We make tools for the Messy Stuff

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At Then Somehow, we make tools for the messy stuff. But what do we mean by the messy stuff, and why is it important?

In every organisation, there’s the work, there’s how you do the work, and there’s the relationships between the people doing the work.

Steve Jobs said, “There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat. That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions.”

Healthy teams work together to solve problems, so if you want to do good work but don’t sort out the relationships and tensions between the people doing the work – how you get on with each other, and whether you trust each other and can have passionate honest debate – it affects the work and everything else too.

That’s the messy stuff. The unmeasurable, intangible human dynamics that can either hold your organisation back or power you forward to do remarkable and enjoyable work together.

Do you experience any of these things:

Colleagues who see things so differently that the resulting tension slows projects down, and everything takes longer than it needs to?

You feel frustrated that things are not working in the way you wanted, with a cost that work is heavy and hard?

Someone continually irritates you, for no rational reason?

Power struggles? People sticking their feet in? Team members who are stubborn, or undermining?

And what happens to the work you do when you experience any of these things?

When relationship dynamics like these are not addressed, people tend to retreat into their silos, and do nothing about it rather than deal with something that feels deeply uncomfortable. They’ll often put up with the discomfort for years.

Consider this Scenario

There may be someone you work with, who, for whatever reason, you just don’t get along with. They press your buttons, it almost doesn’t matter what they say.

You can’t put your finger on what it is about that person. Is it the way they hold themselves, the way they present themselves, their tone of voice, something in what they’re talking about?

You’re irritated with them. And you don’t really even know that person!

It’s a debilitating dynamic for you and for the wider group you are both a part of, who have to accommodate the tension between you. This is not uncommon.

Then if you add in power, gender, diversity, identity, all of the nuanced layers that go on under the surface for the group, add them all up and these things have a huge impact on the team, an impact which simmers beneath the surface.

And the upshot? How you get on with each other utterly dictates your experience of the organisation and the work you do. It’s the difference between a happy life and an unhappy one.

Every project, every piece of work, all the day-to-day stuff, is heavily influenced by your emotional response to your colleagues.

The relationships you have will shape the mode of discourse, the norms of behaviour, ultimately informing the culture and the inherent values living in your organisation.

If you think about it, the people you work with come together randomly and yet you spend most of your waking hours working together, more than you do with your spouses. It’s no wonder that relationships with some of them may be challenging.

That’s life. It needs addressing.

Here are three examples of the Messy Stuff:

1. Your boss doesn’t respect a member of the team
Yesterday I was reflecting with someone on the dynamics of their team, I asked, “what’s the most important thing for you?”

They said, “I think it’s solving the relationship between the boss and one of my peers. My peer wants to be respected, but my boss clearly doesn’t respect them. Doesn’t listen, doesn’t seem to value their work.”

This is a big problem. If they can’t work out how to resolve it, it’s an untenable situation. Just smoothing it over and pretending it isn’t happening isn’t the answer.

Recognising the dynamic is a helpful first step. Working it through together is where the hard work starts.

2. A colleague with a different worldview creates a lot of tension
Another client was talking about someone leaving their organisation: it was only in the three months since that departure was announced that they had realised how disabling the dynamic with that person had been.

That person was highly capable, they just approached things differently: they had a different worldview, a different set of values, different ways of working, and different priorities about what was important…

Neither of them was right or wrong, but they had been working together with that ‘in the room’ for two years without acknowledging it.

Until now my client couldn’t see how the tension between them was slowing important projects down.

“Now that it’s gone, everything is so much easier!” they said. “We’re suddenly not accommodating a different worldview. The rest of the team are quite aligned, it’s going to be so much easier going forward.”

That feels great for them.

The real question though is whether next time they encounter someone who sees the world differently, will they be prepared to put the work in to learn how to get along more effectively?

3. You have a visceral and irrational reaction to a colleague
I was talking to a client about a new co-worker, a peer. The client was an engineer by training, and a colleague had said about them: “I think the new person on the team thinks more scientifically than either of us, in the way they approach the world and solving problems. Even though they’re not a scientist…

My client had a strong visceral physical reaction, almost a spasm, to that. They were a scientist with years of training. The thought that this new untrained colleague might have a more scientific mind felt like an affront.

A strong response to have about the way someone thinks. Not rational or reasonable. But real.

Bringing it out was really helpful and important. Reviewing with my client why they had that reaction was valuable to their sense of identity and how they create value in the world. And maybe their fears about how other people might be perceiving them.

Pay attention to visceral reactions, they don’t happen very often – they may be telling you something important. And they give you food for working on relationships with colleagues.

What examples are you experiencing in your team dynamics?

How do you resolve the messy stuff?

The way to address relationship dynamics is to get in there, create some empathy and draw attention to the fact that there are different worldviews at play. That there are slightly different value systems at work.

You might all be broadly aligned but there might be key points of difference.

If you can see that, it gives you some choices and helps you understand how to move forward with each other.

If there’s one thing that will make a difference and help you become more aligned, it is creating empathy between you, and it is also about the detective work of exploring why people are coming from things in different ways.

Then trying to meet people where they’re at, and trying to give them options. And to not be embarrassed about those things.

If you need some help with this – where there’s a messy bit in the middle where no one can have a conversation without someone else in the room – and you can’t do it yourself… Get in touch, at Then Somehow we create spaces where you can talk about the things that you couldn’t before – perhaps because you didn’t have the language.

We’ll help you build emotional literacy, increase empathy, and help you see the world differently, giving you practical tools to shift the stuff that’s stuck.

Further Reading:

Why you need to avoid difficult conversations.
How to use empathy to build a high performing team.

If you’d like to discuss how we can help your leadership team perform better, get in touch here.

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