The DNA of Work

Leaders are a team too

January 25, 2022 Season 1 Episode 19
The DNA of Work
Leaders are a team too
Show Notes Transcript

Many teams have never explicitly agreed the things that they can and can’t do in terms of how they work together. Therein lies the root of a lot of miscommunication, misunderstanding, tension and wasted effort. So at a time when organisations are deciding how they want to work -  we now have an opportunity – a catalyst for having conversations and agreeing what’s ok and what isn’t. This is a way to understand each other better, have greater cooperation, more openness and willingness to experiment, develop and progress.

Having a "working together agreement" is something that can lead to a lot of enlightenment and improved effectiveness within a team. But what about the leaders in our organisations – do they need an agreement too?

We would say, emphatically – yes! Through developing an agreement, leaders can share and learn from each other, and this can also pave the way to ensure their commitment to the development of such understandings within the teams that they lead.

 This doesn’t have to be a lengthy, complicated process – you can simply start with a conversation and an agreement about something you’d all like to try. 

Give it a go, and see how you get on.

 AWA Host: Karen Plum

Featured guests: 

  • Helen Guest, Senior Associate, Change Management, AWA
  • Dr Colombine Gardair, Senior Associate, Cognitive Science, AWA

 For details about the AWA guests, please click this link

If you'd like to hear more about working together agreements, listen to Episode 12 of the podcast


AWA contact: Andrew Mawson  

Advanced Workplace Associates:     

AWI contact:
Brad Taylor 

Advanced Workplace Institute

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00:00:03 Karen Plum

Hello everyone. Since the explosion in the number of people working remotely, one of the ways of staying connected with our colleagues is to agree how we're going to work together. This applies to any team, including leadership groups, and it causes us to do a very simple but effective thing - to communicate. By sharing, listening and discussing things with others, great things happen. And that's what we're going to do now!

INTRO: Welcome to the Changing the World of Work Podcast where we provide insightful, practical content to untangle and demystify workplace change. I'm Karen Plum, director at Advanced Workplace Associates, where we combine science with nearly 30 years’ experience, helping organizations change the way they work, for the better. 

00:00:53 Karen Plum

In a recent episode of the podcast, (Episode 12) my guests Anna and Lisa talked about the importance of a thing that we and AWA call a working together agreement. Usually our focus is on developing these for teams, but recently I was talking to one of today's guests about whether leaders need their own agreement and the leaders’ role in bringing about change.

So joining me today are my colleagues, Helen Guest and Colombine Gardair, both senior associates at AWA. Welcome Ladies. 

00:01:23 Colombine Gardair

Hi Karen. 

00:01:24 Helen Guest

Hi Karen.

00:01:25 Karen Plum

So Helen, could you kick us off by explaining what a working together agreement is? 

00:01:32 Helen Guest

At its simplest, the working together agreement really is, how we’re going to work together. It's around what is it that it's OK to do? What is it that it's not OK to do? And how are we going to explain that to each other? It's the output from a dialogue and I think one of the challenges people have faced and they've talked about these, and when we've talked with some of our clients is, that a lot of people focus on the location part of that conversation. So where are we going to work? 

And particularly with the world of work being so different now, whereas previously they might just predominantly have been in office, now there's more choice and people have become used to working in different places. And a lot of people don't want that flexibility to change. I know the conversation Colombine we were having the other day, it was about that idea - is it OK to say, I'm on the school run at 3:00 o'clock. Is that OK for me to do if I'm working from home? So it's some of those really simple things that we start to get to know each other, understand at a much deeper level, how we work together. 

00:02:45 Karen Plum

And how do we normally advise clients to go about doing this? Is it something that we suggest to them what they might put into an agreement? Or is this something that they have to do the work and come up with themselves? 

00:02:59 Helen Guest

We're always trying to be helpful, but the working together really is a framework for a dialogue, and it's the dialogue that's the important part of all of this. It's helping people to understand the things that are important and the opportunities and the challenges for individuals, for leaders and for the team in working together; and working the way that they want to be able to work to deliver what the organization needs of them, on what they as a team need to achieve. 

00:03:28 Colombine Gardair

I think where we can help is, set up that framework and have them focus the conversation on particular aspects which we know haven't necessarily been addressed in the past, or people within the organization are having more challenges or would like to bring out the front so we help in that respect. And we can also help with getting the conversation going by, you know as part of framework, offering starters question on those topics and building a framework with the client, with the organization, of questions and topical elements to get those conversations going, otherwise you're facing a blank page which is always more difficult. 

