Most people I work with are able to recall a highpoint experience of working on a team that was truly high performing; for most of us, that’s not the status quo. More often, when working on a team we settle for tolerating each others’ communication styles. Rather than entering into difficult conversations that we have low confidence will bring improvment, we find it easier to let others on the team behave as they will, working around rather than with each other.
There are plenty of theories in anthropology, psychology, neurophysiology, and organizational behavior seeking to answer why. However for those of us working on teams daily perhaps it’s more important to have concrete, pragmatic, proven approaches that enable teams and leaders to work together more effectively in a variety of contexts.
It is impossible to work for long with others before we begin to experience conflict through disagreement. The question becomes not how to avoid conflict, though how to more gracefully navigate it. It turns out that much of the tension and conflict in teams is not truly between individuals, though instead between their perspectives. There are myriad assessment tools, models, and theories seeking to give language and meaning to these interactions; to create a mental framework enable productive conversations about what we’re doing. And while instruments such as Myers-Briggs and DiSC can accomplish this, there is a static quality to them that I believe oversimplifies the complexity of human interactions; particularly that different types of situations and dynamics elicit different types of behaviors.
Two models that better account for such context sensitivity are David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory and David Kantor’s Four Player Model. Both are back by significant research and evidence from Case Western Reserve and MIT, respectively. When these models are combined, their power to reveal dynamics of human interaction is amplified and worthy of study and reflection.
Effective decisions move through several stages. The length and depth of each stage varies by context, though either becoming mired or skipping over one can have dramatic results that are often not welcomed.
Before getting to the models, there is even a more foundational idea; that an effective decision-making conversation has distinct stages: a topic has been identified; ideas and options and surfaced through diverging; which are examined with comparative analysis; structure and agreement are built by converging; the decision is implemented and results tracked. There are many models that express this to some degree including Plan-Do-Check-Act popularized by Lean, and Action Science’s Single Loop Learning.
Regardless of the labels, there seems to be an underlying set of dynamics that shape our interactions. We can choose to stay blind to these and be mired in unproductive conflict and group behaviors, or we can choose to make them explicit and begin to harness their strengths. A first step is to recognize that different stages of the conversation call for different contributions.
As human beings, we crave certainty. As George Box wrote in the 1970’s all models are wrong, though some are useful. It is helpful to bring to any model or theory a healthy dose of skepticism and rigor. One issue with models of human behavior is that they reduce an something incredibly nuanced and complex to a bound idea. While such simplification can aid our understanding, we also risk mistaking the model for reality. Many of us (some more than others, as we will find later) delight in such simplification as suddenly we ourselves and others fit tidily into neat boxes; we hear this in our language such as “I’m an INFP” or “I’m a [fill in the blank].” Such thinking and language is deterministic and limiting; human beings, like any truly complex things, have the potential to be quite unpredictable; often at the most inconvenient times! The ideas of organizational change and leadership development are built on the belief that we can grow beyond our current set of skills, ideas, and behaviors; those boxes quickly begin to constrain!
The language of both Kolb and Kantor is about probable preferences rather than categorical fixed traits. Rather than say “I am” we might more accurately say “in this situation, I prefer.” This minor semantic shift is profound. Because both ELT and Four Player are built around preferences, we have the ability to build capacity to flex beyond our default preferences and into other perspectives.
One metaphor for this is the idea of a river’s current; if swimming in a river it is easiest to go with the current, though we can also build strength to swim against it. It is even possible that in building flexibility between perspectives, our experience of the psychological and emotional currents that tend to pull us tends to lighten. Rather than a current that pulls us, we are able to choose which perspective to inhabit. Shifting to such a high degree of mindfulness to be aware of our internal state, mindfulness to accurately track our external environment, and responding to this real time feedback is a hallmark of great leadership.
By building awareness of these currents and their implications, we can begin to make more effective choices. This series intends to build this capacity, and to offer you, the reader, both an introduction and provide enough information to take the next steps for yourself.
This article is a four-part exploration: this introduction, an overview of each model, then a brief exploration of the possibilities for combining them.
Part II: Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory
Sources, Contributions, and Resources
Box, G. E. P. (1979), Robustness in the strategy of scientific model building, in Launer, R. L.; Wilkinson, G. N., Robustness in Statistics, Academic Press, pp. 201–236.
Mary Poppendieck, Tom Poppendieck. (2010). Leading Lean Software Development. Addison-Wesley.
Senge, Peter. (1994). The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. Crown.