Teamwork and the Family Dinner Table

When you think of a the family dinner table what do you think of?  For me, it means:

  • Everyone talking at the same time
  • All sorts of interesting topics that can change course mid-conversation
  • Laughter
  • Honesty
  • Debating, lots of debating
  • People interrupting each other
  • And an environment where we all contribute to the conversation.

When dinner is over, everyone wants to come back the next day or weekend to do it all over again.  The family dinner table is a place where you be your true self, you don’t need to put on a mask, you don’t need to pretend, you will not be judged, and you are comfortable and relaxed..  As my children have gone off to college, one of the things that they miss the most is the family dinner table.  To what extent is a productive team like the family dinner table?

When I look at the teams I have worked on, they fall into two typical categories.

  • Team A:  A team dominated by one or two people. The people who dominate the meeting typically have the  strongest opinions and and are the  loudest in the group.  They tend to exert some sort of power, which could be knowledge power or positional power.  If anyone questions their power, it becomes a contest of wills in the meeting. Needless to say, not a lot of innovation occurs at these meetings.
  • Team B:  In these team meetings, we typically start off with a bit of chit chatting about work, the news, gossip or the latest episode of Orphan Black.  We then all dive into the topic of the meeting.  We will interrupt people, change topics mid stream, debate and argue, and are completely honest with each other.  No one has power for more than a moment.  Basically meetings are like the family dinner table

Whether its teams of product managers prioritizing requirements, Scrum teams at their daily stand up, or architects and product managers at a whiteboard determining the best user interface design, a productive team is similar to the family dinner table.

What makes the difference between the two teams? It’s a concept called psychological safety. Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines it as  ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’ It is ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,’’ Edmondson wrote in a study published in 1999. ‘‘It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’

In the tech world, how do you create an environment like the family dinner table where people feel safe?  We’ll discuss this in future blogs but a few key basic elements.

  • People listen to one another.  I mean listen. They are not listening and trying to one-up the other person or thinking about how to respond.  It’s when your Dad at the dinner table is talking about a new discovery from work and everyone is actively listening.
  • People listen to what others are saying, how they are saying it, and the emotions behind the words.  Yes the emotions behind the words. Its when your teenage daughter at the dinner table says “Yes, I am fine” but you know things are certainly not fine.
  • Emotions are part of the team dynamic. When someone is upset or angry emotions are acknowledged, accepted and respected. So when your teenage daughter storms away from the dinner table, you accept the fact that she will be fine, it’s just her being a 13 year old, and you continue to welcome her back to the dinner table tomorrow.

To what extent do your teams conform the ‘family dinner table dynamic’ or the power match with two people trying to one-up each other?