Monday, October 24, 2011

The Value of a “Helmet’s Office” Atmosphere: Building Team and Organizational Trust, Collaborative Conflict, Partnership & Synergy

My work with the military has been very instructive. As a team building catalyst I appreciate the concept of creating a “Helmet’s Off” meeting atmosphere whereby there is “no rank in the room.” Ideally, the Corporal is not afraid to speak up honestly, even critically, with and to the Colonel. Of course, the unspoken challenge is whether there’s sufficient trust to transcend traditional “superior-subordinate” roles-relations-rules-restrictions. More broadly, what is the overall trust and safety level in the room? Will something I say quickly come back to bite me or eventually wind up as career-killer in a personnel file?

Naturally, when there’s an external threat, a “harm’s way” crisis or a critical need to follow “one voice” then helmets need to be firmly in place. However, when there is opportunity for frank and open dialogue, progressive military leaders are realizing that, especially with voluntary personnel and with today’s younger generation, two-way communication fosters greater respect, trust, commitment and a real cycle of what I call the interactive team building triad-synthesis -– “leadership <– > followship –> partnership.” That is, depending on the situational context or challenge, all levels in the organizational hierarchy need to set sail on the first two “ships” to sufficiently understand each one’s perspectives and roles, responsibilities and demands. Also, leadership doesn’t only come packaged with the title of “Captain,” “CEO” or “Coach.” Informal or untapped leaders often work behind the scenes. Good leaders, however, coax these “informals” out of the closet or provide a platform for their budding talents and harness or align with their influence.

Finally, some hands on experience “in both the trenches and think tanks” facilitate the evolution of a productive “leadership-followship” alliance. (For example, the mind- and heart-opening premise of the TV series, “Undercover Boss,” reflects a desire to have the chief surreptitiously wade into the trenches and swim with the catfish. I’m still waiting for the “Surreality” show that allows a team of employees into the shark tank…I mean boardroom.)

A friend, a retired Army Colonel once shared: “It’s easy ordering people around. Creating genuine buy-in is the real challenge.” To the military’s credit, they seem to realize that at times they have difficulty walking their helmetless talk, hence a desire to work with the Stress Doc ™. And barriers to candid communication may even arise with Senior Officers and Senior Sergeants, the battalion or brigade leadership team. In fact, most of my military “Stress, Change & Team Building” experience is with these senior groups. Consider this testimonial:

15th Sustainment Brigade, 1st Cavalry, Ft. Hood, TX
[Stress, Change and Team-Building Predeployment to Iraq Program for 40 Senior Officers, Senior Sergeants and Spouses]


What a great program you engineered at our Command Offsite! It could not have been better if we had orchestrated it! Your session on managing change and stress was the perfect lead-in to the work we had to accomplish throughout the conference. It set the conditions for the free, uninhibited work (regardless of rank) that we needed. Our “drawing” exercise was absolutely enlightening. I cannot tell you how valuable it was to me as the “CEO” to see these products and see how the differing sections and commands worked together. The spouses loved the briefing and the interaction just as much as the uniformed members did.

Here’s the BLUF: Your session was the critical building block on which we built the rest of the conference.

My sincere thanks. Job well done.

COL Phelps

COL Larry Phelps
Commander, 15th SB

Value of “Helmets Off”: Top Ten

However, my purpose with this essay is to reach a broad target audience. Why might the “Helmet’s Off” credo not just be a good fit for the military but also help build non-military team and organizational trust, coordination and productivity? When you have the time, consider these “Top Ten” opportune factors:

1. Opportunity for candid and clarifying communication and critical feedback. In a “Helmets Off Atmosphere” (HOA), not only is it easier for “message sent = message received” but a candid environment helps flesh out hidden agendas and stimulates a broader segment of member participation. And if leaders understand the difference between “Acknowledgement and Agreement” one can engage another’s perspective without endorsing it. If you don’t have to immediately establish “who’s right or wrong” (especially when it’s not a “black or white” data-driven issue), then options emerge: for example, before answering or arguing, allow the larger group to weigh in on the issue. (Hopefully, there’s not a groupthink milieu. And the quickest way of combating groupthink: ask people to question or challenge your perspective.) Remember, people don’t just contend or compete over facts; more often it’s the status of the head-banging relationship: people want to know it’s safe to say, “I believe you’re wrong and I’m right.”

