Letters from Our Leaders - "Us and Them"

Hi All,Nothing of note is ever achieved alone.“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” Sir Isaac Newton once wrote in a letter.To achieve great things, even geniuses need help from others. No matter how brilliant you are, you won’t get far unless you can work as part of a team.That is why team-oriented is such an important value at Wahl & Case.But what does it mean to be team-oriented?After all, don’t we all think we’re team players? Who sincerely thinks that they aren’t? 

How Being Team-Oriented Really Works

In my experience, it’s easy to be a team player when things are going well. When the strategy is clear, targets are being met, clients are happy, people are getting promoted, the mood is great, and work-life balance is fantastic. Most people are great team players then.But the picture can change in difficult times. When expectations change, revenue lags behind, clients are difficult, and people are working overtime to turn things around but results take time and stress begins to mount. In times like these being a team player can be a lot more difficult.That is because our brains are evolutionarily wired to put people into two camps: “us” and “them”. We constantly make snap judgments about the people we meet and work with, and divide them into one of two camps: those we trust and those we see as a threat.When faced with stress, we are much more likely to put people in the “them” camp. When a client complains, when someone criticizes you, when you notice an error in someone’s work or get that unexpected phone call just as you’re about to leave the office, your brain’s threat circuitry automatically kicks in, and your instinctive reaction is to avoid the person who caused the stress, to put them in the “them” camp.This happens all the time at work. Your project idea doesn’t get approved. A decision is made that you disagree with. You give your very best and no one says “thank you”. A JD or a hiring decision is changed in the last minute. The software breaks. The candidate backs out. Something urgent comes in on a Friday afternoon.These situations happen to everyone, every day, no matter where they work or what they do.And when they happen, it is extremely difficult to control our brain’s primitive, emotional reaction. We’re prompted to think the other person is an idiot. They’re incompetent. They’re thankless. They don’t care. They’re “them”.It is in these moments that great team players do something different.It’s not that they, too, don’t get stressed. Their heart rate, too, goes up. Their palms, too, start sweating. No one can stop millions of years of evolution from playing its dirty tricks.But over time, in such moments, great team players learn to pause and take a deep breath. They learn to become aware of their feelings, and to accept them for what they are: a temporary, physiological reaction to stress.Most importantly, they don’t project their feelings onto others. Even if they’re disappointed or disagree with someone, they assume that the other person, too, has a good reason to act the way they do. They continue to treat them as part of “us”. 

How to Get Back to "Us" from a "Them" Stress Response

If you ever find yourself in such a situation – and I guarantee that you will – the best thing you can do is ask questions. Try to understand where the other person is coming from.If your client picks option A, and you think option B is best, don’t assume they’re incompetent. Instead, try saying: “You know that’s interesting, I also think option A is attractive for A, B, C reasons. But I felt option B was attractive too because of X, Y, Z. Can I ask why you felt option A was more attractive overall?” And if you still disagree, ask them, “What would have to be true for you to feel that option B is the more attractive alternative?”Most likely you’ll learn something important about their preferences that will help you provide better service and close the deal.If you don’t know what a colleague does all day, don’t assume they’re lazy. Instead, ask them what they’re excited about, or what is the greatest challenge they’re facing. Most likely you’ll learn something interesting about their work and feel closer to them.If you notice an error in someone’s work, don’t assume they don’t know what they’re doing. Instead, ask them how they approached the task, what they found easy or difficult in it, and what steps they might have time to take to double check their work. Most likely you’ll find ways to help them do their best next time.Asking such open-ended questions will help you understand the other person's perspective, allow you to share your own thoughts in a non-confrontational way, and therefore bring you closer to others and make you a great team player even when it's the hardest, in stressful times.Most importantly, to be a great team player, remember this:There’s no “them”. There’s only “us”.Have a great week ahead!Daniel