Interactions and patterns

In my last blog, I presented the model that we use to show how interactions can affect the performance of an organisation. Too many negative interactions can drain the energy and creativity from a team, leading to poor performance. Even too many positive interactions can have a negative impact, as there is no one to play ‘devil’s advocate’ or even just be the voice of reason. Getting the right balance of positive and negative interactions is critical for becoming a high performing team. In this blog, I will take a closer look at the positive and negative interactions.

Negative interactions

Too much negativity? Heated discussion during a meeting

I’ll start with an example. I was working with a school, which was having some issues organising schedules for the coming year. In the initial meeting, there were a lot of negative interactions as the teachers focused on defending their own schedules and agendas. In the end, the meeting took over three hours and people even left before the end. Everyone was tired, frustrated and angry and nothing got decided.

Why did this happen? Let’s take a look at the negative interaction flow in the model.

When someone is thinking only about their own agenda, in the exploration zone they fall into the self-side (S) rather than the other side. From the previous blog, we know this is a stressor rather than an energy source. The person may become defensive and in the engagement zone will be more likely to advocate (A) their position, rather than ask questions about why others want a certain solution. This is also a stressor and as a result the atmosphere becomes more negative leading to negative energy (N) and even more stress. As this spirals downwards, people are increasingly likely to go into survival mode as their blocking assumptions and sensitivities are triggered by negative behaviours.

This is exactly what happened in the meeting and can be seen in the graph below. The graph shows the number of utterances (statements made by people in the meeting) per time pod (each pod is typically 3 minutes) and the ratio of positive to negative utterances. If you look at time pods 6 to 8 in the image below you can see that the ratio of positive to negative utterances is very low as people were primarily advocating their own positions and not asking many questions.

Positive interactions

Fortunately, there is a happy ending to this story. After the initial meeting, we spent some time training the group and a second meeting was organised. It was a hot day in a classroom without any air-conditioning. Perfect conditions for tempers to flare.

However, by adopting a more positive attitude, the team was able to complete the meeting in only one and a half hours, having covered all points and made all the necessary decisions. One of the teachers even told me that she was so energised, she was ready to go on for another hour and half.

Based on the coaching we had given, instead of just trying to defend their own agendas, the teachers came to the meeting more open to discussing options with others. They had to ask each other at least one question and to try and build on each other’s ideas. As you can see in the graph below, the ratio of positive to negative utterances is very high as the team built on each other’s questions and ideas. So just a few small steps lead to significant improvement.

Let’s look at the model again and see how this worked.

We can see in the model that the positive side of Exploration is Other. In this mode, people are as open to the needs and wants of others (O) as they are towards their own agenda (S). They want to understand the issues that other team members are facing, without losing what they need themselves. In the example above, perhaps some teachers needed to leave early to pick up their own children or stay late to give after-school coaching. This openness to the needs of others also generates more questions and dialog, the positive side of Engagement. As discussion is sparked and people begin looking for solutions that work for everyone, Energy levels rise. As this positive feedback loop continues, the people move into their power zones where they feel more comfortable.

In the case above, dialog replaced argument and people began to build on the ideas of others as they worked together towards a solution. The results were so spectacular that the school still uses the same approach from our coaching sessions to make its meetings more effective today.

Measuring interactions

Obviously to understand the dynamics of any group, we need to be able to measure the interactions, both positive and negative. There are a number of ways to do this. The most obvious method is for someone to sit in the meeting and take notes. This approach can be used to get a good initial overview of the level of effectiveness of a team.

MIT, who developed the model on which ours is based, uses a system of RFID tags, which detects when people are making interactions. But this still requires everyone to wear a tag, again potentially impacting how they act.

Our technique uses a 360-degree camera. While you may think this will have an impact on how people will act in the meeting, we have found this is not usually the case. The cameras themselves are compact and when added to the middle of a conference room table, quickly become just one more piece of electronics and get ignored by all present.

We then capture about 30 minutes of footage from a meeting. This is normally sufficient to get a good set of data on the interactions. For us, it also has the benefit that it can be analysed in depth after the meeting to get more accurate results on individual interactions. For example, it could be that someone says little in the meeting (which could be interpreted as low engagement as the person seems to have a low level of interaction) but what he or she says may have a big impact (e.g. when that person asks leading questions or offers solutions that provoke discussion). This sort of interaction is something that can be easily missed by an analyst sitting in the meeting but becomes clear on the playback.

Getting the right balance

Any setting is never totally positive or completely negative. The dynamics are dependent on the ratio of positive to negative. Typically, and I have seen this myself over many sessions, is that there needs to be a ratio of about 3 to 10 positive interactions for every negative one. In this range, the positive interactions, build up to an adaptive dynamic, where everyone is in their comfort zone and the result is a high performing team.

If the ratio of positive to negative is very low, the negative interactions start to weigh on the individuals and they tend to fall into their survival modes where they are only thinking for themselves rather than cooperating as part of a team. If the ratio is too high, team members tend to be too nice to each other and the team may have the habit to be over-optimistic.

Our approach is focused on adaptive change. We are not trying to change people or organisations. We simply invite people to try things differently, to act differently and to explore. For example, to try and work out what issues their colleagues are facing rather than focusing solely on their own issues, to be open to having a dialog rather than defending a position, and to focus on the positive rather than the negative. These are all things you can already start working on in your organisation today. Rather than disagreeing with colleagues, try to find out what the real issue is. Accept there is a problem, identify it and then work together to solve it.