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Effective Conversations

Conversational Practices to Create Belonging

Organizations are groups of people who come together to accomplish agreed-upon goals. Whether corporations, governments, or non-profits, all use conversation to create and achieve their goals. Most obviously, conversation is necessary for decision-making about collective action. But it is also through conversation that knowledge is developed and exchanged. It is by means of conversation that different units of an organization, teams, and individuals coordinate their actions. Relationships that support meaningful planning are developed in the conversation between individuals. Conversations are expressed through our words, tone of voice, level of attention we give each other, facial expressions, smiles, or frowns. Through our laughter and tears, conversation binds us. All this at a time when technology has made it possible to talk across time and space, see each other, and hold those conversations that create meaning in our organizations.

Stephen Hawking, (1994) who in his later years, could not speak except through artificial means, said:  “For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.”

Finally, and perhaps, most importantly, an organization's culture is created and maintained through its webs of conversation (Weick, 2012).

However, in many organizations, conversations are neither frequent enough nor are they designed for purpose. For example, a decision-making conversation needs to be designed differently than one whose purpose is resolving a dispute and different yet from one in which knowledge is generated. While technology has increased the performance speed for many functions and the opportunities for conversations to take place, it has not increased the speed at which human beings can engage each other in meaningful conversation. This article is about how and why to engage in those many conversations.

Two critical organizational conversations need to be strengthened, each having a different focus or intent. When taken together, they can improve the quality of organizations’ interactions and, thus, organizations' ability to design meaningful and productive work that helps them work toward goals that benefit all of humanity. The two conversations are:

  • Conversations to Generate Well-being and Learning Within Teams

These conversations allow team members to know each other as whole persons, their families, ambitions, hopes, and disappointments. Within a team, members learn about each other’s work experience, knowledge base, and skill sets and, given that breadth of understanding, can work together productively to expand the team’s knowledge and capability. Teams are where a culture of belonging is born within organizations, offering the possibility of restoring human connection to our organizations.

  • Conversations to Reduce Fragmentation Across Organization Silos

These are conversations that individual team members intentionally build with those in other parts of the organization. When each team member develops close relationships with colleagues in other parts of the organization, the silos that are currently so troublesome are significantly reduced, and a sense of community grows across the whole. 

I will discuss the first of these two in this post.


Conversations to Generate Well-Being and Learning Within Teams

We are a specie that, by our nature, cooperate and collaborate - it is built into our genes. Mark Solms (2022) a psychoanalyst, and neuropsychologist, explains that, just as we have a fight/flight response in our brains for our protection, our brains also have instinctual dispositions that are pro-social -  there to ensure we build connections with others. Those pro-social instincts include attachment bonding, nurturing, and, perhaps surprisingly, play. They are built into our brains because, as human beings, we need the help of others to survive and flourish, not only in childhood but also as adults. We have long known that infants will die if they are not picked up and cuddled, regardless of how well-fed they are. Adults also have a physiological need for and respond to caring and compassion. For example, a nurse touching the hand of a relative in a hospital waiting room lowers their blood pressure.  A colleague expressing concern when they notice we are troubled decreases our release of cortisol, the chemical our adrenal glands secrete that increases blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and slams our digestion to a halt. How amazing that experiencing a heartfelt connection with another reduces the release of harmful cortisol! These pro-social dispositions of attachment bonding and nurturing are not just that, “I want to be looked after and cared for” but also, “I want to look after and care for others.” Our brains are hard-wired for both giving and receiving compassion.

Given that we spend a significant part of our lives within a work environment, it is vitally important that our work environment provides us opportunities for the attachment bonding that Solms has shown we require. Or in layperson's terms, we need to feel valued, cared for, and appreciated in our workplaces, whether that work is online, in an office, a hospital, a call center, or preparing and serving food.  

