The Importance of Learning from (and About) Others

At gothamCulture we talk about culture all the time. Like, all the time. This stems from our belief that at the center of an engaged workforce and an organizations’ performance, whether you define that as a healthy bottom line or degree of social impact, lies its culture. Culture reveals itself in many ways, from the plaque on your office door to the policies that guide how you work, but none more important than how you engage with your colleagues.

As we start a new year, my guess is that a lot of us have professional ambitions on our list of resolutions for 2014, probably just under “lose weight/join gym”. This is great – no one believes in finding professional fulfillment more than we do here at gC. But if you’re feeling antsy and annoyed in a job and are ready to throw in the towel, consider this (incredibly uncomfortable) lesson I learned last month.

I spent a November weekend in an unusual training many social psychologists subject themselves to during their education: a Group Relations conference. Using the word “conference” doesn’t quite call up the right image, because the purpose of this conference wasn’t to ideate around the newest innovations or complete continuing education credits while enjoying a new conference tote and swag. The purpose is simply just to be in groups. Just be….in groups. Over the course of three days we sat in big groups and small groups, self-organized groups and assigned groups. Without an agenda, keynote speaker, facilitator or assignment, the central focus became the words we used and how we chose to relate to each other. (If you feel uncomfortable just reading this, imagine how I and 74 of my new friends felt after three straight days.)

At one point over the weekend, we self-organized into groups and were then encouraged to interact with other the groups that had formed. Conflict theory teaches us that when you fail to see another person in full context, you tend to make up stories to explain any unpleasant behavior. Throw in a little negative emotion and your working relationship goes from water cooler chit chat to sending covert emails to your friends riddled with four letter descriptors. At the conference, you would have thought the walls separating our groups were actually borders separating countries. Because we could only guess at what was happening in the other rooms, our defenses went up fast and my teammates and I were quickly swept up in how convinced we were that everyone else was rejecting us. Every intergroup interaction was entered into with skepticism and doubt about the other’s motives. But when all groups came together toward the end of the weekend, I was surprised to find that my group was not, in fact, the social outcast. In fact, nearly every group thought it had been rejected, too. It was a tremendous “a ha” moment for me when I realized just how rich those stories we wrote about what went on on the other side of the wall were.

Which brings me back to culture, how we choose to engage with others and your list of resolutions. If you are struggling with your boss, so much so that you’re ready to throw up your hands and saunter out the door, consider what’s actually going on behind her wall. It might not be what you think. If you’re a leader whose team or organization is always a little toxic and people just don’t seem to jive, consider the amount of transparency that is (or isn’t) there between you. It’s amazing what just 10 minutes of honest and vulnerable communication can do to clear up years of misconceptions. Consider a resolution to learn more instead of to up and leave. Your own health, and that of your company, will be better off for it. No gym required.