Lack of trust, fear of conflict and low commitment – these are the main reasons for dysfunctional teams.1 In my daily work life, I often notice a further aspect that is easily underestimated and hardly tackled: misunderstandings. We take for granted too often that our person opposite will understand us, no matter what we say. Thus, it is mainly communication that evokes problems. We use concepts of words and assume that we will be understood. But we can be mistaken.
No matter if we are talking about a successful project, if we define good leadership or strengthen soft skills in a team – word concepts we naturally use might have a different meaning for our fellow team members. As an external, I often come to teams who are working on exactly these challenges: fostering empathy or establishing a creative company culture. Before we start developing solutions in the workshops, it is essential to first take a closer look at the challenges. And for this, I use the method LEGO Serious Play.
Before we start in creatively solving the challenge („Ok – you would like to be more creative, how can we achieve that?“) we – almost scientifically – start with an individual definition of the problem to be tackled. What does the team mean by a creative company culture, by empathy or by good leadership?
Every team member builds a 3D LEGO model as an answer to those questions and shares his perspective with everyone. We often come across first aha-moments already here. The visualisation using the colourful LEGO bricks and elements enables a clear communication free of misunderstandings. For one team member empathy might mean understanding and care in stressful private and professional times. A different team member might expect his empathetic colleagues to be able to tell his mood from his face and leave him alone automatically if it signals accordingly.
Only when all perspectives and opinions are represented in models on the table can we continue with the next step: building a shared and common team model of the challenge or objective. That ist he only possible way to guarantee that really all perspectives are taken into account for finding an effective and goal-oriented solution. You won´t help the person seeking care and understanding by leaving him alone, and the person looking for some peace and quiet won´t like being coddled.
Using LEGO Serious Play teams can improve their communication avoiding misunderstandings. Especially when talking about abstract words with more than one possible meaning. We create more mutual understanding and foster an open team culture by perspective changes. Thereby, the team spirit grows effective and sustainably.
A short digression into linguistics. Since the 19th century, linguists like Ferdinand de Saussure have been distinguishing between the said word, the signifier,and the concept behind it, the so called signified.The signifier is the allocation of letters, f.e. T-R-E-E. These letters however represent an abstract idea, which in this case is that of a natural big plant, having a wooden trunk and probably a green treetop. In Germany, however, they might have the same abstract concept, but describe it by the word B-A-U-M. Saussure and other linguists define this phenomenon as unique in linguistics and semiotics. It works both ways. And eventually, it describes exactly the problem of misunderstandings: different meanings for the same signifiers. While we might all be using the same word like empathy, creativity or leadership – we do understand the concept behind it a bit differently. And these must be clarified before developing a sustainable solution.
1Lencioni, Patrick. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.