The US Surgeon General’s Report,  (Murthy, 2022) calls attention to the health issues resulting from workplace stress. “Stress can increase one’s vulnerability to infection, the risk for diabetes, and the risk for other chronic health conditions” (p. 6). The report lists five essentials for workplace mental health and well-being, one of which is Connection and Community. The report explains that organizations' first task is to create inclusive and belonging cultures. Belonging is the feeling of being an accepted group member or connectedness in one’s interpersonal relationships. Pro-social behavior promotes positive social relationships through welcoming, helping, and reassuring others.

Working with a team of researchers at Stanford University, Pfeffer (2018) provides a long list of work conditions that cause ill health or death. Researchers estimate 120,000 preventable deaths caused by workplace conditions occur yearly.  Among those causes are cultures of low social support, that is, “not having close relationship with co-workers that provide social support to mitigate the effects of work stress” (p.43). The researchers estimate the lack of social support alone contributes to 3000 deaths yearly in the US. Even more devastating are work cultures in which people suffer insecurity and stress, which researchers estimate contribute to 29,000 deaths yearly.  Pfeffer describes workplace cultures where people feel they are always under the gun. This kind of stress has been exacerbated by computer monitoring of work, ranging from how many calls someone handles in a call center, how many patients a doctor sees, and how many tests a physician orders. A culture of insecurity and stress tends to pit workers against each other in ways that prevents creating community. This description by a former GE manager is particularly telling, “Everybody was fighting to control things and own things. Immediately I had to kind of fight to hold on to my turf for the job that I’d been hired to do… You assume that there were only going to be so many people who got promoted. You almost had a celebrity death-match, like with Jim, who was my peer. It was this idea that probably either Jim or I would get promoted, no matter how good we both were. That kind of cage-fighting mentality was in the culture” (p. 161).

However, through his research, Pfeffer also identified many organizations, which are intentional about taking care of the health and well-being of their employees. Among them are, Divita, Barry-Wayne Miller, Patagonia, Zillow Group, and Landmark Health. Interviews with workers at Divita illustrates the positive contrast. “When confronted with breast cancer, work colleagues, launched big sales to raise money for her and brought her food, lots of food. A single mom describes, almost in tears, how the company and the coworkers helped her after she was hit by a car in a crosswalk and broke her pelvis, leaving her scarcely able to care for her young child. In both instances, what is clear is that the individuals appreciated not just the specifics of the help that they received, but as important, the sense that they were part of a community” (p. 159).

As Murthy and Pfeffer illustrate, in our attempt to be effective and efficient in organizations, we have bound up our conversation with each other, limited it, and reduced its power. Too often, we have excluded expressions of care and welcome from our vocabulary, viewing them as inappropriate in a work environment and leaving us with only formulaic responses that are empty of warmth and caring. Murthy offers this challenge to us all, “Organizational leaders, managers, supervisors, and workers alike have an unprecedented opportunity to examine the role of work in our lives and explore ways to better enable all workers to thrive within the workplace and beyond”(p. 5). 

Taking to heart Murthy’s (2022) challenge and Pfeffer’s (2018) data gives us, as members of organizations, the courage and insight to engage in the needed conversations.  We recognize that having a different kind of conversation with our colleagues is the right thing to do, even given that, in most organizations, it may not be the norm. Murthy challenges each of us to bring about a more welcoming culture, knowing that an organization's culture is created in the conversations between its members. For a culture to change, those conversations have to change. As members of our organizations, we impact the tone and quality of those conversations in every interaction we have.

All conversations contain two messages; one is the content, and the second is the regard in which each speaker holds the other, or in other words, the nature of their relationship, as perceived by each speaker. This second message is revealed through body language, eye contact, gesture, and tone. Although often unintentional, each speaker sends one of many hundreds of messages that may be negative or positive, e.g., feeling superior to the other, enjoyment in the other’s companionship, deference toward the other, viewing the other as a resource or tool rather than a human being, feeling a sense of trust, respect for another’s knowledge, pleasure in seeing the other, and many more. Just reading the list may recall feelings from past conversations you’ve had. The underlying message is difficult to fake, so regardless of how carefully the words are constructed, we experience the underlying message the other sends. I’m not suggesting we be more careful about the messages we inadvertently send; instead, I’m suggesting that if we heal our organizations so that we create more caring and compassionate relationships, our unintentional messages will be congruent with our spoken words.