00:04:15 Karen Plum

Yes, I think when I talked to Anna and Lisa about this, I think I remember Anna saying you've really got to do the work, it's a bit like losing weight, nobody can lose weight for you. But often these things take time and effort and energy, and probably take quite a while to bring into being if you're going to do them properly, right? 

00:04:33 Helen Guest

But also it's about putting into place something that becomes the way that you work, so therefore it's not about something extra, but if it's new then we all know that it takes time for us to learn and to find a different way of doing things that we've not done  before. And I suppose that's one of the biggest challenges - have I got the time to do this really, along with my day job -  you want me to do this as well?

So part of that conversation that Colombine was talking about is that understanding that this is not just something that sits on the side, it's the underpinning for all the work that they're going to do. And then as a leadership group, that's important because they may not view themselves very much as a team in that respect, whereas they may view themselves with their colleagues as a team, but not really quite so much as that leadership group. 

00:05:32 Karen Plum

Is that why this is a group that perhaps is sometimes overlooked? I think in my experience, people don't often think about that group of leaders as working together. What's been your experience of working with these sorts of groups of people. 

00:05:49 Colombine Gardair

I think one thing we can say for sure is that if there is already a culture of that leadership group to acknowledge and recognize themselves as a team or as a working group - it's a lot easier for us to present to them the importance of a top down approach when it comes to leading by example. It means that often there's less silos in the organization, there's a lot more conversation happening, and they recognize immediately the importance of having their own working together agreement for themselves. 

When that isn't happening, when it's a lot more of, we're leaders of A, B, C and D, then it can be a bit harder, but when you put them in the room for them to actually have those conversations and you know kind of lead those conversations with them, by the end of it, they're more cohesive. By the end of it, they've worked better, they've got a better communication. By the end of it they know each other better as individuals, and they're more willing to reach out and help and recognize where they're alike and where they're different. 

And that's what the working together agreement really brings, not just to a team, but to leadership team and to an organization in general. 

00:07:08 Karen Plum

It's very interesting because we know when we asked the leaders what they want to achieve through a workplace change program, very often they say they want to break down the silos. And as you say, if the silos start at the top because these people aren't working together, aren’t connecting, don't know each other very well, aren’t collaborating or cooperating with each other, then the silos start at the top. And this sounds like a way to start to address those silos and then to be able to cascade that down through the organization. Kind of neat, really! 

00:07:44 Helen Guest

What I would stick on top of that is also that quite often this is an opportunity for that group to do some reflection. One of the big things we've found, particularly over these last two years, is leaders saying, do you know, I just don't get thinking time either on my own or as us as a group of people, we don't have that thinking time. Everything is very task focused, it's to achieve this, to achieve that. Whereas what we're trying to talk about now in this new way of working is, to work out what that look and feels like.

And the only way we can do that is to pause and to think about it and to share and then to act as those role models for what we want this organization to be and to give permission to others to operate in a way that we would like them to. 

If I'm not doing it, then does that mean one of my reports might not feel comfortable doing it? So what is that example that we want to be portraying each time? And how do we take that time to regularly check in on ourselves to say - how are we doing? 

Because the big challenge with all of those is, as we know, whenever you say, oh crikey, there's an action plan we need to put in place, there's this great long list of things to do - then the likelihood of it happening is pretty small. 

So it's about focus on what's important. What are those first few things we want to do and focus on? How do we get those moving? How do we reflect on how we're doing and what are then the next few things that we add into that pot? How do we build on it and make it in steps that people think are achievable. That we think are achievable and give us the confidence as a leadership group to actually get on and do it really rather than sort of imagine this task is just so big that we don't do anything. 

00:09:43 Karen Plum

Your notion of starting with small aspects of it and working on those would seem to be perhaps a more encouraging way for people to get started. 

00:09:55 Colombine Gardair

Yeah, definitely, and I think when I've been running these working together agreement sessions recently with leadership groups, I always tell them you don't have to think about, let's set in stone an agreement which is going to serve us for the next 10 years. Just think about the next 2-3 months. 

