Rachael Robertson led 18 strangers on the 58th annual expedition to the wilderness of Antarctica for an entire year through nine months of darkness, with no escape from the cold, howling winds or from each other. Needless to say, Rachael learnt a few things about herself and about leading a team in what is arguably the world’s harshest working environment.
A few weeks ago at the Future of Leadership event Rachael spoke about some of those lessons and I have been mulling over her observation that Respect trumps Harmony off and on since then.
The team that Rachael led was extremely diverse. They weren’t recruited by her, she was installed as the Leader. They were from vastly different backgrounds; scientists, engineers, IT, trades, pilots and weather specialists. This was also not your typical work environment. Having due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others; basic respect for human rights is surely not too much to ask.When the ship left Antarctica, there was no going home at the end of the day. No clocking off and getting some space from your peers. Nine months of living and working together.
It’s hardly surprising then that Rachael didn’t aim to promote harmony amongst the group. It was unlikely that such a random mix of people were all going to like each other all the time in such intense circumstances. Respect however, was a worthy expectation. What I have found interesting however was the consequences of striving for Respect and the dangers of striving for Harmony.
A focus on harmony in any team or organisation doesn’t end dysfunctional behaviour or conflict. It will still continue, however it will go underground. The illusion of harmony might occur, but the issue’s will fester under the surface. The consequence will be that seemingly innocuous things will blow up into significant issue’s as a release. The second result of a focus on harmony is that innovation is quashed. People become reluctant to put their hand up and offer a different view, a new suggestion or their own opinions because they don’t want to rock the boat.
A culture that promotes transparency and trust based on a respect for individuals creates an environment that allows direct conversations about difficult situations and stops people going behind each others backs. This practise allows leaders to spend their time and energy on conversations that matter. Those that have the most impact on their organisations, not handling personal disputes that simply burn energy.
Valuing everyone’s idea’s and contributions will increase the likelihood of innovation or simply clever solutions to problems or difficulties encountered. To paraphrase Seth Godin, "All innovation is, is failing again and again until you find a way to make it work”. If failure is met with frowns, grumbles, poor performance reviews, and even job loss, people quickly learn to not offer suggestions. Encouraging risk taking (and therefore being comfortable with failure) is one of the important cultural factors that needs to be present if you want to be a highly innovative organisation. Changing perceptions can be as easy as changing words. Tata Group have a “Dare to Try” award. How much more enticing is it to encourage people to try that to convince them it’s ok to fail?
So, pursuing harmony can be dangerous. Pursuing respect? Seems self evident. What Rachael discovered as a by-product however was that it created team harmony as well! The truth behind this is that only focussing on the external, on whats visible doesn’t have the impact and effect that is needed. It is necessary to work on the internal, the core of people, and getting that right will produce the external ‘fruit’ that is needed. It’s a bit like an ice-berg. To achieve harmony above the waterline requires the character of people below the water line to be right. Integrity, Trust, Respect. Get these in place and the team will benefit in ways that cannot be imagined.