There has long been agreement in the organization literature on the characteristics of workplaces that promote well-being. Going back as far as McGregor’s (1960) Theory X and Y, Emery (1969) psychological requirements for productive work, Pink’s (2011) autonomy, mastery, and purpose, Schein’s (2018) humble leadership focused on personal, cooperative and trusting relationships, and Edmondson’s (2012) psychological safety, which she defines as the presence of a blend of trust, respect for each other's competence, and caring about each other as people. Clearly, there is not a dearth of knowledge about the conditions that promote both well-being and rewarding work.

Teams are where care and support can be most readily fostered in the workplace. Teams are the heart of an organization. They are where our most robust relationships are built because they are where most of our conversations occur. They are the best opportunity for individuals to develop, learn, and find purpose and meaning in their lives. Because they are small enough, given the chance, members can build open and caring relationships with each other. The opportunity involves setting aside time for team members to learn about each other. The reality is that I can’t support you or you me unless we know enough about each other to recognize our mutual needs and gifts. Building relationships requires not just one but repeated interactions between team members. We learn to “know” each other by being in conversation over time. We, of course, all know that. We even know how to do it; it’s just that in too many of our organizations, we think we shouldn’t!

A team at TechnipFMC that Kim Glover leads exemplifies creating a belonging culture. Most of the twelve team members are in Houston, but several are in other countries. The team is divided into three sub-teams, each responsible for one or more specific products. However, each team member is also a member of a second team, creating a complex matrix of product teams. Being matrixed gives each team insight into what other product teams are doing, increasing the possibility of collaboration and pollination across teams. Each product team holds a weekly meeting to coordinate the projects they’re working on, and at the start of each meeting, members are intentional about catching up on each other’s personal lives. A second practice occurs once a month when, for 24-48 hours, all twelve members engage online in “Working Out Loud” sessions. Each team member logs into the Working Out Loud session to share what they are currently working on as well as social items, for example, who has a new dog, is getting married, or has viewed a fascinating new video. And, of course, team members comment on each other’s messages. Another practice the whole team regularly engages in is team development activities, for example, everyone reading the same book and then holding discussions about it or the entire group taking a personality inventory and then talking through the results. Such activities help team members share the same language, learn about each other, and grow their relationships. Following are quotes from interviews I conducted with TechnipFMC team members. 

Chris (Scotland) -I lost my grandmother a few weeks ago, and every single person sent me messages and not just a message to say, "I'm sorry to hear,” but "how are you today?" And then after the funeral, "How was the funeral?" "How are you feeling?" "Is there anything I can do?" So we're a very close team, even despite the fact that we're thousands of miles away.

Victor (Brazil) - In a session, I was working from Brazil, I forgot to set up a specific access for the session. Tom-Erik in Norway and Taras in Russia always joined early. When Tom-Erik tried to join he couldn’t get in. Then Taras saw the problem and helped him get in. When everyone was finally online, Tom-Erik said, ‘I had a problem accessing the session because the different technology access wasn’t working.’ He didn’t say, ‘Victor did this the wrong way.’ No, he just shared what happened. For the team, this way of talking is normal. They didn’t attack me. Here in Brazil, these kinds of things are always personal. They would have said, ‘Victor really messed up!’

Brian (Houston) -One thing that we've done on this team is make it feel like a family. Like friends. Because then you're able to really, really start communicating. 

Stacy  (Houston)- What I really like about this team is we work hard, and we play hard too. We get along with each other. We nurture and support each other. There's a cohesiveness that goes beyond just getting your work done because if you work with someone not knowing anything about them, it's very sterile. When you work with people that you’ve developed a bond with, then when hard issues come up, the communication flows more easily because you have that bond and that relationship.