What are the two things that you want to give yourself the permission to try and review it in a month or two and say, actually, so we've given it a fair try. Is it working? Is it not working? If it's not working, why? Is it because actually that particular agreement doesn't work for us at all, or is it that we need to tweak it a little bit and try again that tweak for the next month? 

And really look at it in incremental way. OK, so these are the things that we've tried and that we think are part of our culture, these are the things that for one reason or another, we gave them at try, but the context isn't right. You know, we're in constant change at the moment with COVID and returning to the office, not returning to the office, being back working from home and all of that will have a constant impact. 

So there are things that maybe a month ago we set ourselves to try and the circumstances have meant that they were good ideas but they're not good ideas for now, so let's park them until they they're right. And then there are going to be things in the middle of that. Well, maybe we didn't quite try them, or maybe we didn't have the time, so let's keep them as something we want to keep on trying. And little by little, step by step, idea by idea, agreement by agreement, that's how you evolve the culture, the culture of the group, the culture of the team, the culture of the organization. It's one step at a time, really. 

00:11:40 Karen Plum

Yes, and I think that role modeling from that senior group is so important. A few years ago I worked with a leadership group who - we used one of our tools around the six factors - these are the factors that we found to be strongly correlated with the performance of teams, and so we measured all of the teams against these factors, or rather, they measured themselves and they measured other teams.

And we found that the leadership group rated themselves much more highly on these factors than the people around them did, which came as a real shock to them. And I think it became clear that they really weren't a team.

They didn't come together to collaborate particularly, they were in competition with each other over some aspects of the work, and so it really highlighted to them that they needed to work on their persona, if you like. 

Using that example, Helen presumably working with them on a working together agreement or the early steps of one, would have been quite useful. 

00:12:41 Helen Guest

Yes, definitely would have been Karen, and that is generally the approach that we start because we start by introducing those things that we know make such a difference and help. And the working together agreement, it becomes one of the tools that makes use of those six factors - about how we share, how we understand each other, how we check in with each other. How do we make sure that we're all OK and from a well-being point of view, when you don't see people quite so much - how do you do that? 

And you can do that by having, as Colombine was talking about earlier, saying there's some pre things that you say - you need to include this in your conversation. You can put others in, but you need to put this one in. And well-being is certainly one of those things because this is all new for people and we're learning and the whole part about this - we haven't used the word in any of the conversations that we've just been having, we haven't used this word failure. 

If you think about organisations, when things don't work, many things are called failures, but actually this is about learning because all the contexts of individuals and the teams are different. So learning what are the things that are going to work best for that group is such a strong plus, there's nothing failure about trying that. It's saying that one doesn't work as well for us and others will go - well we tried it this way and we thought about those factors of making sure we knew about ourselves and share our information. Some of those are some of the things that impacted most when people are apart from each other. 

So if you build on those, you're not going to get it right first time, you're going to learn how it's going to work, and if you're then engendering a culture which is about learning, that just brings you so much more than it's one about saying, oh, we that wasn't successful so we’ll scrap that, but actually it's about learning. And it comes down to that language, which is very different. 

00:14:50 Karen Plum

Yes, I think it really reinforces what you were both saying earlier - that the agreement isn't a tick box exercise. It's a means to an end. It's whole purpose is to cause that dialogue to take place and for people to share and to reach agreements and to learn from the process. 

So I've got lots more questions, but we're going to take a quick break and we'll be back after this message. 

00:15:18 ADVERT: If you're changing the world of work in your organization, we'd love to introduce you to the Advanced Workplace Institute, a membership group dedicated to supporting people tackling the challenges of change. Designed for leaders from the disciplines of HR, Corporate Real Estate, IT, Operations and Facilities Management, we share insights and research, facilitate peer to peer discussions on a wide range of topics, and support members in their personal and their organizational development. 

I'm David Smalley, I'd be delighted to invite you to an AWI event as my guest. If you're interested, there are details in our show notes. I look forward to hearing from you. 

00:16:02 Karen Plum

Welcome back. It strikes me that if you're going to bring a group of people together, particularly leaders, and ask them to be reflective and to learn from each other, that's going to require some trust, and perhaps that's one reason why people don't always feel so comfortable about doing these agreements. 

00:16:20 Colombine Gardair

Well, one thing for sure is I haven't yet had a group of senior leaders who have done a working together agreement coming out the end of it without saying I wasn't expecting it, but that was really useful. 

