Self-preservation vs. problem solving

Why, when it feels like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders, is it the right time to stop and spend a few minutes improving your work relationships with people? I’ll tell you why.

As humans, we all have our defenses that get in the way of effective collaboration. And these defenses peck away at our relationships. Another way to explain defensiveness is to say that we are in a mode of “self-preservation” rather than “problem solving” – many of our precious cognitive resources are directed towards preserving ourselves (even while working with people who are on our same team!) rather than focusing those efforts towards solving the problem.

Imagine watching a game of basketball – it’s total crunch time. There are just a few seconds left and your team is behind….and then, you watch in shock as one player on your team blocks a shot and steals the ball from another member – of your same team — and then takes a shot of his own. This would be surreal and bewildering, but the same kind of thing happens on your work team all the time.

Allow me to explain. Let’s say for example, that the executive team (Team 1) is looking to make a critical hire. One person, Leslie, believes firmly that they should hire an experienced project manager, but somebody else on the team, John, wants to hire a programmer. Now….this is Team 1 – the team that must put the good of the company above the good of any individual department or group – it is critical that they do this. If they do not, they will create so many internal battles down in the organization that it will be incredibly hard for them to compete effectively against their true competition. This team will always be best served if each person speaks up with their true thoughts, feelings, concerns and beliefs about how to best use this budget for hiring.

But when Leslie says, “I think we should hire an experienced project manager,” imagine that John shoots back rigidly, “Bill will never go for that. Plus, it’s better that we bring on another programmer right now.” Leslie, sensing the rigidity, thinks to herself, “Well, I better pick my battles…” and on a deeper subconscious level is thinking “I don’t want to feel like I’m sacrificing myself on this one topic, so even though I truly believe the best thing for the company is to hire an experienced project manager, let me preserve myself in this moment so I can live to fight another day, and I will withhold my opinion about what is truly best for the team.” Now, most of this is subconscious. On the surface it feels like – “Sure, she’s just picking her battles – we all have to do that!”

But here is where it falls apart and why this is such a bummer…. this was a conversation for only about 15 seconds – what if they spent even 15 minutes talking about it? What if, in response to Leslie’s comment about a project manager, John said, “Oh, I was thinking about a programmer – tell me more of your thoughts about the benefits of a project manager,” which then allows Leslie to explain how she thinks that would be best. And then John says, “So, one potential hurdle will be convincing Bill that this is the right direction – how do you think we could do that?” And Leslie and John brainstorm about Bill’s perspective and how they can help him understand what could truly be better about hiring a project manager. This could be 15 minutes. And then maybe they go on to hire somebody that is a far better use of their budget than one more programmer working away on a disorganized and mismanaged project. Amazing! But this can’t happen when they each have their defenses up. If anybody on Team 1 feels like they are putting themselves out there for the slaughter when they want to raise and champion a dissenting opinion, there is no way this team will maximize the effectiveness of their decision making!

So when you think to yourself, “We can’t afford to spend time working on improving our relationships, we have too much real work to do!” – I will challenge you and say – “You can’t afford not to work on your relationships! There is far too much work to get done to let relationships stagnate or even deteriorate. Make sure your team is in problem solving mode, not self-preservation mode.

Learn how to drop your defenses and put your energy to more productive use with our workshop offerings.