Also, in the heat of a verbal battle, people frequently have an “attitude.” Sometimes it’s the person’s personality, other times it’s a momentary face-saving device, that is, the difference between “trait” and “state.” Either way, with my own slow movement toward maturity (let’s call it “fate,”) I’ve learned to accept a little angry attitude (what I call “smoke”) when sparring; however I do not accept a personal attack or abuse (that is, learn to distinguish the “smoke” from the “fire”). When an authority figure allows a “subordinate” to disagree openly (but not abusively) in a public forum without quickly cutting him down at the intellectual knees, most feel a sigh of relief and a deposit is added to the group trust account. And ironically, the former contrarian often more quickly joins the other side of the argument once having defended his position or when allowed to save face. Sometimes exercising a psychological freedom trumps competing over logical “facts.”

2. Opportunity for asking good questions as well as active-reflective listening and for generating creative conflict. When I ask a group what constitutes a “good question” in the context of interpersonal conflict, I get answers such as: a) one that solicits an open-ended response, b) one that can’t be answered by “yes” or “no,” and c) is not simply a “gotcha” tactic, whereby the questioner already knows the answer. (Although sometimes a “gotcha” question may be needed to establish the facts of a situation in the face of significant denial or a cover-up.) For me, there are two pillars of a good question: 1) the humility pillar, which acknowledges “not having all the answers” and 2) the openness pillar, which says, “I really would like to hear your point of view. I have more to learn than I realized.” (Clearly there’s a link between openness and humility.)

In an HOA setting this kind of exchange lays the basis for “collaboration” –- helping people speak from both the head and heart, teasing out hidden agendas, allowing for constructive conflict, even asking antagonists for more of their thinking, thereby helping to affirm their experience or expertise. And such openness simultaneously challenges our truisms. As 19th c. pragmatic philosopher and the “Father of American Education,” John Dewey, observed: Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It shocks us out of sheep-like passivity. It instigates to invention and sets us at noting and contriving. Conflict is the sine qua non of reflection and ingenuity.

Now people and parties risk venturing from their territorial silos; the process encourages illogical and improbable ideas, allowing diversity to stimulate creativity, e.g., brainstorming methods for imaginatively yet fairly sharing resources and devising complementary approaches. (A number of studies reveal that teams comprised of diverse members almost invariably do more creative problem solving than more homogeneous task groups.) So maximize group brainpower by 1) asking good questions, 2) engaging in active and reflective listening, while 3) harnessing the colorful-compelling sparks of diversity and creative conflict.

3. Opportunity for reliable and quick feedback from and to folks in the trenches. To be “efficient” (do the thing right) and “effective” (do the right thing), an HOA mindset realizes that certain data can only be obtained by first hand, real time reports from the trenches. (For example, see the “Undercover Boss” reference above.) However, even if the data was initially wired in, the opportunity for sharing the circumstances and dynamics with the entire group affirms the value of the front line report/reporters while generating exploratory and collaborative possibilities. As Randy Pausch in his acclaimed book, The Last Lecture, written in anticipation of his dying from pancreatic cancer, recommends, “Phrase alternatives as questions. Instead of “I think we should do A, not B,” try “What if we did A, instead of B?” [The unspoken message: “what might be the implications or consequences?” And, again, most important, “I want to hear your perspective.”] This allows people to offer comments rather than defend (or debate) one choice.”

And remember, often it’s best to back up an important e-blast with a face-to-group announcement. It’s too easy for messages and texts to get lost in the electronic and textual cacophony. You’ll save time and enhance trust when all hear the message simultaneously and have the opportunity to raise questions or concerns.

4. Opportunity to remove cultural and generational diversity barriers and foster team synergy. Let me provide an HOA moment inspired by Al Davis, the recently deceased maverick, “Renaissance Football Man,” and long-time rabble-rousing owner of the Oakland Raiders. Davis hired the first Afro-American football coach in the modern era. In a sport that was increasingly being played by black athletes, do you think this helped create a “helmets off” atmosphere in the locker room? (Davis also later hired John Madden who, at the time, I believe was the youngest man to ever coach in the NFL. Again, this was another potential bridge-builder though, I would imagine, not without its skeptical men and moments. I can just picture some of the older Assistant Coaches or even players questioning the experience of their fledgling head coach. In addition to being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Madden, of course, went on to become an American icon through his work as a TV commentator and his pioneering efforts in electronic gaming.)

An interesting question arises: how do these idiosyncratic personalities fit into football, a sport that’s been called “the ultimate team game.” You’ve likely heard or perhaps seen the following mantra posted on an office wall: “There’s no ‘I’ in team.” While there’s some validity on its face, the slogan has always left me needing more…or wanting to conceptualize further. Might not individual difference, including variation in personality, mindset and talent, along with cultural or generational perspective, challenge the team to reach another level of evolutionary function? As Adam Gopnik, in Angels and Ages: A Brief Book about Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Life, observed: Repetition is the law of nature but variation is the rule of life!

