Dream Teams

One way to shake up a team's thinking is to make sure you have rebels, angelic troublemakers and other distinct and possibly dissenting perspectives as part of the team.

One way to shake up a team's thinking is to make sure you have rebels, angelic troublemakers and other distinct and possibly dissenting perspectives as part of the team.

Teams with diverse viewpoints, approaches to problem solving and life experiences outperform groups of the “best and brightest,” as researchers like University of Michigan’s Scott Page have long shown.

BUT diversity isn’t enough. In fact, diversity can contribute to organizational silence, where people hold back from speaking up and offering their ideas.

Consider the studies by David Maxwell that found 90% of nurses unwilling to speak up to physicians even though they knew a patient might be at risk. Or the 93% of people who said they don’t speak up when they know there’s a risk of an accident of work.

How could they not speak up? Being different is uncomfortable and when we’re uncomfortable we tend to hold back. Especially in cultures that allow abrasive behavior and abusive bosses (and physicians). It’s not safe to dissent, so people don’t.

Diversity also increases conflict, which people abhor. Every time Carmen and I speak and ask people about their greatest challenges when introducing new ideas, conflict tops the list.

“If organizations embrace diversity, they risk workplace conflict,” says Dr. Nigel Bassett-Jones of Oxford-Brookes University. “And if they avoid diversity, they risk loss of competitiveness.”

Add to that the research from Harvard, Berkeley and University of Minnesota that found most corporate diversity programs have “no positive effects in the average workplace” because when employees become scared that they might offend someone, they disengage, which contributes to more organizational silence.

The reality is that our brains are hardwired to want to be with people like ourselves – and naturally fear strangers or the unfamiliar. (Google “xenophobia” and “amygdala.”) That’s why so many of us naturally gravitate to groups, neighborhoods, and work teams with people like ourselves – and avoid the different.

How DO you create Dream Teams?

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So how do you create Dream Teams where different people come together, overcome the tension of their differences, and work in open, direct ways that keep you in the magical “Zone of Possibility?”

That’s what Shane Snow explores in his excellent new book, “Dream Teams: Working Together Without Falling Apart.”  Shane is a great storyteller and weaves together fascinating research and stories from music, business, police forces , sports, and the gaming world to provide ways to embrace cognitive friction.

Some of my favorite takeaways:

Cast your teams: “Routine problems don’t require much (or often, any) cognitive diversity, while novel problems benefit from it greatly. Based on that do a casting session for who you need on the team. When  you take this approach we start to think of our differences as gifts.” (HT to Keith Yamashita.)

Bring in more rebels: Having a naysayer in a group shakes up thinking in valuable ways.  “Dissenting views by a minority of individuals stimulate the kinds of thought processes that lead to better decisions, better problem solving and more originality,” per Dr. Charlan Nement of UC Berkeley. The presence of a minority viewpoint helps groups look at issues “on all sides.” In other words, you need people to provoke group think and kick you out of inertia.

Play more: “Neuroscientists have demonstrated that play and laughter can actually change our brains to be less fearful…Playing can physically help the brain to get braver…and make us less afraid of cognitive friction.”

Don’t value your values too much: Shared values make us more likely to think the same, stop searching for better solutions once we have solutions that work, and add to organizational silence. “Seven out of ten American employees in companies with strong values hush up when their opinions are at odds with those of their superiors,” according to research by Warren Bennis at the University of Southern California.

Cultivate intellectual humility “Intellectual humility makes one more correctly judge when it is time to change” and is a predictor for openness to changing important opinions, curiosity, tolerance for ambiguity, ability to detect the validity of persuasive arguments. In other words, a more open-minded culture needs people with intellectual humility.

Activate oxytocin and empathy with stories: “When our brains release oxytocin for a person who is not in our in-group, the bias we have for them disappears. And one of the key ways we can do that is through sharing good stories.” This is why it’s so helpful for teams to share their personal stories, from hardships growing up to who in their life helped them achieve a dream.

(Conversely, don't get played by stories and language that is intended to light up your amygdalae. "One of the most effective ways to rally people to do unspeakable things to other humans is to use stoies that take away their humanity and make them the enemy.")