It does bring that ha ha moment! They might go into it a bit reluctant. Working together agreements can feel a bit, you know, fuzzy to start with, and that's also part of the reason why it's so important to run those with the senior leadership. 

They are going to have to have a role in running them with their own teams, and therefore if they’ve done it with a group of their peers to start with, that whole fuzziness kind of goes away because suddenly they've already experienced it. It's a trial - let's give it a try. It's safe between us, you know. You have to kind of create that option of whatever comes out anyways can stay between us, you know it's there's nothing risky about it, it's just agreeing, how are we going to work together? What is going to work best for us and what are my challenges for me, as an individual or me as a leader; me as a colleague, but what are the opportunities for me as well, on those different points.

And all those conversations enable that enlightenment and that oh now actually I understand why when I send an email to that particular person at 7:00 AM I never get a response before ten. It's because actually they're a late starter and the late finisher. It smooths out a lot of the negative things we project without really realizing, on other people that can create tension in the work situation. I haven't had any situation where people didn't come out the other end thinking it wasn’t useful. 

00:18:08 Karen Plum

You know, as with so many of these things, it's really not rocket science. This is about communication and talking to each other. And you kind of go well, that doesn't sound so hard, but people don't do it. They're not doing it, and they don't do it without prompting or without a framework or somebody that they trust leading them into this sort of arena where they can start to have those conversations. 

00:18:35 Helen Guest

Though that also plays back to the culture of the organization and who do I trust? And if I'm going to have these conversations, are the people I'm having those conversations with people that I'm going to be comfortable having those conversations with? So there's a bit of thought and thinking about how you introduce it. 

Is it this big event that you have?  Is it a series of small conversations that a team might have because, some groups do it in one bash, so to speak, but others will go, you know, we'll take that principle of bite size and we'll talk about one element of it, and we'll get people used to this idea of being open and of sharing, and I guess for a leader that sometimes quite a difficult piece to do with confidence. 

Particularly if I'm doing it with my peers as Colombine was talking about, where they're working with a group of peers who they may or may not have worked in this way before. How comfortable are they? And it might take them a little bit of time to do that, and actually, some of them may not be as open in the first conversation as they are by the time the third conversation comes along and they've got used to it, because trust builds. 

So if I do what I say I'm going to do each time and I do protect that information within that group, then I'm more likely to have confidence to say something that might be slightly more exposing for me (in the nicest nice possible way) with that group of people that I would never have said it before. So the working together agreement becomes that tool - it's really a tool for dialogue. It's a tool that helps us get the six factors into the culture and the way the organization operates, without having to put posters up saying this is how we do it, because we demonstrate how we do it through our words and our actions. 

00:20:40 Karen Plum

The idea of role modeling, of course, isn't purely the purview of the leaders. Anybody can be a role model, and so I'm guessing that through the working together agreement we're starting to produce more and more people who can walk the talk and demonstrate the values that we believe in.

Are there other things that we should be thinking about Colombine in terms of what makes this really rock and roll, if you like? I mean, Helen talks about the ripple effect. The whole thing about role modeling is that you see and you absorb from other people and you kind of carry that on whether you recognize it or not. 

00:21:24 Colombine Gardair

It's also a great opportunity for people in the organization to take some form of responsibilities. For example, I'm working with a client at the moment where we are using champions to support team leads to roll out all those working together agreements. And they're using that as a training opportunity and self-development opportunity for those champions, because they are helping them become better facilitators and training them on facilitation skills. 

Because essentially it is helpful in those working together agreement conversation to have somebody, especially at the beginning, to facilitate the conversation, to bring back the topic, to make sure that the discussions are addressed in a way that responds to people’s personal challenges and to make sure that when people have been open at the beginning of the conversation with what they find a challenge, or what they find is an opportunity, that some of that is being brought back into the agreement at the end, that we've discussed and addressed how we can deal with that situation as a team. 

So that ripple effect is not just on, you know, leading by example and creating those conversations in a small scale so that they become part of every new project that starts, but it's also a great opportunity for that kind of people development skills and maybe giving responsibilities to people who’d would like a bit more of those responsibilities, I think. 

00:22:58 Karen Plum

It's almost you know, part of what delivers value is the way in which you do things. It's a virtuous circle in a sense that we're demonstrating something to people through every aspect of the way it's delivered. 

