Change Work August 2009

The life and soul

Doesn't everything seem to go more smoothly when you're working with people that you like?  This is "rapport" - sometimes defined as "unconscious sameness" - a definition that explains why it's easier to get into rapport when there's an obvious common element. 

So, when you start a new job it's generally easier to get to know the people in your immediate team.  Not just because you spend most time with them, but also because you have your common background, knowledge or discipline.

How easy then not to bother with the wider group or other departments.

Some years ago, when I was still involved in healthcare R&D, the company was invited to contribute to a workshop on the skills that industry required from graduates of courses in Biomaterials.  It constituted one session of a large, scientific conference and I was  "invited" to represent the company and to provide input as I saw fit.

It seemed to me then, and still does, that the precise choice of content for a degree course was not particularly important.  After all, we were talking about preparing students for life-long careers.  But it seemed a bit trite to say, "We just want people who can think!"

Then I remembered "T-shaped people".

The idea is that you can graphically represent a person's skills as a T-shape.  Then the height of the "T" represents their technical knowledge or expertise and the width of the crossbar represents their cross-disciplinary, interpersonal or social abilities.

Often we neglect to look beyond the depth (or height) of knowledge and appoint people to roles that demand more communication across organisational boundaries than they are able to exercise. Clearly, you want people to be well-qualified and experienced in their various disciplines, but if the crossbars of the Ts don't extend far enough sideways to overlap then the organisation can't work properly.

There was a sizeable audience for the workshop and the first two speakers, from academia, received lots of nods of approval for their descriptions of the way they were updating their materials science courses to reflect industry's needs.

Then I gave my piece about how we really needed T-shaped people.

Perhaps the message was ahead of its time!  There wasn't any actual tumbleweed but I think a door blew open and a gust of wind swept through as I concluded.

I'd expected a bit more reaction - at least some disagreement.  I can only think that they were taken by surprise by my emphasis on something as soft and fluffy as "social" interactions.  Or, perhaps they simply had no idea of what to do about it.

Things have changed and there's now far more attention given to "communication skills" in all walks of life than there was back then. But even now I think we're often limited by lack of awareness of what can, and what can't, be learned.  This is the area of "personality" - something you don't change - do you?  It's wrapped up with "attitude", as I discussed last month, but perhaps it's even more fundamental.

We tend to describe people as "being" good or bad communicators.  This language reinforces the presumption that the ability to influence, persuade, motivate or inspire others is a characteristic of the person rather than a set of skills to be practised and improved.

Do you see yourself as a particular "type" of person?  What is that based on?  Do your accomplishments, or lack of them, therefore define you as a person?

How do you regard others - perhaps the people you supervise?  Do you categorise them by "type".  Does this prejudice your view of what they might be capable of?

Of course not.  You're not that type!