How close can you be in a team?

Frederic Laloux wants to have ‘wholeness’ in the workplace, big tech companies like Google even have recreational parks on their premises for their employees, and Taraneh Taheri writes in the New Narrative magazine that a team should never call itself a family. Now, wait a second. What is important and proper in the workplace again? Is it closeness or distance? How much time should co-workers spend on joint leisure activities?

Now let's start from the beginning…

In his book ‘Reinventing Organizations’, Frederic Laloux encourages us to drop our corporate mask. Instead of showing ourselves to be professional, determined and strong at all times, he recommends creating a culture of safety in which employees can show themselves what they really are: that is, vulnerable, sometimes weak or indecisive. Well: human. The opportunity Laloux sees in this form of culture is that co-workers build up a true relationship with each other. Their EGO, which is mainly used to protect oneself out of a feeling of insecurity that ultimately leads to separation, can be pushed back in this way. According to Laloux, this would mean that the prerequisites for achieving better, value-creating results as an organization and a community are met. 

In my experience, Laloux’s desire for ‘wholeness’ in part became reality during the coronavirus pandemic and the related teleworking trend. We saw our co-workers’ living rooms, and became familiar with their toddlers and pets. This situation brought us, as human beings, a whole lot closer together. Employees had to allow more closeness and became more vulnerable as a result. And it appears to me that during the coronavirus pandemic, nobody misused this situation, which means that the entire staff could still feel safe. What was your experience in this respect? 

Back in the office, the question now is how much closeness is good and proper for the respective team?

We know it from the big tech companies or – in case we haven’t had the experience personally – we keep on reading about it: Team members are supposed to feel at home when they are at work, and there are happiness managers, sports facilities, showers in the office premises, after-work parties – basically, shared leisure events of the most diverse kind. As an employee or an observer from the outside, you may either like this, or become suspicious and ask yourself: “Well, what does the employer want to achieve with this?”

Building a fully-fledged recreational park on company premises, such as at Google, is certainly one extreme. The other extreme case is the ‘old’ business world, where people come to the office on the dot of 9 a.m., well disguised under their corporate mask, perhaps in a suit, or in the respective uniform in other professions. In that old world, we (the employees) had learned to focus on the work and leave our inner self at the factory gate. It was safer for us to hide behind the corporate mask and trust in your EGO instead of being vulnerable and allowing others to get a glimpse of your hopes and desires.

Working with a great variety of different companies, I have perceived a strong desire for transparency and openness – much stronger than 10 or 15 years ago. In my trainings and seminars, employees tell me that they want the wholeness described by Laloux – even if they use different words. I have already come across leaders exhibiting wholeness by showing their very own insecurities in front of their staff. In my view, however, the largest potential for development can be found in the culture of companies. Many organizations have yet to demonstrate a unified culture across different levels. From my observation, while the willingness to follow the concept of wholeness has not yet reached upper management levels, it is currently being tried and tested on the lower levels – even in corporate groups.

In her article “Warum sich Teams nicht als Familie bezeichnen sollten” (Why teams shouldn't call themselves a family), Taraneh Taheri describes another dimension to this issue. She discusses the issue’s linguistic component and asks how a team should call itself and how it should talk about itself? This is because our language influences our actions in both a positive and negative sense. If the team calls itself a family, this could create unhealthy expectations among employees. This might create dogmas such as “I can't quit because I can’t let my family down” or “It’s okay if I go beyond my limits, because a family stands up for each other.” For me, it is obvious that such expectations are downright dangerous because the concept of family is applied in the wrong context, and it is dangerous both from the point of view of the individuals involved and from the point of view of the organization. When co-workers feel and behave like family, it might be the case that tensions are no longer addressed constructively for fear of hurting the other person. In such a situation, discussions on role responsibilities might not take place, which consequently reduces the team’s productivity and is thus bad for the organization. The concept of family also covers up the fact that an employment relationship is always some form of barter: the employee makes his or her work performance available and receives a remuneration paid by the organization in return. Family, in contrast, is not bound by such conditions!

My answer to the question “How much closeness can a team take?” is: “It depends.” There is no one-size-fits-all answer that might apply to all teams. There isn’t even one single right answer if we look at just one team. It is important that each individual remains within the boundaries of his or her tolerance zone. Even if that means that five team members meet regularly for having after-work drinks and the sixth team member never shows up – that’s okay as long as the team talks openly about this, and everyone reacts to this in an appreciative manner. 

In a nutshell: The key point is that someone (a coach, the leader, a team member) makes sure that the team provides a safe environment so that each person can be vulnerable without having a negative impact on that person. Undoubtedly, this is difficult to achieve, but it’s well worth the effort.

This text first appeared in my newsletter 'Innovation on Wednesday'. It is published every other Wednesday. For subscription click here

Further reading:

Andrea SchmittInnovationstrainerinAm Mittelpfad 24aD 65520 Bad Camberg+49 64 34-905 997+49 175 5196446
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