Express Yourself

Sometimes I learn more from going out for coffee than in a meeting...

Why is this the case? Have you felt this way also? In my opinion, having a casual coffee among colleagues creates a safe space for discussion and free flow of information, away from the hierarchy of work. How can we re-create this effect at the workplace? Let’s explore this together.

Over the past few weeks I have been speaking on the importance of creating a leadership umbrella and how this can enable teams to create a “safe zone” that may nurture Self Expression, Experimentation and Purpose. In my fourth and final article in this series I will be discussing Self Expression and how by being yourself, you can contribute most to your organization.

Judeth Glasser, in her book, Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results discusses the value developing Conversational Intelligence (or C-IQ) to promote self-expression in the workplace. C-IQ is summarized by Glasser and her colleague Balboa wrote for Psychology Today as:

“Conversational Intelligence (C-IQ) teaches us to see differently—to listen differently—and to process what we perceive differently. When we do that, we act in the moment in ways that create energy, activate energy, and help guide energy toward more productive and more powerful ends. C-IQ gives us tools for letting go of the past and transforming the future.”

The authors go on further to say:

“We join a to make a difference, to make a contribution, to be praised and rewarded. We join a company to bring our voice to the table, and ‘lean into conversations’ so our voices join in the spirit of partnering with others to shape, create and Co-create the future.”

This sounds great to me, but I have worked for and consulted in many companies where people feel like they cannot speak up and co-create the future of the firm. In my opinion, this is often due to the leader not creating a safe zone for self-expression and dialogue. Creating a safe environment as part of our leadership umbrella is important to unlock the creative potential of our employees and gain organizational stickiness. Glasser and Balboa suggest this can be as easy as being “transparent about your aspirations and intentions to co-create and also what threatens you.” If you can speak to these issues as a leader, you will encourage others to also engage in real “coffee table discussions” irrespective of the medium

A safe zone can manifest itself in a variety of ways. It us up to us as leaders to find how to make this work in our own organizations. Let me offer an example of a different type of “coffee table”.


Bring Legos to Work

Some years ago, I was asked to take over a very talented but low morale engineering organization. This team was part of an internet startup and had done amazing work, but lately had been feeling the pressure of explosive growth. Moreover, it was reeling a but from the transfer of their well liked founder. I explored a few different ways to break the ice with the team including team lunches, one-on-one coffees and show-me’s, but nothing seemed to work. Finally, I earned the trust of one my colleagues and she told me that the team just didn’t feel comfortable that their opinions mattered. After we chatted a bit about why this was the case and how to create a safe zone, we co-created the concept of “Lego Talk” office hours.

The next day, I purchased a complex Lego set and sent an open invitation to the team advising that my co-creator and I were going to start weekly Lego building in a conference room. All were welcome to join. In the first session, we had one team member stop in. He was curious and did sit down and help us construct the set. After a while, we started to discuss work topics and what he was happy about and worried about. The next day, I made a few workplace changes to address some of his concerns. The next week we had more colleagues stop in, did some more building and made additional adjustments. Soon thereafter, Lego Talk was full of colleagues and conversations. This also had the knock-on effect that team meetings were more candid, livelier and morale improved overall.

Now building Legos may not be the right thing for your organization, but in this case it aided in me creating the safe zone for my team to feel comfortable to express themselves.

Going back to Glasser and Balboa, the suggest trying these experiments:

• Think about how to craft an exercise like [Lego Talk] in your organization, team, or school.
• Start a meeting by asking people to share a personal story and a business story that just happened that they are excited about—see how the meeting shifts.
• In team meetings, you might share “What I respect about you and what I need from you.” This exercise helps you understand others, recognize strengths in others and prime one another for partnering and co-creation as you create openness, bonding, connectivity, and empathy for one another.
• Collect success stories in teams and publish them—watch how the team spirit changes.
• Publish success stories on your intranet. Ask people to include tips, and practices that underlay the success—watch how the C-IQ grows in your organization.

Go ahead and give them a try. I would love to hear from you on how you leverage C-IQ to create safe zones for your employees to express themselves. Please share your comments!

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