When team members have the opportunity to gain awareness of the knowledge and experience of others and have built a culture of belonging and trust, the team also becomes the primary place where learning takes place, and insights are developed, insight being the recognition of the relationship among ideas that result in problem solutions. Insights emerge when conversing with others who hold disparate views on a topic they feel safe to express.  A team’s culture of belonging and trust provides that safety.

We can learn facts from books, training, etc., what McGilchrist (2019) calls “public knowledge.” But we gain “private knowledge,” that is, how to “be in the world,” for example, how to deal with problems, support others, and even think about who we are by experiencing others we value and admire. In this way, learning and a sense of caring are intertwined. Experiencing requires engaging with the other and, through that engagement, developing morals, in the largest meaning of that term, by emulating their actions and thinking. What Victor learned from Tom-Erik, was much more than how to set up the technology (public knowledge). He learned how to respond when someone makes a mistake (private knowledge). He learned it by experiencing it. This deeper understanding stayed with him, so it came to mind when I interviewed him.

As the tasks that teams are asked to take on become increasingly complex, a team’s ability to learn becomes ever more critical because they frequently cannot just select a solution from a list of possibilities; but instead must learn their way to a solution. As Snowden (2015) explains, in the face of complex initiatives, all that teams can really manage is the starting conditions, that is, having a diversity of members, time available to explore, and a physical space where members can illustrate their ideas. Answers are emergent rather than being known in advance. The team's task then is to probe, sense, and respond.  Probe means to try multiple small experiments. Sense means watching what seems to be working, and responding means moving in that direction. By learning their way to a solution, a team can produce more innovative results than the team could have imagined in advance. But it also means that a team will probably have many failures before it achieves those innovative results. Complexity requires both the team and the larger organization to have a tolerance for failure and the emergent learning that is derived from it. And finally, learning from each other requires caring about each other enough to take the time to teach each other. It involves a sense of belonging that promotes the safety for members to be willing to suggest their half-baked ideas. It requires members to feel valued by others, so they know their ideas will be respected because learning and relationships are two sides of the same coin.    

For the teams at SEEQC, learning their way to solutions is the only possibility. SEEQC is a company whose task is to develop the first fully chip-based quantum computer platform for global business. The company, headquartered in Elmsford, NY, has facilities and teams in London and Naples. To build a chip-based quantum computer, something no other company has done, SEEQC needs employees with in-depth knowledge in three very different disciplines, quantum physics, computer science, and electrical engineering. Within those three disciplines SEEQC has individuals working as chip designers, chip manufacturing engineers, test and integration teams as well as teams working on firmware and software. Unfortunately, universities don’t offer degrees in that combination. So the thirty-five employees at SEEQC not only come from multiple disciplines and have to learn from each other while trying to accomplish a never before accomplished task, but they also come from different countries and cultures with local norms and customs. John Levy, the CEO and one of the co-founders of SEEQC, explains, “Building a quantum computer is probably the hardest thing anybody's ever done. It requires a level of understanding that is about as deep as you can go in the world of research and technology. It’s very collaborative work because no one in the organization has every needed knowledge and skill”(personal correspondence). So SEEQC considers itself a learning organization by necessity. For example, on Fridays, the team holds a deep dive into the problems the teams are working on, so members can teach each other about their work. One employee explains, “I'm a chip designer, but you're a quantum engineer, and we both need to understand these domains that we're in. I need you to understand what I do, and you need me to understand what you do if we're going to be successful!” In addition, every Tuesday, the team holds a deep dive where someone presents the latest academic paper they've read and analyzed, then on Wednesday, there are meetings to discuss the progress in each work domain. Levy explains that it's almost like being back in school, except they are a commercial company with a very commercial focus. Holding learning sessions on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday is necessary for the teams at SEEQC to get collectively smarter. Levy explains, “As much as we have developed a culture of learners, we also have a roster of teachers. If I say to somebody, ‘I don't get this. Can you explain it to me?’ They will pull me aside and spend as much time as needed, and not just because I'm the CEO. I've seen them do that with anyone who asks. We have no problem with humility because nine out of ten things we do, don't work, at least on the first attempt.” The team at SEEQC analyzes failure in a highly systematic way in order to understand what didn’t work and to quickly iterate a set of new solutions to isolate the source of failure while exploring several hypotheses until the technology can be validated.

