The Conversational “Sweet Spot” That Unlocks Team Performance
It’s ok, you can admit it. We’ve all been there. Working in teams can be incredibly frustrating.
Whether it was in school, work, or a community organization, you’ve probably had a dysfunctional team experience. It’s that team who can never seem to productively discuss challenging topics. Either they avoid the conversation completely and pretend the issue doesn’t exist, or when someone does get the courage to raise the topic, the discussion becomes heated and spirals out of control.
In a world of mounting complexity and rapid-fire change, it's more important than ever to build teams that work well when the pressure is on. Despite organizations investing in a broad array of team development strategies, research shows only 15% of mergers and acquisitions succeed, 9 out of 10 organizational change initiatives fail to achieve their intended results, and teams consistently fail to meet their goals. Why is this so? It's because our focus on effective teamwork is overly technical. We are too concerned with processes, systems, structures, and policies, instead of focusing on the people and how they communicate with each other. If we want to build healthier, more capable teams, we must pay attention to the key piece of the puzzle upon which every other aspect of teamwork depends–conversational capacity.
Conversational capacity is the ability to have open, balanced, non-defensive dialogue about tough subjects and in challenging circumstances. Teams that have a high conversational capacity know how to stay in the “sweet spot. The sweet spot is where dialogue flows freely, people share their input willingly, and listen to the feedback of others without judgment. Good work happens in the sweet spot.
Teams with a low conversational capacity frequently get pulled away from the sweet spot. When a tough topic arises, some people heat up while others shut down. Some people dominate the discussion while others don’t say a peep. Sometimes the conversation turns argumentative and nothing gets accomplished, or if a decision is reached, it’s often forced upon people and there is collateral damage of hurt feelings and damaged relationships. Good work isn’t possible when the team is pulled out of the sweet spot.
So how do you get your team to stay in the sweet spot? You balance candor and curiosity.
Being candid means having open, honest, forthright, and direct conversations. Remaining curious in a conversation means being open-minded, inquisitive, and eager to learn. It’s relatively easy to balance candor and curiosity when the stakes are low, or the subject of conversation is easy or non-threatening. But when a conflict arises, a hard decision is on the table, or there’s a personality clash, candor and curiosity often fall out of balance.
If we let our candor drop, our behavior becomes more cautious, we hold-back from sharing our opinions, minimize our concerns, or feign agreement with what others are saying. On the other side of the spectrum, when we become less curious, we tend to bulldoze people. We don’t listen, we argue, we dominate the discussion, and become more arrogant or aggressive.
Candor and curiosity are the yin and yang of team conversations. Being candid gets your viewpoint across to other team members. Being curious helps you learn the viewpoints of others. The seemingly opposite forces of candor and curiosity are complementary and work together to push conversations to the sweet spot, where the best teamwork happens.