The role of technology in increasing efficiency is commonly understood.  What tends to be less commonly known is that just as technology breaks down when it’s not properly maintained, so do relationships.  Yet, how many of us take the time to develop and maintain high-quality relationships with the people we work with?

Relationship building requires dedication and commitment. It can also be tough; but in the end it’s worth it.  If this sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because our work relationships are deserving of the same effort we put into relationships with our loved ones.  Social justice activist and social entrepreneur, Jonathan Lewis, said it best in The Unfinished Social Entrepreneur: “What is social entrepreneurship if not a love affair with justice?”

So, what can we do to “keep the fire burning” in our love affair with justice?  We can take the time to get to know the people we work with, even if it’s taking a few minutes to ask our colleagues how they are doing and actively listen to their response.  We can also ensure that team members share the same purpose, their roles are clearly defined, and they are working towards the same outcomes.  Although this may sound trivial, it makes a big difference.    

Much of my day-to-day work involves helping changemaker leaders better understand the connection between their struggles to achieve social impact and how well people are working together to carry out these activities.  From this experience I’ve learned that improving team performance can be just as difficult when people are committed and resources are in place.        

Here are some common pitfalls and tips for avoiding them: 

  • Mistaking participation for readiness to do team building. There are a variety of reasons that people show up to a team building initiative, such as curiosity, vent their frustrations, or explore opportunities to get their needs met.  It’s important to surface and acknowledge these issues as early as possible.  If the group is a manageable size, I meet with everyone individually to better understand their involvement in the team and expectations for the meeting.  For a larger group, you can do a survey, sample interviews, or a combination of both. Ask open-ended questions to encourage people to share their perspective.  From these interviews I incorporate common themes into the agenda. Although this requires more time for planning, the result is an agenda that more accurately reflects what’s going on in the group.  If you’re not able to obtain input from participants in advance, invite people to share their perspectives at the beginning of the meeting.  Depending on what is shared, the energy in the room, and collective interest in exploring a relevant topic further, be prepared to adjust the agenda in the moment.
  • Focusing on quick and easy fixes.  If team members are struggling to work well together, it can be tempting to jump straight to a solution, but is it a temporary fix or sustainable?  How do you know the difference?  I’ve facilitated offsite retreats, which can be useful for working together on larger and more complex tasks, like strategic planning.  However, I’ve found that retreats are less useful if, for example, the work that took place gets pushed to the side when everyone returns to the office because other priorities take over.  If you’re not already familiar with human systems or have an interest in learning more, contact someone who specializes in organization development for help evaluating solutions to team building challenges.  Whether your team is newly formed or has a longer history, high performance doesn’t happen overnight.  More than a “one-and-done,” team building involves a longer-term mindset and consistently paying attention to how well people are working together instead of only the work that needs to get done.  
  • Wanting to get back to the real work that is waiting for you. It may seem like the “touchy-feely stuff” takes valuable time away from saving lives or improving quality of life.  Having previously worked in humanitarian aid, I know what it means to be on the front lines of an emergency where the minutes, and even seconds, count.  I also know that the quality of my relationships with colleagues impacted the quality of our response to people in crisis.  What if we shifted our perspective of real work to providing high-quality products and services by people who enjoy coming to work, feel valued and appreciated, and work well together?  What’s more real than building good relationships, communicating better with your colleagues, and having more productive meetings?  The “soft stuff” is the lubricant that makes the gears turn.
  • Neglecting to put an accountability mechanism in place.  Early in my career, the excitement I felt facilitating retreats fizzled to disappointment when I discovered that very little, if anything, happened afterwards.  I soon discovered what was missing – expectations, commitments, and accountability.  Accountability is ultimately about trust.  Trust is essential for cultivating an environment where people feel comfortable speaking up when expectations that benefit the team, such as not having a quorum for a meeting, aren’t met.  Accountability mechanisms can take a variety of forms, such as soliciting public commitments during meetings, following up with colleagues about upcoming deadlines, reviewing progress during meetings, and enacting consequences agreed to in advance when commitments aren’t kept, such as “blessing and releasing” a board member who misses a certain number of meetings.
  • Getting help from an “extra pair of hands” instead of a process facilitator.  I recently worked with a nonprofit alliance to develop an organization development program.  I was impressed by how accurately members pinpointed their challenges.  I was also concerned when reviewing scopes of work from proposed consultants who described doing the work, like creating a board charter, on their own.  The problem with this approach is that although it may be easier and more expedient in the short-term to get someone to do the work for you, it ultimately does a disservice because your team tends to be unprepared to address similar problems on its own when temporary help goes away.  Problems are also more likely to resurface if the people who are affected don’t participate in solving them.  When seeking support for capacity building find someone who will work with you as a guide for developing the knowledge and skills needed for improved performance.

When we think of “investment” funding is often top of mind.  While money is critical for achieving social impact, so too is having the capacity to make the best use of these funds.

This article was originally published by SEE Change Magazine on June 4, 2018.

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