For effective collaboration, be flawed

I love being right. Or, at least, I love thinking I'm right. And fighting for my rightness. Proving my point with facts and reveling in my intellectual superiority is one of my favorite things to do. 

Unfortunately, more than half of the time, I am proven wrong and am massively embarrassed - sometimes even angry - as a result.   

This is pretty common for people. When you live long enough and experience enough stuff, you feel like you know what you're doing and what you're talking about. And you want other people to respect that and be impressed by your knowledge. But that need to constantly be right doesn't always net us the results we're looking for.

Often times, people are dismissive - even annoyed - when presented with a know-it-all standing tall and proud on top of that soap box. Present this sort of behavior to the wrong person, and it can quickly escalate to the full-blown argument.

So it's no surprise that this style of communication is extremely detrimental to collaboration. So how do we fix this? How do we stop trying to be right all the time and try to be more relate able? Simple:

Be flawed.

The opposite of being perfect isn’t necessarily being imperfect; it’s being open. Empathy and vulnerability researcher Brene Brown talks extensively about wholeheartedness which she defines, in part, as embracing the imperfections of who you really are to truly connect with other people. And if you take a moment to really think about it, it’s true.

Consider a lot of people you admire. People like Richard Branson or Oprah or your favorite teacher or a really good boss you’ve along the way. Chances are, you admired them because of not only their wisdom, but also their accessibility.

People love Oprah because she makes you feel like you can do anything. And it’s been Richard Branson is known to listen a lot more than he talks.

Now let’s think about that boss that you loved. I’m willing to bet that they consistently listened to what you had to say and offered encouragement when you expressed concern over issues. And they also probably never punished you when you were wrong; they took it as an opportunity for you to learn from your mistake and be better because of it.

Being flawed at work

When dealing with your team, who is better to work with: the person insistent upon being right or the person who is upfront about what they don’t know?

Being perfect isn’t productive, and being insistent upon being right all the time won't lay the foundation for solid teamwork. Being flawed, however, is much more reachable. It makes you attainable, and it attracts conversation. Facing flaws makes people want to collaborate with you.

So how do you do this at work?

embrace what you don't know

When someone brings up an idea that you aren't familiar, what is your normal course of action? Context clues? Bull shitting? Google? 

Next time this happens, here's a good idea: say I don't know. Somewhere along the line, this simple sentence became the professional kiss of death. For a lot of people, it loosely translates to something like I'm not good enough to do my job. They begin to do slightly irrational things like putting on an Oscar-worthy "Of course I know what I'm talking about" performance in front of their peers. Or worse, lash out in condescending tirades in an effort to conceal their ignorance - all because they simply don't know something that, if we're being honest, most people probably don't know.

Here's what I don't know doesn't mean. It doesn't mean you're stupid or incapable or not good at your job. You're still the python ninja or javascript prophet your employers hired you to be. And you're still probably on the right-most outskirt of the bell curve. 

A simple I'm unfamiliar with this concept. Can you explain it to me? goes a long way in fostering collaboration. Here's why.

Asking a coworker an honest, non-loaded question boosts their confidence. It shows them that you respect them and think what they have to say is valuable. As a result, that coworker is more likely to ask you your opinion and consult you on their projects. By simply asking a question, you've started a conversation that will now be rooted in empathetic communication. And empathetic communication is the foundation of effective team collaboration. 

Silence kills collaboration

Empathy is a huge buzzword these days. Everyone's talking about it (including me), writing about it and encouraging it of their employees. Although I think it's great that people are seeing the value of taking the time and energy to truly understand others, I think there needs to be a better way to explain how to be empathetic in the moment and why it's so important.

Let's start with the "why" here. Why is empathy so important? Because it fosters a more collaborative environment.

Empathy is what forces you to stop what you're doing and listen to the person talking to you. It commands you to be thoughtful when responding to others. And it restricts cockiness; there's no room for dismissive behavior when you are truly in sync with another person's feelings.

All these things are important because when you're tuned into the people you're conversing with, you know how to talk to them. And maybe more importantly, you know exactly how to listen to them.

I discuss empathy from the eyes of a stutterer because that’s how I learned to be empathetic. Through my own struggles with constantly exposing my biggest insecurity, I could better understand how others’ felt in moments of great vulnerability. And interestingly enough, as I showed more and more people my greatest vulnerability, it became infinitely easier to meaningfully join conversations and share my ideas. Collaboration soon followed.

Silence kills collaboration.

And silence can come about in many ways. A person can choose to silence themselves out of apprehension or insecurity. We can silence people by ignoring them or being verbally dismissive.

But the worst way that we silence people is by not fully listening to them. We pacify them by hearing what they have to say, and then go off and do whatever it is we were going to do anyway. We give no explanation as to why we chose that route, and the other person is left feeling ignored and dismissed.

Who is going to want to chime in after that?

Empower others to speak, and the way you have conversations will change. Be patient enough to truly listen, and your thoughtfulness will be greeted with a productive discussion. Practice empathetic communication, and collaboration will flourish.

If you work with people in any capacity - in person, over the phone or online - you are a collaborator. Encourage positive collaborative behaviors by speaking up, and applaud others that do the same.