Can playing cards in the Board Room help strengthen your top team?

What does our natural, survival instinct to stay alive have to do with being a high performing team and a pack of cards?

Recently I was at the Association for Coaching (UK) The Business of Coaching Conference in Manchester.  My kind friends at Work Positive had booked me a free delegate pass in return for helping them out on their exhibitors stand talking about their fantastic new product, Strengths Cards.  This was a no brainer – the cards are a fantastic resource that I have been using with teams and in one to one coaching sessions, and the conference had some great speakers on offer.  It was a win win as far as I was concerned.

It was whilst I was contemplating the evidence about a strengths based approach in teams and listening to the likes of Amy Brann, Roger Steare and Jocelyn Brookes that a seed began to grow in the back of my mind.

The next day I was coaching a Senior Director of a Global Biotech business.  We’d met several times before and he is a great asset to the company.  He is quick to see the problem, astute and practical in his solutions with a real understanding of the business.  You know the type, the one who sees the solution before anyone else has even recognised there is a problem.  Not only that, but he is passionate about the business and understands it almost better than anyone else.  However, this causes him a problem as he becomes frustrated when his colleagues can’t see things as quickly and clearly as he does and his immediate response is to point out where they are going wrong.  They find him abrasive and aggressive.  Unfortunately, his desire to get the best outcome has the opposite effect on the team’s overall performance.

I realised that his impact is causing others in the team to experience stress which is holding the performance of the team back.  When we perceive a threat (not even a real threat) like someone criticising us, our brain stem or reptile brain takes over with our fight, flight or freeze response, causing us to become defensive or resistant.  This is designed to help us survive in the wild, but in the board room the result is that we lose the ability to think about the situation creatively.  This was happening whenever my client began to get frustrated causing the team stopped working to solve problems, but instead work reactively to protect themselves against the perceived threat.

Losada and Heaphy in 2004 found that high performing teams emphatically use positive interactions to create safe and supportive environments that mean when team members challenge each other it is not seen as a threat and the team can respond in a creative, solution focused way.  Challenges are outnumbered by a ratio of around 1:5 by positive, building or supporting comments.  This is because when we feel stimulated and free from threat the brain stem allows our neocortex to become fully active and engage in executive functions like solving complex problems and being resourceful.

Working with this client has helped him to understand his impact and how it is preventing him from achieving his ambitious goals to grow the company.

So where does the pack of cards come in?  This week I met with the team and we used the At My Best Cards to begin to establish how to make best use of the strengths within the team in order to create a more positive environment.  They have already grasped that using strengths is a great way to challenge themselves without activating the stress response.  As a result they are well on the way to finding ways to deliver their strategy to meet their ambitious plans for growth.

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