone’s story, it may provide insight into what drives them.
What they need.
How to connect with them.
And sometimes that story is buried deep. It remains hidden.
It has been covered by scar tissue. Maybe figuratively. Maybe literally.
Fundamental to good leadership and high performing teams is establishing trust and mutual respect.
That requires us to understand one another.
In order to understand someone, sometimes you need to listen to a story.
Sometimes you need to tell your story. And you need to go first.
When Stories and Actions Intersect
You’ve likely worked with people who have a drive that seems a bit oversized for the circumstances. Or there is something about their behavior that maybe suggests a blind spot? Or a hot button?
When you understand their stories, it helps you understand their actions. It helps you understand what drives them.
In recent years, I’ve worked with people who exhibited behavior that got my attention, and then I heard the backstory. It made all the difference.
Family is Everything
I worked with the CEO of a family business that included all the members of the family, in meaningful roles, and required daily interactions among them.
A recipe for disaster? Maybe.
The risks of funky family dynamics in the workplace on full display? No doubt.
Then I heard the story of the matriarch, who was a product of Operation Pedro Pan. This was a program initiated by the Catholic Church, in post-Revolution Cuba, that allowed Cuban families to send their children to the United States. She was sent to live in Miami. At age eight. By herself. She was reunited with her eleven-year old cousin, who had come several months before. However, as the two young girls were getting adjusted, she found out her six-year old brother was also sent to the United States — to a foster home in Yakima, Washington.
The woman and her cousin arranged to be transferred to Yakima, to be with her brother. The three children were assigned to a foster home with an older couple. The foster parents were very strict and the kids were not allowed to speak Spanish. The woman’s cousin and the foster mother did not get along. While the woman and her brother were in school one day, the cousin (and all her belongings) were moved out of the home and out of the area. The woman and her brother received no explanation.
Four and a half years later, the woman and her brother were reunited with their parents in Nebraska. As she was telling me the story, the woman paused and said, “I try very hard not to remember that time, because it makes me sad. I remember being a child, and then no longer a child.”
Since the woman and her brother had spent four years without speaking Spanish, they had forgotten how. Consequently, all the questions and emotions at their reunion were made even more difficult by a language barrier between the kids and their parents. They also had to process the fact that they were sent to live in the United States, on their own, while two male siblings remained in Cuba with their parents.
The next time I visited their office, I understood the hugs. I understood that some amount of dysfunction was acceptable.
It was family.
And family is everything.
Accountability with Grace
Another executive I’ve worked with is process-driven, very disciplined about there being a right way and a wrong way to do things. People could be disciplined, sure. But severe consequences, like firing someone?
He seemed inclined to offer second chances. And maybe one more time.
I knew that he and his wife had been foster parents over the years. We celebrated when one of those children was adopted into their family.
During a casual conversation, I asked how many kids they had fostered over the years.
“23” was the response. Over a six-year period.
A lot of love. A lot of heartache.
Each child had their own story.
Kids who had been neglected. Abused. Forgotten.
Kids who needed to be loved. Kids who needed a second chance.
Discipline them? Yes. Set high expectations? Yes.
Hold them accountable? Yes.
With grace. Lots of grace.
The Stories are Everywhere
The nature of executive coaching allows me to hear about goals and aspirations, but also about the events of life. The stories.
During the last month, I’ve had conversations about extraordinary circumstances.
The cancer diagnosis.
The parent who no longer recognizes their adult child due to Alzheimer’s.
The siblings who only speak to one another through an attorney.
The parent with a child dealing with anorexia.
The business was forced to close during COVID. They ran out of cash. They ran out of time.
Extraordinary circumstances. But ordinary life.
These stories are all around us.
My Story — for the First Time
First of all, let me tell you that I lack that deep, dark secret or the character-shaping crisis that others have experienced.
I’ve had it pretty easy. Middle class background. Decent student. Decent athlete. Decent health.
But my story is my vision. I have a condition called monocular diplopia. I can only see out of one eye at a time. So, no depth perception.
And I have double vision. At all times. In each eye.
