Grafik 2 Personen haben Fragen

By Nils Reisen on 30.11.2022 | 4 minutes reading time

Steve was on his way to work. It was a pleasantly warm day, rather unusual in October in Switzerland. While he is usually in a good mood when heading to the office, today was different. He dreaded the meeting with Doris, his manager, that was set for today. Doris wanted to give him “some feedback”. On what, he didn’t know but he had a nagging feeling of uncertainty.

Steve wasn’t surprised, though. They have had a few strange encounters in the past week. Doris had made increasingly critical remarks and had given him funny looks that he found hard to interpret. Ever since Doris had called the meeting, Steve had found it difficult to concentrate on his work.

While he was waiting for his bus to arrive, he was so anxious that even the birds chirping on this otherwise lovely autumn morning bothered him.

Much ado about nothing?

When he entered the room, Doris was already sitting at the small table. She welcomed him in a friendly but slightly tense way. Steve could sense that she, too, was uneasy about the upcoming interaction.

After a slightly awkward start, they found themselves in an engaged discussion. It quickly became apparent to both of them that the main reasons for their mutual irritations were misunderstandings and wrong assumptions. This had led to a plethora of theories about why the other person acted the way they did. While logically sound, these theories were based on assumptions, most of which could quickly be proven wrong.

Identifying these misunderstandings and clearing their assumptions was uncomfortable. Both Steve and Doris were shocked by how little their assumptions were in line with what was actually going on. Why did they invest so much mental time and effort in trying to explain things based on pure assumptions? Worse still: both attributed the other's behaviour to negative intentions and not to a lack of information, misunderstandings or false beliefs.

Once they had cleared their assumptions and shared their reasons, motivations and goals, Steve and Doris were both relieved. The meeting was originally scheduled for 30 minutes and lasted over three hours. At the end, both had completely changed their mind about the other person and were disappointed in themselves for having jumped to unwarranted conclusions so easily. They were ready to work together again and left the meeting room with renewed optimism.

What had happened?

How was it possible that so many misunderstandings and false assumptions could arise so quickly? What had they done? The answer is simple: nothing. And that was precisely the problem.

When Steve and Doris started working together a few months ago, they discussed their goals, exchanged information and challenged assumptions. They were perfectly aligned.

As Steve became more proficient in his new role, he checked back less frequently with Doris. Doris, in turn, gained confidence in Steve, and her need for updates shrank. Meanwhile, the world around them changed slowly but surely and these changes also greatly influenced them and their work.

In the picture below, you can see how Steve and Doris slowly progressed in different directions over time. With each event that happened in their work life (for example obtaining new information or learning from their own decisions), they gradually shifted their path – that is, their view of the world around them – to one side or the other. As they pursued their path, they each construed a new reality for themselves.

While they were fully aligned at the onset of their collaboration, a few months later their paths had considerably moved apart. The surface between the lines represents the lack of efficiency.

phase of problems collaboration zone

Figure 1: Alignment only after problems arise: big inefficiency

They found it increasingly difficult to understand the other person’s behaviour. From their respective viewpoints, what the other was doing seemed wrong, strange or inefficient. This became evident when problems arose: Steve provided incorrect information to customers, Doris seemed to contradict herself and took decisions that were incompatible with the team’s goals.

Identifying the origin of the issues and correcting them consumed a lot of time, as did the three-hour meeting that was necessary to get their collaboration – and their relationship – back onto friendlier terrain. And imagine what would have happened if the meeting hadn’t taken place that day or only months later. The good news is: this can be prevented easily.

How can you avoid this?

Steve and Doris are fictional characters but whose scenario I have observed many times in reality throughout my professional career. And it is probably happening right now in your company, too.

The key to avoiding situations like these is, of course, constant alignment – frequent exchanges on our recent learnings, ideas, plans and general understanding of our work. The earlier you notice that your paths have moved away from each other, the easier it is to, well, correct course. The faster this happens, the smaller the inefficiency.

graphic about an effective collaboration zone

Figure 2: Frequent alignment: less problems and inefficiencies

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? I like to spend an hour or two with everyone from my team every four months to give and receive feedback and align our paths. This might seem like a lot of time. But in light of the tremendously positive effects and the prevention of much more time-consuming issues as illustrated in the story of Steve and Doris, its ROI is wildly positive. In other words: taking time for feedback is an investment and not a cost, and ultimately saves time in the long-run.

On top of that, it positively affects our relationship, motivation and, importantly, performance simply because we constantly rethink and adjust our collaboration to what works best right now.

Please try this at home

Patterns similar to the one described above can also be observed in long-term relationships. It is fairly common that partners develop in different directions over time without realising it.

Work, hobbies and kids all influence how we see the world around us and live our lives. We are constantly making slight changes to our behaviours, beliefs and convictions. If partners fail to continually align on their experiences, values, struggles and goals, they might well wake up one morning and wonder who the person is lying next to them.

Here, too, constant exchange is key: on what is important to us, how we interpret what is going on in our lives and what currently makes us happy, optimistic, sad or fearful. If you communicate openly and listen closely, you can constantly discover new things about your partner and yourself. And you will be able to enjoy the birds chirping away (after all, that’s how they align with each other).

Illustration with a letter in an open envelope

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