00:23:12 Helen Guest

The important part is that as the leaders work with their own teams, sometimes it's stronger if it's not the leader’s responsibility to bring it back to the table. Because if it's just down to the leader, then actually, where is the ownership of the team, for this to happen? And so you could say if that's important with the leader with their own team, what does that therefore mean for that leadership group, in terms of who takes responsibility for bringing that back to the table? 

How do you get that back as an agenda item? Does it become that fixed item, because that’s way it comes back? That you then bring in on a regular basis or what else do you do? Or does somebody come in to you, on a regular basis once a month, or every two months to go OK, so how has it gone? Did you do what you said you were going to do? What stopped you? What got in the way? What worked really well? What did you see others doing that you haven't thought about? And part of that then is getting people used to this idea of – sharing. 

00:24:23 Karen Plum

The other thing that occurs to me is that if you're going to be asked periodically, did you do that thing that we talked about and how did that work out, that sometimes it might cause people to realize that actually, yes, they did carry on doing it, but it's just become so much a part of just normality. It's about trying to embed it to become new habits, new behaviors, new ways of doing things that we don't have to constantly think about. And Colombine I guess that's going to save us energy, right? 

00:24:56 Colombine Gardair

Yes, exactly, and I mean ultimately with those working together agreements, what you want to achieve, what you should be aiming for, is that ultimately we don't need them any more, because they are part of every project that starts, every group that forms, every new starter who's being onboarded. It is part of your culture that you're having those conversations about how we best working together. 

You're a new starter - let's have a conversation about how do I know that you need support? What are the things that I need to keep an eye out on? Those conversations become part of your normal ways of working and you don't need the formal framework for them anymore because they're so ingrained in your culture. And once you've achieved that, then you've achieved change. 

00:25:44 Karen Plum

Yeah, so just to wrap up - for our listeners, if they're thinking - these working together agreements sound like a good idea - how would I get started? Where's an easy place that people could start? 

00:25:57 Helen Guest

An easy place to start is a simple conversation around the things that work for me. What have I learnt? What am I doing? What are we doing that's slightly different? What would I like to do? And how might we do it?

It may come with small group conversations before they're comfortable with doing a whole group. You could just be a few people with a coffee. And try to make it so as it doesn't feel like a threatening piece. And take one particular piece of work that you've got, and maybe think about it just purely on that. And take one small step. One small step, learn, see what that experience was like, and then play that experience into the next thing that you're going to. 

00:26:44 Karen Plum

Colombine, anything to add?

00:26:47 Colombine Gardair

I think it's also starting with giving yourself and that group that Helen’s talking about, the authorization to try authorization to, you know, there's no bad idea. Let's try something new. 

Maybe something we haven't thought of, or maybe something that we've seen done elsewhere. Let's just give it a try it. It doesn't mean that it's gonna work, but let's just give it a try in that little group. As a little group we can do that, even if there's no directive from above for us to do things. You know there's nothing stopping us sharing our availability calendar to everybody, including the things that are more personal if it's agreed within the team, that it's OK to put that out there in that particular way. Why not try it? 

00:27:38 Karen Plum

Yeah, and what I really like about that is back to the point Helen made about failure. We're all worried about failure. Nobody wants to fail. It's a dirty word and we're afraid to experiment because we don't want to fail. And yet, if you start in a very small way, as you've just described Colombine, you can have things not work out without them being badged as a failure, and therefore something that we need to be worried about. So I think it it's a very positive way to go forward. 

So that's all we've got time for today. Great advice from my 2 guests! Thank you so much Helen and Colombine for everything you've shared with me today. 

00:28:18 Colombine Gardair

Thank you, Karen. 

00:28:19 Helen Guest

Thank you, Karen. 

00:28:20 Karen Plum

I hope our discussion about developing a way of working with colleagues inspires you to think about your own team, or if you're a leader, your leadership peers. 

There are some really simple ways to ease yourself into this. It doesn't need to be a big onerous exercise. Anyway, that's it for this episode, hope to see you again soon. 

CLOSE: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Changing the World of Work Podcast. Please follow or like the show so you don't miss any of our content. You can find more information on this episode in our show notes, including a link to the AWA website, if you'd like to know more about us. Hope to see you next time. Goodbye.