One of the things that SEEQC illustrates for us is that we need to accept failure as an essential part of learning and change. Yet our experience and history with failure teaches us something quite different. Our experience is that we are punished for failure; if we failed a test at school or took a chance to write a paper in a unique way, we got a bad grade. Likewise, in many of our organizations, we are encouraged and rewarded when we succeed and embarrassed when a project fails. We learn not to take chances or try something new without assurances that it has worked elsewhere. Yet nothing new is created without first failing.

Granted, the complexity of the problems SEEQC addresses are well above the norm. Still, in our rapidly changing context, nearly every industry faces growing complexity, e.g., pharmaceutical, medical, automotive, energy, artificial intelligence, architecture, etc. So understanding how to learn our way to solutions has become critical.

Johnson and Johnson (1989) describe the kind of interaction necessary for teams to develop new insights, which necessarily arise out of a synthesis among differing views. They explain that to create such insights, team members must be able to hold two or more disparate ideas in their mind at the same time. That requires them to not only be able to repeat what another has said but to understand the reasoning that led to their position and the implications that could result. That level of understanding occurs when team members have the opportunity to ask each other questions about their meaning; probe their thinking in the back and forth of conversation. We know that understanding has been achieved when someone says, “Ah, now I see what you’re talking about. That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought about it that way before!” Such conversations offer a new way of thinking about an issue to emerge. 

Johnson and Johnson’s (1989) research shows that when individuals are competent in taking others’ perspectives:

  • more information is disclosed than occurs when each person simply makes a case for their own perspective
  • communication is facilitated because the re-statement of others’ perspectives tends to make a complex idea more easily understood
  • the information and reasoning of others are retained longer
  • the results are more creative and higher quality solutions and more accurate problem solving occurs.

That kind of in-depth interaction takes time. In large groups, airtime is limited. If two people in a large group engage in the type of perspective-taking described above, others are left to remain passive observers.  But because teams are small, they are where two, three, or even four-way conversations can happen to explore multiple perspectives.     

Learning at this level not only takes time but also requires being together physically. An in-person group meeting has a symbolic significance, much like what we feel when the whole family is gathered around the dinner table. It reminds us that we are  part of something larger; where we get a sense of the whole. The awareness of “being part of something larger” is critical to a group’s willingness to do the hard work of making sense of the complexity they face. It is all too easy for organizational members to lose the sense of what others do and how what others do relates to what each member does - particularly when members are working remotely. If we take as a given that teams need to interact periodically to create new insights, then the question remains, how often and under what circumstances do teams need to come together?

Both in-person and virtual meetings offer their own benefits:

Virtual work allows for the following:

  • Drawing on the global talent pool
  • Reducing costs from office space
  • Providing greater autonomy to workers by giving them room to experiment and control their workflows
  • Being able to respond quickly to local customers
  • Developing a more satisfying integration of work and family life

But it is also true that in this increasingly digital age, we stand to lose something integral to what makes organizations both humane and productive places to work: the relationships and a sense of purpose that can only be built by having in-depth, face-to-face conversations about important issues.

In-person convening fosters:

  • The development of a synthesis among diverse views
  • Strong commitment to jointly made decisions
  • A shared understanding of goals and a larger purpose
  • The ability for components, developed independently, to smoothly come together into a meaningful whole
  • Diverse and innovative solutions to complex issues
  • A sense of community, cohesion, and belonging

The way to satisfy both needs is to blend sophisticated virtual tools with periodic face-to-face meetings. I think of this as the “oscillation principle,” allowing teams to tap into the best attributes of virtual work and face-to-face convening. The policy of enabling members to choose any two or three days of a week to be in the office is helpful for family life and certainly promotes well-being. Still, it supports neither relationship building nor the development of joint insight. It is far better to use the time spent in the office for the whole team to be together.

