Figure 1. CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=955437
This post is not directly about growing food or other Free Ranging, but I wrote it because getting along with a particular person is sometimes essential to being able to grow food. We can watch Gardening Australia for advice on how to get our plants to grow, but it isn’t as easy to find out how to make relationships flourish, particularly when they have already started to go bad.
Congratulations! You’ve decided to make the world better (or at least make your town, street, school, family, or something else you care about, better) and you’ve worked out how you are going to do it. But you can’t do it all on your own, so you need to tell people about it and see if they will help. If you keep confidence – in yourself as well as in society – you will eventually find at least one person who wants to help (or you will convince someone to help). For a while things might seem great, especially if you feel like you’ve finally found ‘your people’ because the more you get to know each other the more you find you have in common.
Until…. something goes wrong. Maybe one or more of the people in your team will make an important decision without you, or criticise something you do, or let you down at an important moment, or disagree with you on an aspect that is very important to you, or they talk over you and won’t let you have your say. Even if the person or people who upset you have done something most people would consider bad, it is what you decide to do about it that determines the outcome of your project. So it seems that if you want your project to succeed you need to ‘leave your ego at the door’ and put your project ahead of how someone made you feel. You may have already heard this story:
One evening, an elderly Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, ‘My son, the battle inside us all is between two wolves.
One wolf is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, and ego.
The other wolf is good. It is joy, peace, love, serenity, humility, kindness, empathy, generosity, truth, and compassion.’
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked, ‘Grandpa, which wolf wins?’
The old Cherokee simply replied, ‘The one that you feed.’
But it isn’t just you who feeds your wolves. People around you will have been feeding one or the other of the wolves all your life and you’ve been feeding theirs. So the people in your group will have different sized wolves according to what has happened to them before. Have they been listened too, treated fairly and loved? Or have they regularly been ignored, dismissed, ordered around or yelled at? You can’t change what happened to the people in your team before you met them but you can feed the good wolves from now on.
The NY Times article ‘What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team’ explains that what distinguishes ‘‘good’’ teams from dysfunctional groups was how teammates treated one another. In the best teams, members listen to one another (and overall, all members speak roughly the same amount) and show sensitivity to feelings and needs. These are aspects of what’s known as psychological safety — a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking and a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up. You need a team climate where people are comfortable being themselves.
It looks like some other behaviours are important too, like making sure teams had clear goals and creating a culture of dependability, but Google’s data indicated that psychological safety was the most important aspect.
So, in order to give the project the best chance of success, the team can’t be focussed just on efficiency. It needs to prioritise the psychological safety of the members. You need to make the team feel safe enough that they don’t need to bring their egos in for protection.
But what if you have come to really dislike someone or they have been awful to you in the past and you don’t think you are strong enough to be able to create a psychologically safe environment for them? Lucky for you, compassion and altruism can be strengthened through mindfulness training where you practise extending feelings of compassion towards yourself, loved ones, casual acquaintances and someone you don’t like. It might not seem fair that you have to do all the work when it seems to you that someone else has caused the problems in the group, but try not to think of it that way, because strengthening your compassion and becoming more altruistic benefits you. It feeds your good wolf. It helps you regulate your emotions and makes your achievements feel more enjoyable.
Just in case you’ve been thinking that mindfulness training won’t work fast enough or be effective enough and you’d rather just chase the troublesome members from your team or find a completely new team I think you should reflect on the bigger picture. Every day we are bombarded with messages in ads, the media and from politicians about global rather than local, money being more important than nature, quantity rather than quality, competition not cooperation, and maybe you also listen to talkback radio. It isn’t just your project at stake here. It is our culture. The bigger our evil wolf gets, the more it makes us feed the evil wolves of the people we interact with. And gradually we lose our sense of community and ethics. We stop caring about other people and other creatures. Concrete replaces trees. People drive faster and pretend to care less. We lose our resilience and become unhappy and angry, and when things really go wrong and we need community to save us, there is not enough community left.
Wouldn’t it be more beautiful if, in years to come, you and the people in your team that you currently find it hard to get along with could sit together and reminisce about how you worked together so well that you achieved incredible things?
But what if someone in your team or your life is just too unbearable or too dangerous? Or you think your efforts would be better spent on someone else? I’m not going to paint a clear line determining when you should keep working on getting along with someone, but unless you are in danger being around them, I reckon you should give them a chance. How many chances you give people depends on how many people you have the option of working with. If you were stuck on a desert island with only a couple of people you’d have to work harder to get along with them than if you were somewhere less isolated and could find other people to work with if you wanted. Be careful you aren’t just trying to run away from your problems though. I am guilty of leaving a small town where I didn’t feel psychologically safe, but leaving didn’t break my connection to the place and because part of me still feels I belong there, my contentment here suffers. Disposing of people and places doesn’t come without a cost. And I have seen people change – there are some people I know who used to be awful who are now quite loveable.
Once your team has worked out how to create a psychologically safe environment there is still something to watch out for, and that’s what can happen when your team members become your friends. Yep, you do have to watch out for what could happen if you become friends. For some silly reason we tend to have higher expectations of friends (and even higher expectations for family) and so might find ourselves wanting our friends to be better at reading us than we expected them to be when they were just team members.
Sometimes I think it would be useful if all our thoughts and feelings were made public, so people around us knew exactly what we were thinking and feeling and didn’t have to try to read it from our outward signs or the little we told them, but then I worry that without us censoring out the bits that might upset people we’d end up hurting each other. Anyway, it seems that the closer you get to someone the more you expect them to know, not exactly what you are thinking and feeling, but what you need and want. So don’t slack off on the bonding when you have become close to someone – now that you both expect a higher standard of understanding you need to keep working on understanding (and asking questions if you can’t read feelings).
By now some of you might be thinking about how you don’t have time for all this bonding and talking because you are too busy already. From what I’ve noticed, being too busy favours the evil wolf because you don’t have time to listen, empathise or ask questions. Rushing people also take more risks and this makes accidents more likely. But don’t just rely on what I think. When nurse Bronnie Ware worked in Palliative Care she recorded dying epiphanies and came up with this list of the five most common regrets of the dying and the second one was ‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard’ (the full list was: 1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. 2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. 3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. 4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. 5. I wish that I had let myself be happier).
Bronnie mentioned that the regret “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard” ‘came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret. But as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.
By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.’
But what if the work that takes most of your time is not paid work? What if it is a ‘making the world a better place’ project? How can you lighten your load and not risk failure (because you don’t want to regret not having made the world better)? Firstly, investing time in making your team a psychologically safe environment will make your project more likely to succeed. Secondly, if your team hasn’t been working well together then one or a couple of members have probably been doing more than their fair share, or time has been wasted on mistakes and arguing, and so if you can work better together you will probably find that your load has been lightened because you share the work more evenly, make fewer mistakes and waste less energy feeling upset or angry. If you understand your team members better you will probably respect their ideas more. I’ve seen ‘teams’ where one person does most of the work and it is often because the person doing all the work won’t entrust their vision to anyone else, lest they change it. If you respect your team I reckon you are more likely to make your vision flexible enough to accommodate other ways of doing things, lightening your load drastically and increasing the satisfaction of other people on the team by giving them ownership of their work.
Finally, because team members can come and go, and because there are competing influences out there (there will always be people around who feed the evil wolves), I think we need a concrete reminder of how we should behave, so I’ve written a list to keep as a reminder.
Now I’m off to practise extending compassion because there’s a meeting coming up for a team that doesn’t yet have a psychologically safe environment, and even though I’m a bit scared, I’m going to try to change that.