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People are Never Playing Your Game


The foundation of a team is generosity; people wanting to help and support each other without any immediate, or obvious, return.

This may sound obvious but the amount of effort we expend ignoring this is extraordinary: processes, structures, programs, plans... all the superstructure of collaboration that, premised on improving efficiency, either ignores, presupposes or worse, undermines that fundamental building block of working together.

It's beyond trust because you can be generous with people you don't trust.

It means opening your heart and mind to who they really are, and loving them anyway!

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A story from my life that explains this a bit

Last week my son came home with a ‘5’ on his school report. ‘5’ means “urgent attention”, so that’s what we gave it. It caused a flurry of activity: we rang the teachers and teacher’s aids; we bought remedial materials so we could help him catch up at home; we had a number of conversations with him to figure out what was going on.

As the week progressed and we kept talking with the teachers and did our own work it became clear that he actually understood everything and just needed a bit of help staying focussed and doing the work. My son is only 10 but he had decided he was no good in this area and so he wasn’t applying himself.

This didn't merit a "5". That score is a communication to the parents that they needed to get onto this asap... and we didn't. So what was going on?

As we dug in with the teachers we started to see just how much they hadn’t really gotten to know my son. They liked him, in some areas they thought he was great, in others he annoyed them... but they had never really gotten to know him (COVID lockdowns haven't helped!).

Once we got over the initial flurry of activity and realised it was a just a self-belief issue he's become our little star-performer in the daily home-schooling rituals.

He never was a ‘5’ but he was at real risk of becoming one! Even in the minds of his parents, we had to manage our opinions of him - that he wasn’t remedial, a problem; resistant to learning or; just bad in this area. That tiny little communication had a HUGE impact and I'm pretty sure the teachers never really considered the impact of it before they ticked that box!

What was really going on had nothing to do with his ability or interest and everything to do with the fact that the people teaching him hadn't really let themselves know him. And to find out what was really going on. What was really going on was that no-one had really gotten interested in the kid and he was at risk of being labelled (by us also!).

Bringing it back to work:

The ‘superstructure’ of teams is worse than irrelevant if you don't know, and love, the people you are going to work with

And yes, I use the word LOVE deliberately.

Love doesn't mean you like someone... did you know that!

Love means you choose and accept them exactly the way they are and in every way they are not.

Love is the ultimate act of generosity

You may not wish to associate with them outside work. You may only interact because your boss told you to, but if you can't be generous with them as they are and want them to win, you can't work with them in any but the most fragile way.

What this means is that if you want to cause teams - you need to be able to cause people to love each other!

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People are NEVER playing your game

Something to note is that we often make the mistake of thinking that causing a team means getting others to get inspired and interested in the vision you have.

This is a nice fiction, but it is just that.

People are never inspired by your vision, they are only ever inspired by their own.

If you want them to help you fulfil on your vision, you need to want to help them fulfil on theirs... and that brings us full-circle.

Most people, most of the time people are not clear and/or present to why they are doing what they are doing so your first and last job is always to be helping people get clear on what's important to them and why they are doing what they are doing and to do THAT you have be super interested in them - and doing THAT we resist like the plague because ladies and gentlemen, that's what love looks like!

Invariably people have a commitment to something bigger than themselves. Your job is to help them get in touch with it and then become their servant in helping them to figure out the best was to achieve it.

In my son's case it's super clear: he is certainly not playing the same game as his teachers. They have a commitment to the education of the children. He doesn't! His commitment is to be as good as his brother and, if you dig deeper, he wants to understand the world better and realises he needs maths and reading to do that.

These visions can overlap, but the teacher has to know his and empower it if they want to win theirs!

Finding the right questions

The Latin root of the word ‘communication’ is communicare meaning to share or to make common. You actually need to open your heart to someone to communicate. There is no mistake the ‘commune’ and communion’ share the same Latin root.

I often see functional communication held up as evidence that the team communicates. Nope.

In my experience, the levels of structure around teams are usually there to help people avoid getting related and interested in each other!

So here are the questions you need to get interested in if you want to build the foundations for a really effective team. try them on, or variations of them. Hope they help and keen to hear your feedback.

  1. Why are you doing this job?
  2. How did you get to his place and what are you hoping to accomplish?
  3. What impact do you think that could have?
  4. When you are old and retired, what would you really like to have changed
  5. How are you planning to accomplish that?
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A final last word - the critical role of the strawman

You can't ask others to get clear on their vision until you are! If you do try to outsource the effort of thinking about what you are working towards, you will fail.

I regularly see well-meaning managers ask their team to "co-create" the vision of the team. It might sound strange coming from someone who has built their career on exactly this promise, but you need to get your house in order before you go out and ask other's what they want.

Remember, no-one is ever playing someone else's game, so you better get clear on what yours is!


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