ProQuest is an example of a team that oscillates between working from home and physically coming together. It is also an example of a team that intentionally builds a sense of belonging among members and builds practices that facilitate the teams' ongoing learning.

The team of 30 software engineers comprises programmers, analysts, product managers, and designers in ProQuest’s research solutions division, with members scattered from San Diego to Amsterdam. The whole group meets face-to-face three times a year for a three-day Summit.

Putting together a summit takes a lot of planning, most of which falls on the shoulders of Taco Ekkel, the team lead. He explains, “We have learned that it’s important to invest in preparing for the Summit. Before the Summit, the whole team brainstorms, “What do we want to discuss?  What are the larger things that will come up in the next four months? What sessions we should have? What needs to be whiteboarded?”  Most Summits are held in New York, San Diego, or Amsterdam. On the morning of the first day, the meeting starts with an overview by senior management, providing updates about the business context, finance, sales, and new software products the team will need to design.  After the overview, the group breaks out into work teams for the first sessions. Each work team’s task is to create the basic design of several of the new products, which that team will then create over the next four months working remotely. At the Summit, each team meets around a whiteboard where members sketch how a new design feature will function. Anyone is free to jump up, often with an eraser in hand, to make a change – and of course, what is added is just as easily changed again by another. Anne describes an interchange in team he was working with. “There was a feature in a software product that we were trying to make ‘smart.’ I was playing the role of a dummy and I remarked that ‘it was not very clever.’ Then someone sketched on the whiteboard how it would actually work. But another team member said, ‘You’re doing that same function in two places, here and here.’ Finally someone said, ‘This is how to improve it’ and drew it on the whiteboard. Everyone could see that worked. So we put an exclamation point by it, which is our sign that a decision has been made. When the exclamation point goes up it almost never changes.” The whole group reconvenes around 4:00. All the whiteboards are rolled into the main room, and each team uses its whiteboard to show what features it worked on and how each was solved. The last item on the daily agenda is Lightening Talks. As Lita, a team member, comments, “Lightening talks are voluntary. Different team members talk about what they think is neat or interesting, for example, ‘I programmed in some different language’ or  ‘I thought of a different kind of identifier for people.’  Each person is given 5 minutes.”  A large clock is displayed with a loud buzzer that sounds when time is up, and there is a lot of laughter when the speaker has to be pulled off with the “hook” when they go over the allotted time. There are typically five or six Lightening Talks at the end of each day – no more than 30 minutes. Taco notes, “We stop at five and will be at the bar at 5:30 because the work is intense in the sessions, and the energy of everybody is depleted.” The evening social time is as much a part of the Summit as the sessions, strengthening relationships and trust. Team member Jason says,  “My favorite part is the time after the meetings, over drinks and dinner, a time to be more social. A lot of times, you’re not talking about exactly what happened in the meeting, but you get an idea of how people are about different things. You hear about people’s families.” Lita adds, “It is easier for me to talk with them about a work issue if I know something about them personally.”

In between Summits, team members constantly communicate with each other remotely using various forms of social media, including Chat, Trello, and Flowdock. In addition, each team holds a daily 15-minute on-line “stand-up” meeting.  ProQuest usually saves larger conversations about new features for their Summits. Ekkel reflects, “We’d never really effectively get them conceptualized without the richness of face-to-face contact coupled with sketching,”  

The primary factor that guides the frequency with which teams like ProQuest oscillate and the optimal length of in-person meetings depends on task interdependence, that is, the extent to which one team member’s work impacts what other team members do (Maznevski, 2000). There are three levels of team interdependence, going from the least to the greatest: pooled, sequential and reciprocal. With pooled interdependence, team members primarily work independently of each other. Examples are insurance claim reviewers, call center responders, appliance repair mechanics, and some sales teams. In such jobs, the outcome of all the workers is combined to reach the team’s target. There are no handoffs between team members, so the team does not need to come together to ensure that handoffs go smoothly or resolve joint issues. Coordination is achieved by standardizing the task. However, like other virtual team members who function without the presence of colleagues, they can suffer loneliness and feel disengaged, which reduces the team’s total productivity. So many teams come together in-person yearly.

