“Getting my team to know each other”
— Pharmacy Call Center Supervisor
Big dreams take many people working together to come true. (We talked about big dreams in the last post.) But so do everyday tasks, like filling prescriptions. Whatever it is we do, it helps to know the people we work with. And if we want to enjoy our work and get better at it faster, there’s nothing like being part of a close-knit team.
Knowing people is not the same as liking or trusting them—but it is a necessary first step. It’s just as important to know your coworkers as it is to know the software you use to do your job. And, while software is getting more intuitive every day, people aren’t.
We get intimidated, suspicious, weirded out and turned off around strangers. Before we even give them a chance. The growing number of taboo subjects—sex, politics, religion—isn’t helping us either. So, it’s often up to the manager to break the ice and make people comfortable with one another.
Now, managers are busy people. Do they have to play gracious hosts on top of everything else they do? How much difference can it make? I’ll side with the Pharmacy Call Center Supervisor on this one because the difference is huge.
Knowing one’s coworkers can solve so many problems that I give it its own chapter in my book, Who the Hell Wants to Work for You?—Chapter 6, Network. If you’ve read it, you know it’s not just my private opinion. Network science, an emerging body of interdisciplinary research, has concrete proof.
Network science creates mathematical models to predict outcomes in many seemingly unrelated fields. For example, what does group effectiveness have to do with spreading of infectious diseases? In a nutshell, both rely on human contact.
A virus will spread much faster through a congested city than through a scarcely populated rural area. The same is true of information and quality help. The more contacts each member of the group has in his network, and the better everyone knows everyone else, the sooner the group will get to the people and information it needs to succeed. And it all starts with two people saying to each other: “Hi! How was your weekend?”
That pretty much answers the “why” question. The remaining question is “how.” Meeting and striking up conversations with coworkers can be easy or hard, depending on where you work. Today, many companies—like Axero and maybe the call center in question—operate virtually, making it more difficult for employees to connect. But even those working under the same roof can be antisocial. Try spending your whole day on the phone and see how chatty you are on your lunch break.
Virtual or not, it looks like our pharmacy call center is not getting friendlier on its own. Someone needs to step in and help the employees get acquainted. The supervisor is willing and ready. But what can she do?
In general, two things are required to get people to loosen up and make friends:
(2) Social proof.
Opportunity means time and physical or virtual space for people to get together. For Axero, the best time to get a little personal is our team meetings. This might not sound so hot to folks who already have a lot of meetings, but hold on. Let me explain how Axero feels about meetings.
When we launched Communifire, our social intranet platform, my partner Vivek and I abolished all meetings. We were sick of interrupting ourselves to have circular conversations and wanted to put a stop to it once and for all. Instead of herding ourselves into a meeting to catch up on our problems, we made it a rule that everyone post all of their burning questions immediately for the entire team.
The new rule worked. The questions always got to the right people. We made decisions in real time, without putting our lives on hold to talk at each other. Axero went for two years without a single staff meeting. Then something odd happened.
We brought the meetings back because we missed being in one place together. We wanted to feel like a company again. Now we do a weekly call where we discuss our 5-15s. If you’ve read my book, you might remember the 5-15 report from Chapter 19, Give Them a Voice.
The 5-15 is a shockingly low-tech tool for managers to gather all kinds of feedback and pass it up the chain. Each report takes five minutes to read and fifteen minutes to write. When we have all our 5-15s ready, we want to share them and get recognition for our insights and accomplishments—or just have fun together. Even though 5-15s are about work, they call for a unique perspective from each team member, so everyone’s personality shines through.
I didn’t realize how much bonding had occurred over 5-15s until one day I heard Trevor and Bryce discuss politics as I signed on. Trev is my younger brother. He’s always been a keep-my-opinions-to-myself kind of guy. He doesn’t even talk politics with me! But now, he must feel like he knows Bryce and the rest of us who were listening in on a whole new level.
That’s just one way to create an opportunity for people to interact and get to know each other. If you do make it a regular—weekly or monthly—event, make sure it’s not an empty formality, but true bonding.
Bonding doesn’t mean everyone has to like what everyone else has to say. It’s more like trusting your team, so you can be yourself. Your angry self. Your touchy self. Your goofy self. The magic can only happen when we come out of our shells. Our polished facades have no way of bonding with one another. Bonding requires vulnerability.
It’s time for another “how.” How does a group of slightly uncomfortable strangers transform itself into a work-family? Do they need special incentives or training? Nope. Your people already know how to be themselves. All they need is social proof that it’s okay to do so.
In social settings, humans look to each other to decide how to behave. It’s so much a part of our nature that we never question it. A new employee might notice right away that her coworkers don’t talk to each other. But watch what happens next. Does she walk into the adjacent cubicle and say: “Hey, how come nobody is talking to anybody?” No. A much likelier scenario is that she takes a silent cue from everyone around her and learns to mind her own business.
This is where our Supervisor can intervene. She can be the social proof that authentic behavior is OK and getting to know the coworkers is easy and fun. She can start by showing a little vulnerability of her own. For example, she could publicly acknowledge a weakness or a mistake—like that she has not taken the time to make the call center a friendlier place. She could share personal details and be curious about others. She could find out what certain employees have in common and make introductions.
Some managers like to do their team building outside of work. That’s fine, but you still need to bring the camaraderie back to the office. I think it’s just as easy to throw small talk into every meeting. Before you handle the heavy stuff, let the people know they’re among friends.
Social intranets work great as virtual meeting places for coworkers in the same building or halfway around the world. However, they too require social proof. If your company moves its intranet to a business-social platform, remember: your employees are watching each other as they decide how they will use it.
If you want your team to know each other, make yourself known to them. Fill out your profile. Use a candid photo instead of a posed one. Volunteer personal details. Share. Comment. Like. It might be all the motivation they need to jump on the bandwagon.
Bottom line, getting employees to know each other is easier than you think. The natural curiosity is there. The yearning for authenticity and connection is there. The technology is there. And you, the manager, are there too, to give it your leadership and your blessing. Decide when and where you want to start. Set a personal example. And get ready to meet a whole new team!
If you like putting people at ease, you might like my book, because it helps you overcome weirdness and hostility at work.