What do you think they think of you? The stories that derail us

Some years ago, I was called (at less than 24 hours notice) to facilitate a meeting at short notice between three parties. The purpose was to establish the operational terms for a potential joint venture between two well known corporate powerhouse brands, brokered by a well-known global professional services firm.

On paper, it was a win-win situation for all involved, however some months had passed and the teams tasked with structuring the operating terms agreement had failed again and again to resolve the terms of the partnership. In fact, over a series of meetings, things had become acrimonious with all three parties accusing each other of subterfuge and accusations of not being serious enough in commitment to the potential venture. Power politicals and posturing had been evident even in the setting up of the meeting ahead.

The meeting, that I had been asked to attend, was seen as make or break to the future venture and executives from all three parties had flown in from around the globe

The venue was the corporate Headquarters of one of the potential partners. A old grand building, the room was covered In paneled woods, smelt of age and polish, pictures of ancient serious looking leaders lined the expansive corridors and expensive crystal was on display. Perhaps not the best room for relationship building, the atmosphere was formal, liveried and serious as participants mingled before the start of the meeting.

I was due to facilitate the morning session, I was asked to ease the impasse that had developed between the parties and help create a better working environment. I used an exercise at the start of the meeting to get each representative team present to immediately disclose the positions each had taken:

  • What do you think of them?
  • What do you think they think of you?
  • What do you think they think you think about them
  • Draw a picture to show how this joint venture is poised right now…(no words only images)

Each party huddled around flipcharts and scribbled seriously. I then invited them to share the product of their work and the pictures to be displayed.

There was a complete break in the tension of the meeting. People smiled, shook their heads, held their faces in their hands.

In the absence of open dialogue, each party had created stories and fantasies about the habits, motivations and character of the other. Small asides, a delay in response to an email, use of email language, tone of address, choice of venue had all been used to create or embellish false realities about the dynamics at play – based mainly on the insecurity / paranoia of the party creating the story. In the break that followed, people hugged one another, reconciled and set records straight. Apparently everyone present really wanted the deal to work and the enthusiasm was high, Small differences of interpreted intent were ironed out informally over coffee and brief walks in the grounds of the building. Within 45 min (a long coffee break) – everyone was ready to resume the commercial conversation. I was thanked for the intervention and told I was no longer needed.

Apparently the ability to truly communicate openly about what we feared was enough to save a multi-million dollar venture from oblivion.

So what is learned about culture and inter-group working? A few things to highlight for consideration:

  • We have our own ways of doing things; the smallest things are artifacts of our culture and are used by others to interpret intent
  • We are often blind to these habits as we live with them everyday
  • We think that our habits are reasonable and that others are strange
  • We interpret the world from our cultures point of view
  • We interpret others actions from our (uniquely selfish) point of view

None of this will be new to most of you reading the article. The answer to successful cooperation is the power, ability and discipline to stop and consider the viewpoint of others, and examine how the dynamic can work to the advantage of all.

The more people practice this method of inclusion– as with everything – the better the outcome. Children learn through play – a child tries and tries – without pride- to do the most basic things. As adults, egos, position and fear of losing face, especially in an organisational context, prevent us from learning new things – even when learning new ways of working may make or break commercial success.

How do you practice observing and being aware of the cultures of others in your organisation; the letting go of ego and positional power without fear of losing face?

We offer insight and tools aimed at awareness and empowerment as part of the second of three workshops into the individual, cultural and systemic domains of organisational and community life and invite you to join us on the 7th of May at our Lead Successful Integration workshop.

“Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated.” Martin Luther King Jr.

Exploring whole systems change

Here be dragons: Leading in complex times – John Watters
What do you think they think of you? The stories that derail us – Chris Yates
Are we doing the work that is needed or the work that is comfortable? – John Watters

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