With Sequential interdependence, the team carries out a series of tasks, each performed by a different team member, like a virtual assembly line. Each team member’s success depends on the person who completes the previous task on time and at a high level of quality. A team’s performance can be improved by each team member fully understanding the needs and requirements of the person who will receive their handoffs. Because tasks change over time,  teams often hold weekly, online, synchronous conversations to stay updated on problems and concerns. Many have daily, virtual standup meetings lasting no more than 15 minutes to check in with those who need help and to head off problems. Teams with sequential interdependence might meet face-to-face, initially to build strategic alignment, do the necessary upfront planning for coordination, and establish trust relationships critical to sequential interdependence.  Although the team’s ongoing tasks are sequential, the initial meeting requires reciprocal interdependence. Without the conversations that develop trust relationships, team members lose awareness and concern about those they depend upon. Team members with sequential interdependence often meet face-to-face at least twice a year to renew that trust and to implement changes learned from their ongoing experience.

Teams with Reciprocal Interdependence require continual interaction between co-workers. Team members must diagnose, problem-solve, and collaborate to accomplish their tasks, as was illustrated by SEEQC. They must continually adjust to each other’s actions as the situation changes. Examples of reciprocal interdependence are product design teams and strategy development teams. Reciprocal tasks require in-depth discussion that involves input from diverse perspectives. A virtual sales team may have technical experts, developers, and marketing people who must interact to craft a proposal for a client. As the client gives feedback on the proposal or adds new requirements, the team will need to convene to make modifications. Coordination is achieved by mutual adjustment anytime a new factor is introduced. Mutual adjustment entails synchronous conversation that is best achieved face-to-face. Attempting to make such changes asynchronously, whether by email or team apps, can result in misinterpretation of others' meaning and often the false assumption that agreement has been reached. Reciprocal teams optimally meet quarterly face-to-face. Between meetings, they primarily rely on visual communication tools such as Skype, Zoom, or Google Hangout. They may also use team apps like  Slack or Teams to maintain documentation.  As Weick (1995) notes, “The same event means different things to different people and more information will not help them. What will help them is a setting where they can argue, using rich data pulled from a variety of media, to construct fresh frameworks of action-outcome linkages that include their multiple interpretations. The variety of data need to pull off this difficult task are most available in variants of the face to face meeting”( p. 186).  

It is not uncommon for teams to have some tasks that are reciprocal and others that are sequential. ProQuest views the initial design of its projects as reciprocal so brings team members together on location. As Ekkel noted, “We’d never really effectively get them conceptualized without the richness of face-to-face contact coupled with sketching,”  While the ongoing development tasks are sequential, with one team member handing off a task at the end of the work day to another team member in a different time zone. The retrospects at the end of the team’s time together, which looks for ways to improve the process, is again reciprocal.  

What can these examples tell us about how to go about how teams build relationships and create insights? Clearly, they illustrate that there is no right way to create warmth and caring in a team setting or to increase team members' knowledge. There are as many variations in how organizations help members care for and learn from each other as there are organizations. We can conclude that no set of practices will fit every organization. But what we can take away are some basic rules of thumb. Rules of thumb are more like guidelines than practices – we think of practices as something to be imitated, but rules of thumb are more ways of thinking.

Connection Before Content

Group members need to build a sense of connection and rapport with each other before they can attempt to solve problems together. If a group is going to concentrate on a difficult issue, they first need to learn who others are, the skills they bring, the experience they represent, and the values they hold. Members are more open with each other when they know in what way others are like themselves. Group performance increases when everyone in a group is aware of each other member’s expertise (Stasser 1999). Initially, members just need to engage each other enough to identify with each other for example, this person has had similar experiences to mine; this person is knowledgeable about this topic; this person values getting a task done right. However, to work effectively, a group will eventually need to build trust that grows over weeks and months. That means having continuing opportunities to learn about each other. Much of that trust grows from working together, but it is greatly assisted by providing ongoing opportunities for members to learn about each other. Connection Before Content, applies not just for initial relationship building, rather relationships must be renewed and reaffirmed each time a group reconvenes, whether online or in person.

