Focusing our brains on the common good

One of the hardest parts of working collaboratively towards the common good is listening carefully to other people’s viewpoints, even when they don’t agree with mine. Without trying to understand, I can’t know what the common good might look like or create strategies to get there.

brainI recently re-read a blog post from Harvard Business Review that reminded me why this is so hard. As the author said, our brains are “hooked on being right.” In high-stress situations, such as those that occur during high-stakes collaboration around complex issues, we are hard-wired to avoid the discomfort of being wrong.

This can show up in several different ways:

  • Fight – keep arguing for our views no matter what others say
  • Flight – disappear into group consensus so our views don’t stand out
  • Freeze – disengage from the discussion
  • Appease – drop our opinions and agree with the other party

None of these reactions promote productive collaboration and information sharing. As a leader, one of my roles is to create an environment where it is safe to share opinions.  The article gives three key suggestions for doing this:

  • Agree on ground rules
  • Listen to learn about others’ perspectives
  • Plan communication so everyone has a voice

Todd has written about David Rock’s SCARF model describes five social needs: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness.  Being perceived as wrong can generate threat responses to many of these needs. On the other hand, building productive collaborations can generate reward responses. We’ve all been part of teams where we felt like a valued member of the group and believed we were making a difference. When that happens it frees our mental energy to focus on others.

What strategies have you seen that create environments where people feel safe enough to engage in difficult conversations and solve complex issues in order to promote the common good?

Dee Anne Bonebright


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