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The fourth quarter has nothing to do with Q4: The Behaviorist

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Matthew Sware, adviser at Work Wisdom LLC
Matthew Sware, adviser at Work Wisdom LLC - (Photo / )

We often rely on sports analogies to explain what our businesses need to succeed.

The seemingly unbreakable bonds between high-performing teams and their leaders are enticing. When it’s a zero-sum game, and you’re working against the clock, comparisons to <insert your favorite quarterback> are inspiring examples for business. We delight in the speed at which a quarterback can communicate a last-minute play to the offensive line when the team is down in the fourth quarter. The team is synchronized at every level, and their trust in one another is glorious to behold.

In Stephen M.R. Covey’s excellent book, “The Speed of Trust,” you are quickly educated on the various ways trust creates efficiencies in business. Moreover, Covey trumpets the virtues of leaders who build trust: “Nothing has more influence than a reputation of trust.” The book is excellent, but let’s dive deeper.

Our offices are not zero-sum battlefields, and our business decisions are not pages from a playbook. Our reliance upon coworkers is much more akin to family — siblings, parents, grandparents and spouses — interdependent and complex relationships that take real effort to foster and develop. While the comparisons to sport come easily, and we can all agree on the importance of trust, what’s the reality of our work relationships?

We spend at least eight hours per day with colleagues, most of whom we hardly know or trust. In place of the idolized relationships embodied by the field of play, we substitute in what I will refer to as “professionalism.” At best, professionalism translates to being polite, and at worst, it means protecting yourself from “them.” We deploy professionalism like tactical defense because we know from past experience that professionalism gets us promoted, and professionalism is the true mark of a business executive.

Now don’t get me wrong. Many of us have wonderfully trusting relationships with one or two colleagues at the office. We refer to these individuals more as friends than coworkers. Friends at work ideate together and instinctively know when something is wrong because they share details about their lives beyond lunch orders. While we innately understand the value of trust at the office, we somehow believe that good business only requires professionalism. We act professional in the staff meetings, but we really haven’t built trust with the people across the table.

Without trust, real trust, we are hurting the very businesses we are trying to grow. Psychologist William Kahn and, more recently, Amy Edmondson, have written extensively on the idea of psychological safety — that teams perform at their peak when members can feel vulnerable with one another and take risks. The trouble with our favorite sports analogies and trust is that games are time-bound and crisis-like scenarios. Your work team might fall into line in emergencies, but what about everyday work?

Very few of us enter the line of scrimmage for our livelihood. We are more often than not working on long time horizons with individuals playing multiple games at once — e.g., family, school and medical conditions. So let’s stick with the goal of fostering trust but remember that it will take more than an inspiring pep talk at halftime. Let’s jump into the weeds with our colleagues and lower our defenses. After celebrating last year’s end at an awkward office holiday party, perhaps we can set a goal that the 2018 party will be less “professional” and more trusting.

Matthew Sware is an adviser at Work Wisdom LLC, a Lancaster-based firm specializing in organizational culture, communication, collaboration, conflict and coaching. He can be reached at matt@workwisdomllc.com or 717-940-7709.

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