Here is a picture of my daughter from a recent birthday breakfast (we share the same birthday and meet for breakfast on our big day). This is the most accurate representation of what it is I see. This is also the first time I’ve shared it with anyone else.
The optimist says, “twice as much beauty and love in my field of vision.”
True. Until it gets confusing. Or draining.
If you force me to stare at a computer too long, I may see four of you…or eight of you.
My brain has adjusted over the years. So long as all the synapses in my brain are firing, I think I’m good. If something begins to misfire, vision may become an issue.
The brain is powerful and it functions so efficiently…until it doesn’t. I know that.
I figure I have plenty of time to continue to build my faith. It also gives me time to read and re-read the Stoic philosophers, so yes, I’ve got multiple Ryan Holiday books on Audible.
There are times when I am petrified about the loss of my “normal” vision.
There are times when I want to believe that it will just be another chapter in this adventure called life.
But it is a motivator.
To see and appreciate beauty each day.
To look at my wife and kids sometimes and take a mental picture (without being creepy and getting the “Why are you staring at me?” look).
To be willing to embrace discomfort and new challenges every day.
Just to prepare myself…
Sharing the Stories on Your Team
If you walk in to work and sit down with each of your team members, then look them in the eyes and ask them to share their stories, you will freak them out.
Where is this coming from?
Why do you want to know?
What are you going to do with this information?
The best way is to establish a relationship that allows you to share with one another. But if the depth or length of your relationships are uneven, how do you facilitate the storytelling?
I want to offer two different, but effective, approaches.
- Personal histories exercise — this is found in the Five Dysfunctions of a Team Field Book. You allocate plenty of time for this exercise and ask each person to share:
- Where did you grow up?
- How many siblings do you have and where did you fall in that order?
- Please describe a unique or interesting challenge or experience from your childhood.
When you do this, you need to go first. You need to set the example. Make it personal. Make it real. Display vulnerability and create a safe environment for people to tell their stories.
I’ve facilitated dozens of these sessions and each time there are revelations and discoveries among long-term employees. Employees who thought they knew everything about their teammates.
- Lifeline exercise
1. Put a timeline on the wall with flip chart sheets, length-wise, taped together, marked off from 1960 (or start with the appropriate year to include your oldest employee) to 2020, in ten year increments, and then add the current year.
2. Ask each member to come up with the five most significant personal events in their lives. They’re not allowed to include their birth, any marriages, or the birth of any children — those are taken as a given — unless there was something unique or special that they can explain to the group.
3. They are to mark the year on the timeline and explain the event; each member explains their five events and then the next person takes his / her turn. Each person is given a different color marker and put their initials on the timeline for each event they described.
4. You need to go first and get very personal. You are setting the tone for being authentic and vulnerable. Assuming that you are being personal and vulnerable, you will find participants going back to change the items they had initially written down. Some people will prepare fluff items, until they realize that you and others are willing to put it all out there.
5. As a team, some members will recognize that they were going through highs or lows at the same time as a significant event of one of their team members. It fosters comparisons of stories. Comparisons of circumstances. It also creates connection.
Your team will grow closer from the shared experience. They’ll know each other on a deeper level.
The experience will provide a new level of understanding that builds resiliency. Strengthens commitment.
It Starts With You
We spend a large percentage of our waking hours trying to communicate.
Write. Speak. Listen. Text. Explain. Question.
So many of our interactions are perfunctory. We respond out of habit.
Yet as a leader, your ability to connect with the members of your team is critically important.
To create trust. To build understanding.
So that when it gets crazy, you can rally together. So that when it gets uncertain, team members trust one another. So that when a team member needs support, it comes as needed, when needed.
People come to work for you as an imperfect accumulation of experiences. Some of those experiences are glorious. Some are messy. Some are painful.
Everyone who works for you has a story. You have a story.
Not everyone’s story is edge-of-your seat fascinating. Not everyone’s story is completely relatable.
But it is their story. It helps identify who they are. Their perspective. Their purpose.
Stories can be memorable. Stories can be instructive.
Hearing someone’s story can create understanding.
Telling your story can be cathartic.
Sharing stories can be build relationship and trust.
Be a leader who facilitates telling stories.
And you go first.