There we were; a picture of unmet expectations and deflated hopes. Sitting at my table, I slumped with my hands clasping my face, revealing my frustration. I wanted to move forward, delegate quickly, and trudge on towards our goal; but he wanted to process the details, define the technicalities, and drill deep into what was right and what was wrong. The others on our four-person team had become entranced by their laptops, thinking independently to come up with the big idea. There was no meeting of minds, no influence from person to person, and therefore, no results.
This was work. I was in a four-day training that simulated a new team coming together to solve a hairy business problem. We were strangers from day one, and we needed to unite to deliver a solution by day four. No problems there, we thought. We were professionals with experience under our belts. We would be like a well oiled machine, getting to the finish line little disruption. Or so we thought.
But on day one, different personalities and individual work styles showed up. We wanted to solve the problem, but what we did was independently develop our own solutions and try to get the team to see things the way we saw them. We were all speaking at the same time and cutting off each other’s thoughts. I watched my detail oriented colleague as he spoke, listening for the right time to interject so that I could “take the stage.” In other words, I wasn’t listening.
Hitting a snag, we decided to take a time out. We let go of the laptops and white boards, and walked out to the nearby soccer field, where we kicked the ball around like kids on recess. As we asked questions about each other’s lives, the differences in our cultures and experiences started to stand out. I realized that in some way our cultures – India, Nigeria, Texas, and Washington DC. – had a lot to do with what was going on in the room.
I eventually had some alone time with my detail oriented colleague, who I had butted heads with earlier. In casual conversation, I learned that he had suffered a huge personal loss in recent months. His entire family was still reeling from the pain, and he was under tremendous pressure to make things right. All of a sudden, it dawned on me…
Somehow, I had forgotten the most obvious thing about the whole exercise: I was working with human beings. My colleague was not a machine that I could program to see and do things the way I wanted it to. He was a human being, with life stories that influenced the way he approached things. In fact, given the stress he was experiencing in his personal life, it was likely that he wasn’t performing at his best. I needed to bring a lot more grace to the table.
When we got back to the room, we related with each other with more understanding. What had been a clamor of voices turned into a sincere effort to listen to one another. As such, we gave each other the opportunity to influence our team’s course. Ideas were met with affirming phrases like “That’s a good idea. We can use it this way…” A group on opposing sides switched gears to become a united team.
My week in training painted a picture of what happens every day when we go to work. Everyone who walks in the room brings his or her own experiences, joys, and pains – things that color their perceptions and approaches to life. When you walk into a room of people, you enter this collection of many stories. Some stories complement each other. Some stories oppose each other. And some stories highlight the merits or disadvantages of other stories.
If we are to achieve anything with others who are not like us (as we often need to do) we have to draw from others’ stories. I learned that this is what opens the door to understanding and eventually, achieved goals. As a Christ-follower in a world of different ideas and beliefs, this is a key step to live, love, and influence our world.