Reflections on Leadership – Part 4
This is my fourth and final reflection on leadership in smaller teams. The reflection is intended for beginners who are in a leadership position in a smaller team, but can of course be read and possibly help anyone in a leadership position. My last year has been extremely hectic, but now that I’m almost done with my Bachelor’s Thesis (which I might write about here in a later post) I felt ready to revisit the topic of leadership and write about some of the things that intrigues me the most on the subject!
I will end this series by reflecting upon social skills needed in a team environment, which might also benefit you in your private life. I will cover both how to communicate well and different kinds of listening. As always, this reflection is based on my work as the Project Lead at Dead Shark Triplepunch who are currently in the middle of launching the fps/sports game Epigenesis.
There are a multitude of social skills that are necessary for people to work efficiently together. These are meant to strengthen relationships between members and make sure that members are working well together. A member with poor social skills can bring an entire team down and slow down the progress of the entire project. A member that exerts behavior that is poisonous to the team, either affecting morale or relationships, should be dealt with by the leader as soon as possible. Remember that even though a member might be producing high quality work, it is no excuse for poor social skills or bad behavior. Even though a member might be producing quality work himself, that person’s behavior can drag the rest of the team down and he has thusly added more harm than good to the project in spite of his own efforts.
It is essential that the members of a team are good communicators. I have heard many fiery discussions that are merely based on misunderstandings, thusly wasting time and recourses. This comes both from the members’ inability to express their thoughts in a way that is easy to understand for the listener, and also the listener’s inability to listen carefully and make sure that the message is correctly understood. Because of this, I will explain three basic steps in communication; the message, noise and the receiver.
Step 1 - Packaging the message
Here are some important questions to ask yourself before you even open your mouth:
- What is it that I want to say?
- Why do I want to say it?
- How should I say it?
I’m not suggesting that you should think like this before each sentence, since that would make for a very slow and dull conversation. However, before you for instance give feedback or criticism, maybe before you even approach the other person, you can go through these steps in your mind to make sure that what you’re about to say will come out as you intend it to. This is a way to take control of your voice and not let your subconscious make you sound stupid/mean.
Each of these three questions will change what you’re about to say dramatically.
Understanding your message is the first step of effective and powerful communication. The third question, “How should I say it”, is especially important since it must be catered to the recipient. Having the recipient’s background in mind will make the message even clearer. Most people do this naturally at times, such as when a programmer needs to explain a bug. He will probably do it differently depending on if the person he’s talking to is a fellow programmer or an artist. Should he use the same message in both cases, you can guess that it would create some frustration in both of the recipients. Either for being too shallow in his explanation or too deep.
Step 2 - Noise might distort the message
Noise might affect the message as it is being transferred, how it affects the message depends on the medium of communication. For instance, in speech noise affects the message as it is being said. Noise comes from any source outside the communicating group, this could be another group sitting five meters away having a chat (think about the last time you were in a noisy restaurant). Humans are pretty good at excluding noise using selective hearing, but even so noise can be devastating to your message.
Minimizing noise is a must, for instance by having designated meeting spaces where uninvolved members know not to interrupt. In our group we are nine members, all sharing the same room, and we have no real meeting spaces where you can shut a door and get some privacy. To counter this issue, we decided that if a member wants to talk to someone, he is first to see if that person is currently in a discussion with someone else and if he is, the member must wait in turn until the member he wants to talk to is available. This ensures that we don’t get members jumping in and out of discussions and potentially interrupt ongoing communication.
Step 3 - The package is received
The final step of communication is when the package is received by the listener. Just as we filtered our words using the three questions when we packaged the message, the message will now be filtered yet again, but this time by the listener. As you see, the message you in your mind intend to say gets filtered twice; first by your own voice when you pick your words and a second time when the listener interprets said words. Depending on the listener’s background, current relationship and preconceptions towards the speaker the message can be perfectly interpreted, or extremely far off the mark of what was intended. The aim here is for the listener to utilize different listening techniques to make sure the message is properly received and decoded. Such techniques involve Active-, Reflective- and Open Listening.
Discussing group communication
Communication is at the foundation of any successful team, and don’t assume that good communication will come naturally. In order to have effective communication, every member will need training so that he or she knows the basics of communication. The leader needs to facilitate discussions in his team where the team discuss how they communicate with each other, and what good communication really is. How can your team improve in its communication? For us, simply rearranging the seating in our office made a world of a difference. Now, each member is sitting with their faces against the wall and their backs against the center of the room. This means that if a member wants to talk to someone, he can turn around and roll on his chair to get to the other member’s workspace for a face-to-face discussion. This also reduces noise as other members can keep their focus without having any movement in front of them, which would potentially steal focus.
There are several different kinds of listening, and it is important that not only the leader but also everyone in the team is proficient in these. I will explain the basic concepts of Active-, Reflective -and Open Listening as these are the ones that have helped me the most. The leader should take time to perform exercises with his team to make sure that everyone is capable of at least these three.
Have you ever had a conversation with someone who isn’t looking at you, not reacting to your words, or who keeps checking his phone every other second either for time or texts? Aside for being disrespectful towards the speaker, this also shows a lack of active listening skills. Active Listening means actively trying to understand the message that is being sent, but also actively showing that you’re trying. The last part is just as important as the first, as nodding (to show that you understand) and eye-contact can keep a conversation running far more smoothly. This also sends useful signals to the speaker, since if you suddenly stop nodding to what he says he will know to explain his point more thoroughly.
If Active Listening is about trying to follow along as the message is being sent, then Reflective Listening is about making sure that you did indeed receive the correct message. After the speaker is done sending his message, try summarizing what he just said and ask if you interpreted his words correctly. I often do this when I speak to someone from a discipline outside my usual comfort zone, as a question along the lines of “So if I understand you correctly, you mean that…” can work wonders when trying to understand a topic that is foreign to you. Not only will you make sure that you understood the speaker correctly, but it also sends a clear signal that you value the time of your co-worker.
While in a discussion, how often do you come up with what to say before the other person has finished speaking? Probably quite often, as it’s easy for our minds to wander away towards whatever we want to say next, instead of actually listening to the speaker. Open Listening is about postponing judgment and opinion-building on a subject until the speaker has finished sending his message, and instead putting your efforts into actively listening to the message. This is probably the most difficult type of listening of these three, as it takes a lot of focus to not judge a member’s opinion/suggestion until he/she is finished speaking. Still, there is huge value in mastering this skill as it will let you absorb a member’s idea in its entirety before passing judgment on it.
End of this Series
I’d like to say “thank you” to everyone who has read and given me feedback on this series, and also apologize for taking this long with writing up the final part. As I mentioned in the beginning, I’ve got two big projects coming up both with the launch of Dead Shark Triplepunch’s fps/sports game Epigenesis this summer as well as my Bachelor’s Thesis. In my thesis, which I’m writing together with one of the other members at Dead Shark, we try to portray two different life philosophies (religious and secular) using a puzzle game. I will probably do a write-up on what we’ve learned from that sometime in the near future, as I think it’s important to spread knowledge on how to broaden which topics games can address as well as how to possibly go at it.
Talk to me on twitter @DeadSharkLevall.
Find out more about Epigenesis on our official website.
Read the workbook for our Bachelor’s Thesis; A Can of Soda.