Work and Social Can Be Intermingled

It is unnecessary to draw a sharp line between work and social or try to make sure they are separated. Work and social support each other. For example, at ProQuest’s in-person meetings, teams work hard during each of the three meeting days, creating new software designs, but before they go off to dinner and Karaoke, they hold Lightning Rounds, which helps team members know each other. As Lita wisely notes, “The social makes the work easier, and work gives members something to talk and joke about around the dinner table.” Weekly team meetings at TechnipFMC involve catching up personally and working on organizational issues. These examples show us that the work environment is not lessened by another person being warmed by another’s smile. Nor is it less productive because a team member, who has a great sense of humor, cracks a joke about the ridiculousness of something the team has been trying and failing to do. There may be no better way to feel connected than laughing together.

Multiple Practices

Outside of work, you and your friends have many ways of staying connected - going to dinner, taking walks together, texting, having coffee at Starbucks, and watching videos – it is the same for work teams. It is not one practice they put into place, but multiple practices, some of which are initiated by the members themselves (the project matrix at TechnipFMC was suggested by the team members). Moreover, once a culture of caring and warmth is built, connection occurs spontaneously, as in TechnipFMC’s response to the death of Chris’s Grandmother. Likewise, SEEQC has three different meetings weekly to learn and connect.

Repeated Interaction

The practices in these organizations are not one-off events; they are activities embedded in how the team operates. Both learning and relationship grow through repeated interaction. As Taco said, “After four months,we are out of steam and have a loss of shared sense of direction.”  - there is a need to meet again. Likewise, TechnipFMC’s monthly online “Working Out Loud” sessions build this continuity. If a team meets one time at a yearly retreat, relationships may be formed, but it is unlikely they will be sustained over a year. Even pleasant memories fade without a continuing opportunity to check in, offer aid, and share what is happening. Building connections works best if such interactions have a regular schedule. The teams at SEEQC have a regular schedule of Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Naming the Practices

Giving a name to a practice, for example, “Working Out Loud,” “Lighting Rounds,” or “Team Check-ins,” is as essential as occurring regularly. A name suggests a deliberate practice the team has implemented for a valued goal: to keep us connected. SEEQC, calling itself a “Learning Organization,” names continual learning from each other as who they are. 

Designed but not Facilitated

The practices in the examples above were designed; that is, an individual or group thought about how to create a meaningful experience for the team. But notably, none of the practices are facilitated. There is no leader or coordinator of “Working Out Loud” or “Book Discussions.” There is confidence that members know what they need to do to build meaningful relationships. As Pascal (1982) eloquently said, “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of... We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart.”  

Warmth and Caring are Contagious

Kindness is catching. When another is warm and welcoming to us, it is easy to reciprocate. And when we hear about another’s trouble, we want to let that person know they are not alone, that we also have experienced troubles – we know how they feel. When we have something to celebrate, we want to tell others about our success and see their faces light up with pleasure. When new members join a group like ProQuest or TechnipFMC, they quickly experience the group's acceptance and return it. At SEEQC, members are always willing to stop to explain something a colleague needs to understand.

Relationships and Learning are Intertwined

None of the activities described at ProqQuest, TechnipFMC, or SEEQC are unique to these organizations; many will already be familiar. What is perhaps worthy of note is the intention in these organizations to frequently and consistently engage in activities that help team members learn about each other and care about each other.  Members of SEEQC express their care for others and belonging when they are willing to take the time to explain something to a colleague from another discipline. Humans are designed to be part of communities. Employees need to feel like they belong and know that they are part of something bigger than themselves. A sense of community is powerful in motivating employees to make the world a better place and put in their best work.

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