Read more novels: “People who read a book or more per month, the data shows, are significantly more likely to have high intellectual humility than those who rarely read.” Stories cultivate empathy.

I highly recommend Shane’s book. And don’t miss the footnotes.

Honoring the Elephant Matriarch

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Miss Smarty Pants here thought she was pretty clear about what courage means to her. In fact, for the first day and a half of Courage Camp I was like one of those straight-A girls in school who zips through the reading exercise faster than any one else.

Maybe I default to reflections and responses that I’ve used before because I lead and have participated in many convenings like this.

Or perhaps I was so enthralled in listening to others’ stories that I didn’t have the energy to dig any deeper into my own obstacles and aspirations.

Or maybe I have written so much about creating change and showing up naked-hearted that I thought I had figured things out.

Oh, girlfriend, you are so wrong.

About halfway through of Day Two something blurted out of my mouth that shook me awake. An idea that I’ve kept in the back of my mind for four years because it seems so risky and hard to do.

In the exercise four people got together as if it were 2018 and we were all back at Courage Camp sharing something that had happened in the past year.

“You wouldn’t believe what I did last year since Courage Camp 2017. I actually, finally did ___________, and it felt ______________ because ______________.”

This playful approach allowed really scary yearnings to jump out of who knows where. And it wasn’t just me. Everyone in my group was bragging and laughing and reveling in what they had done.  Even though, of course, it was all make believe.  We imagined what we’d love to do.

My hunch is most of us will attempt to make those things happen.

And so I surrendered to playfulness, and told the controlling me to step aside, sweetheart.

You are way too old in your thinking.

By old I mean you think you’ve figured things out so you stop really thinking and experiencing and imagining.  Even though I like to think my ideas are creative, they’re not if I’ve thought and used them before.  They might be interesting but they’re not fresh and new.

Had I started coasting on good ideas in my life?  Was I subconsciously cutting myself off from the playful, new ones?   Well, that was a big enough epiphany to make the entire Courage Camp experience worthwhile.

But there was a second one about being old that rattled me awake, too.

Being called a elephant matriarch.

Sometimes I catch myself being ageist – against myself.  I noticed at one point that I was probably oldest person at camp. It was fleeting, but still I had pangs to be 20 years younger and so that all the wisdom I was gleaning could be used for years and years. Instead of just for years.

In passing while we were drinking wine and dancing on Wednesday night someone said I was like an “elephant matriarch.”  When we wrote our appreciation notes at the end of camp, the same person again thanked me for being a matriarch elephant.

Really? Can’t I be a playful gazelle? A graceful egret? A resilient willow tree?   Anything other than an old elephant.

When I got home from Camp I researched elephant matriarchs. They are wise, unselfish, nurturing. The males take off, but the matriarch teaches, models how to respond to threats, balances the needs of the group, avoids unnecessary travel, and remembers where good resources can be found.

So the other epiphany was accepting – no, honoring – how other people see us vs. how think we want to see ourselves.

Learning with and from a community of openhearted, wise people is more expansive than anything we can learn on our own.

Slowing down to listen to others and to ourselves reveals surprises.

Cuts off our usual self-narratives.

Wakes up an inner voice that wants to sing.

Invites us to believe in our manhood, finally.

Tells the shitty roommate in our heads that dorm life isn't for you anymore.

Yodels to the adventurous spirit that is lost in bureaucracy.

Commits to Plan A and tosses the Plan B safety net into the Atlantic.

Confirms the wisdom of wearing a corporate mask as you simultaneously transform the corporation.

Convinces us to cut our hair and let it blow wild and free.

Assures us that our deep hurts are what make us deep healers.

Urges us to go find that beautiful, wild alter ego abandoned long ago.

Reminds us of what saves us, be it God, tango, Zumba, or leaving a bad relationship.


And so I will playfully attempt my creative risk --  and honor myself as an elephant matriarch.

Knowing that none of us have it all figured it out.

But together we can surprise ourselves.


For two other insightful perspectives on Courage Camp 2017:

"What Happened at Courage Camp" by Celine Schillinger

"So You Think You Are Courageous" by Simona Ralph


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