Being a leader, whether you lead a project or run a global organization, is mostly about getting people to work together to achieve a goal.
One key attribute of great leaders is they are intentional about how they engage with their team. Anyone can rally a group around a goal as long as everyone in the group believes in the goal itself, but achieving success requires more than just a rallying cry. It requires the leader to have the ability to motivate those they lead to align on the goal and path to success, then contribute their best work in support of the group and of that goal.
So, how do great leaders do that?
First, they invest time with their people to understand how they see their work, how they communicate, and what matters to them at work and in life. Armed with insight, a leader can work to organize the team so that strengths cover weaknesses and members are motivated to collaborate for success. Setting the tone early also allows the leader to head conflict off early, or at least be aware of where the conflicts may arise so that they can be prepared.
There are a lot of tools available, like personality assessments, that will help you dive into team dynamics and raise awareness, but you don’t need all of that to get started. Here is my three-step process for connecting with my team, navigating their differing motivations, and ultimately getting the group to work together.
Step 1: Seek to understand, first.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from a career in sales and marketing, it’s that people make decisions for emotional reasons, and then justify those decisions with facts.
Like it or not, this means that you are going to have to talk about feelings.
When people work on something, they tend to become emotionally attached in the process. It becomes “their thing.” As a result, any conflicts that arise are almost always rooted in emotion. To be able to navigate conflict, the leader needs to know where the people in conflict “are” emotionally, and meet them there.
Because when people feel heard first, they will relax and be open to hearing another point of view.
Step 2: Determine the delta between where they are and where you are.
The second step, once you understand where someone’s motivations are truly coming from, is understanding the delta between where you are and where they are. Now that you have a sense of why this person really is against, say, a new logo design, or why they feel so strongly about a certain line of marketing copy, you can step back and see, “Here’s where I am, here’s where they are, and there is where I would like us to get to.”
And you can start to chart the course from there.
- What’s the best path to get from where they are to where I would like us to be?
- How can I approach this person and speak their language to meet them where they are?
- What do they need from me in order to feel like they’re a part of the effort?
As a metaphor, imagine if I kept saying to you, “Come here, come to me, leave where you are and join me over here,” and you kept saying back, “Look, I like where I am. I don’t want to move.” Then we’re at a stalemate. It would be more effective for me to come to you and say, “We’re here together. Now let’s talk about getting over there—and let me show you why that’s an ideal destination and we can talk about the path to get there together.”
Step 3: Make the creative journey a collaboration.
Effective collaboration is a give and take.
You have to be ready to pivot and willing to negotiate or compromise or change your approach as you engage with different members of your team. You have to be willing to always stay with them. And as they start inching in your direction, you have to continue going back to a place of emotional understanding, and asking, “Where are they now? What’s the next step?”
In all my years as a leader within organizations, where team communication breaks down is in this last step. The journey may begin as a collaboration, but what happens is people think taking the time to understand each other and be empathetic are one-and-done steps. In reality, true collaboration is a cycle of understanding, formulating an approach, going to where your team members are, beginning the journey from there, and then checking in and repeating this cycle over and over again until you all end up in the same place, together.
Most importantly, you as the leader and orchestrator have to be ready and willing to discover that the destination isn’t where you thought it was at the outset, either.
That’s how you unlock the magic of collaborative environments.