Consider this semantic twist: While there’s no “I” in team, there are two “I”s in winning! From a poetic perspective a number of interpretations of the latter phrase are possible:
a) keeping your eyes on the prize,
b) reflecting on the past to help envision a new future, or my favorite
c) mixing the literal and the “letteral,” one comes up with two “I”s that definitely “C” –- the “I”s stand for “Individuality” and “Interactivity” and their related “C”s are “Creativity” and “Community.” And voila: the formula for a winning team is a synergistic blend of “Individual Creativity” and “Interactive Community.”

Some Conceptual Tools for Rethinking Team Synergy

In a general way the popular TEAM acronym speaks the language of synergy: Together Each Achieves More. The slogan indicates that the individual benefits from collective understanding, will and action and that harmony is its own reward. But what about the inverse: does individual variation in history or talent (not necessarily playing a formal leadership role) impact the capacity of the group to meet its goals around performance and and productivity, morale and camaraderie? How about these TEAM acronyms:

a) Talent Energizes Ambitious Motivation
b) Trial & Error Amplifies Mastery (or, perhaps even better, Mutation)

The creative explorer typically challenges the community to reexamine its conventional values, positions and actions. A community that’s not cut off by “one right way” tradition or rigid “funda-mental-ist armor” debates, sometimes tolerates, and may eventually find room to encourage the idiosyncratic individual to speak the language of, relate to, educate and even stir up, if not inspire, the larger collective. And when these two “‘I’s that ‘C’” intermingle, another notion of synergy materializes: behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the behavior of their parts taken separately. This is called emergent behavior (Wikipedia) and brings us back to the power of variation for spawning successful adaptation, that is, individual mutation spreads, ultimately influencing the hardiness of the larger community often resulting in “the survival of the fittest.”

Finally, this emergent conception helps us return to the conventional if not predictable notion of synergy: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Whether the outcome is “unpredictable” or “greater than,” just what do these statements actually mean? They’ve become such embedded clichés; I suspect most folks don’t stop to think about the overt or covert dynamics. For me, when you’re cookin’ with synergy there is some combination of free flowing, genuine, uninhibited, intimate, out-rage-ous, intuitive, playful and verbal-nonverbal communication-new ways of relating amongst the parts (akin to a jazz riff), that in due time those individual parts magically morph into partners (at least for the potent moment) no matter the rank or role in the room.

5. Opportunity to delegate-distribute roles, responsibilities and power and to generate matrix teams. HO can also stand for “Hand Off” in addition to “Helmets Off.” After a meaningful discussion of an issue or problem there usually is a pregnant pause: who will take responsibility for putting strategic ideas into action and/or monitoring the problem-solving steps and any additional problem solvers? Assuming that we’re not resorting to the traditional military manner of “enlisting volunteers,” a smart leader will allow the silence its pregnant possibility. My experience suggests that a group member will pop up, or will do so with a gentle nudge. The person taking responsibility often has some personal if not passionate connection to the issue on the floor.

For the formal “Helmets Off” leader the challenge is not just giving up some control over the problematic issue but also working to find that balance between being detached without being distant, that is, achieving “detached involvement.” When you “hand off,” let the person run with the ball; even an occasional fumble can help him or her get a better grip on issues moving forward. You are enabling others to exercise and develop their knowledge and skills, passion and talents, as well as strengthening a sense of responsibility. And, of course, let the employee know you are available as a coach and consultant or, if persistent difficulties arise, as a manager. (But remember, the “responsible” individual is an “agent,” that is, a person of influence or impact and one who is worthy of trust.)

Finally, a diverse community gathering makes it easier to generate matrix teams. You can encourage and empower representatives of different organizational departments, seniority levels, knowledge bases, cultural populations, etc., to take on issues that that transcend the segmental or territorial and impact the foundational and systemic. The payoff for your organization is an expanding synergy whereby “distinct parts transform into dynamic partners.” Words to help one and all…Practice Safe Stress!

Stay tuned for Part II, the final five ways an HOA impacts team and organizational trust, coordination and productivity.

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote & kickoff speaker, webinar presenter, as well as "Motivational Humorist & Team Communication Catalyst" known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN programs for both government agencies and major corporations. In addition, the "Doc" is a team building and organizational development consultant. He is providing "Stress and Communication, as well as Managing Change, Leadership and Team Building" programs for the 1st Cavalry Division and 13th Expeditionary Support Command, Ft. Hood, Texas and for Army Community Services and Family Advocacy Programs at Ft. Meade, MD and Ft. Belvoir, VA as well as Andrews Air Force Base/Behavioral Medicine Services. Mark has also rotated as a Military & Family Life Consultant (MFLC) at Ft. Campbell, KY. A former Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant for the US Postal Service, The Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- -- called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email or call 301-875-2567.

(c) Mark Gorkin 2011
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