I’m starting my senior year at the University of Michigan, so I’m well versed in how most introductions go these first few months. In classes, in clubs, in meetings, we go around the room and we each have one sentence that tells everyone the basics but also nothing about us all at the same time: “I’m Alicia, I’m majoring in cognitive science and minoring in English, and I’m from San Diego.”
Like most people, I’ve grown tired of these overdone intros, plus I forget almost all the information immediately anyways. But because I’m a student of positive organizational scholarship, I know the importance of beginnings and first impressions and some ways to use your first moments with another person or a group to set the tone for the rest of the interaction or relationship. This semester, I’ve consciously made a slight shift away from the classic question of, “What are you studying?” or “What’s your major?” to a question that highlights a positive emotion: “What class are you most excited for this semester?” I usually still find out what major they are, but now we’ve tapped into another layer of connection through this new positive framing.
I first learned about this positive practice taking the form of the Center for Positive Organizations’s 30-second celebrations that kick off almost every class or meeting. Riverbank has adopted a similar focus on the importance of beginnings in the form of check-ins. We devote a good chunk of each meeting to getting to know each other. When I first joined, the other Bankies told me that during check-ins, we try to bring our whole selves to the meeting, acknowledging any good or bad thing that may be happening in our lives and affecting how we are entering into the meeting.
I spoke with executive consultant Rick Haller about his understanding of how positive practices like check-ins bring value to organizations, and his view is that “Positive practices are not just tools to improve the communication between people, but they’re tools to add value to that communication between you and I.” Repeated check-ins can give you insight into your team members — how they approach challenges, how they communicate, how they live their lives. Rick says, “If you listen to enough check-ins, you begin to understand the person that’s giving you the check-ins. And when you understand that person, you have a different connection, a much different connection. And that creates a powerful resource.”
As an example of the value of check-ins, Rick talked about his experience working on a team with a woman in her 30s whose role was to handle a special software system used throughout the organization. For many of her check-ins, she’d talk about her life on a ranch in Arizona. When he asked, Rick realized the ranch was “almost a third of the size of Yellowstone.” Through listening to her stories each meeting, Rick’s perception of her changed as he really got to understand her:
“I thought, must be hard for a young woman to work with all these crusty kinds of cowboys. Hell, she was a cowgirl herself. She was a wrangler. One day she said, ‘Oh, I had my coffee this morning and I walked out in my flip flops and there was a coyote out there.’ Coyotes are a bad thing. She said, ‘Well, I’m walking and I put my coffee down, walk in the house, and get my rifle.’ So, she got her rifle, shot the coyote, and went to work. My point is that that gave me great insight into what kind of person this woman was. She was calm, cool and courageous. She was tough. These guys, they couldn’t push her around!”
Rick realized that he’d been making assumptions about how the dynamics of the team would function, but engaging in the positive practice of check-ins helped him move past these assumptions to get a better understanding of who the woman really was and the role she could take on the team:
“So, I knew that if we had an issue that we wanted to work on, she’d be great to do that because she’s got these qualities of toughness and focus. It was great. That’s what check-ins do for you. They help you understand the people you’re dealing with in a deep way. And you share your check-ins with them so they understand what you’re like.”
In addition to helping to foster a strong sense of belonging, positive practices that help you understand your team can have serious benefits to organizations’ bottom lines as well. In his book All You Have to Do Is Ask: How to Master the Most Important Skill for Success, Wayne Baker tells the story of Kent Power, an organization that was struggling with “communication across the executive-superintendent boundary.” A consultant organized an intervention where the leaders of the company all had initiate one, two, then four calls per month, for at least ten minutes each, to every other leader, but “The key rule, however, had to do with the topic of conversation: they could not talk about work. All other topics — hobbies, current events, books and movies, football, the weather — were on the table. Just not work.” The leaders then each had to upload notes on the calls to a shared drive, “so that everyone could learn about one another.”
The leaders questioned the sense of spending “hundreds of hours on the phone with one another,” where they were “never talking about work.” But the benefits were clear: “‘The end result of the game,’ says Dave Scholten, ‘was the breaking down of silos, and getting them to understand each other.’” By getting to know each other as people, the leaders were able to achieve significant results for the organization: “Asking and collaborating across such boundaries can reap measurable benefits for individuals, such as improved access to knowledge, ideas, opportunities, and other resources, which in turn elevate productivity and performance; for companies, bridging boundaries yields higher revenues and profits, more innovation, stronger client and customer loyalty, and even greater ability to attract and retain talent.”
So how well do you know the people you work with? How well do they know you? And how can you get to know each other better?
Alicia Haun is a content marketing intern at Riverbank Consulting Group. Alicia is a senior at the University of Michigan, where she also works with the Center for Positive Organizations at the Ross School of Business. Alicia is passionate about the field of positive organizational psychology and looks forward to helping work become a place of flourishing.