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Vanessa Druskat: How to Cross Rope Bridges by Relying on Your Teammates’ Skillsets

In this episode, Richard interviews Vanessa Druskat. Vanessa’s research on organizational behavior and team emotional intelligence profoundly influenced Richard’s work with teams. She tells us how relying on a specific skill set of each individual within your team leads to superior results and more cohesive and lasting relationships. When you finish listening to the episode, connect with Vanessa on LinkedIn and learn more about her research at the University of New Hampshire website.

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Richard 00:11
Hi, friends, and welcome back to “With Great People,” the podcast for high-performance teams. I’m Richard Kasperowski. Our special guest today is Vanessa Druskat. Vanessa is one of my inspirations. Her work has influenced a lot of my work with teams. She’s done some of the important research into team emotional intelligence, and she teaches at the business school at University of New Hampshire.

Richard:

Hi, Vanessa, thanks so much for joining us.

Vanessa:

Hi, Richard, it’s really a pleasure to be here with you.

Richard:

Well, thanks. Is there anything that you want to add on to that introduction?

Vanessa:

No, that’s just fine.

Richard:

All right. All right. Well, we were chatting before we pressed the record button. This is the podcast about teams. And what I’d like to ask is, what was the best team of your life? And I preface it with a definition of a team, any group of two or more people aligned with a common goal. I’ve got an example of somebody who’s singing group is their best team. Sometimes I say my wife, Molly and me, that’s probably the best team of my life. What’s your best team ever?

Vanessa:

Best team ever was a team in an outdoor leadership class I took when I was an undergraduate. So this was a class that was actually designed for ROTC students. And I had been recommended, or it had been recommended to me. And it was team that was spontaneously developed. First, we learned a whole bunch of outdoor leadership skills, and then we were thrown into the woods spontaneously for three days of survival. And it was scary, especially ’cause it was in, I was going to school at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, and it was late fall. So it was quite cold outside, and we had pup tents, and we had food rations that the military uses and things like that, but we were dropped in one place and we had to figure out, you know, three days later, how to get somewhere else. And so we had to work together, and it just was a phenomenal experience. We needed each other, and I think that there was this adversity on the outside of it, and we needed each other, and we really came together. And I think in terms of how well our team did, I think we ended up doing much better than most of the other teams that were out there that wild weekend.

Richard:

So your team was one like subgroup of the people who were part of that class?

Vanessa:

Yes. So it was a class, and there were a few different sections of it. And then for the actual activity, the outdoor survival activity, we were thrown spontaneously into a group of people that we hadn’t really worked with before. And some of them I’d seen around, but I didn’t know them at all. So we had to form. We need to get to know each other. And then we had to cross rivers and repel up hills. And we had to put up our pup tents and find certain locations at certain times where we would meet for supplies, they would give us supplies. So we did a lot of orienteering. We had these orienteering maps and things like that, and we truly needed one another. And we, we made each other better in that team.

Richard:

Yeah, and he did all these things, literally. It’s not like you talk to a team in an office building, and they’re like, “We climbed mountains together,” or, “We…”

Vanessa:

Yeah, no.

Richard:

“I would cross a river for you, by golly.”

Vanessa:

Yes, yes, right, right . No, it was the actual, the real thing. And obviously we had, I think we had at the time, I’m quite old, there were no cell phones at the time, but I think we had some kind of walkie talkies. We could have asked for help at any point. They were there in the background, but we had a lot of fun together. And it was nervous. We were nervous a lot at the time. But we laughed a lot. I think that was my role. I was the humorous one, the optimist in saying, “We’re going to do this! We can do this! We’re great!” You know, these kinds of things. I think I was the weakest link. So, yeah, that was my role.

Richard:

That’s so interesting.

Vanessa:

Yeah.

Richard:

As you take yourself back to that team, I can hear by the tone of your voice and the body language that you’re back there. What does it feel like within your body? What is the sensation of having done that work? Or like if you were in present tense with that team and you were doing it right now, doing that survival activity for three days, is there one word that you could use to summarize it?

Vanessa:

Sure. Well, it was collaborative. Yeah, I mean, we. It’s bringing tears to my eyes just thinking about it. It was so much fun. I was nervous at the beginning ’cause it was a cold weekend. It was cold out there, and we just, people would move in and lead for a while and step back, and someone else would move in for awhile, lead and step back. So we were truly a collaborative team. We had to pull on all of our skills. Every one of us was needed there.

Richard:

All right, and what were some of the skills that people were contributing as needed?

Vanessa:

Yeah, well, some of us were better at reading the orienteering maps. Some of us were better at ropes. As I mentioned, my skill was being an optimist, and I had been a cheerleader in high school. So I was a good cheerleader in college. You know, just in the sense of being optimistic and having a good sense that that was going to help. And it did help. I know it did because they told me it did. So we gave each other feedback, and we appreciated one another. So there was definitely a lot of appreciation working together, and again, collaboration. There was no one leader. We were all leaders.

Richard:

Yeah. Now, okay. It’s a little bit of subjective. It’s a little bit of objective. Let’s, let’s go deeper, both subjectively and objectively. So more about what it felt like to be part of that team that that that was the best time of your life. And maybe even objectively, like outside observations, outside measures that somebody could use. How do you know within yourself that that’s the best team of your life and how would somebody else gauge on that team, know that that was a great team?

Vanessa:

Yeah. Okay, objectively, we were sort of competing with the other teams in the class, ’cause this was a class that we were taking, and objectively we did, I don’t think we were the best in the class, but, objectively, we came in at an early time, and we did well. And in fact, I remember they contacted me, and maybe they did this to everyone, but I felt like our team did so well that the ROTC folks contacted me and said, “We really want you in the ROTC program.” And it was an interesting thing because it wasn’t really me that they needed. They needed the full team. And the reason why it was the best? Well, we really got to know each other. And it’s when I think about the best teams of my life, they’re typically teams where the veil of who people are gets pulled down. So we’re real with one another. And there’s something about being outside in the cold and trying to get to a checkpoint that, and, obviously, we know we can be safe, but working hard and wanting to do well together. It was a clear objective, very clear objective, but getting to know one another was what made us, I think, better.

Richard:

Yeah. What are some of the very, very concrete behaviors that you did? I don’t know if this team formation was accidental or they had taught you things to be able to form together well. What were some of the things that you did concretely that made this team work?

Vanessa:

Well, for one, people would pull forward when they knew something, and they would step back when they didn’t. And so there was a concrete willingness to step up and a concrete willingness not to need to be in the middle when you didn’t know something, so to you defer to those who knew more than you. So no one was trying to be the star in that team. So one of the things I remember that was really hard was we had to cross this river, and we were required to build a rope bridge. And we had been taught this in class, and it was quite complex. So one of the things in the class overall was we had been taught all these separate skills, and we basically had to use them all, how to read an orienteering map. And so you knew where the high mountains were and where the low mountains were, and to try to figure out, you could tell where the water crossings were and what was going to be a good path to get to where we needed to be. But anyway, the rope crossing. I mean, I can visualize it now. It’s interesting because it was so long ago. And I remember how scary that was, and I was like, “Oh, man, I hope somebody remembers how to do this rope.” And luckily there were a few people that really stepped forward. And then the rest of us just supported. We fell into the role of, “Okay, what do you need? How, how can we help you?” And they, wove together this rope bridge to cross the thing, and we had to walk across it and hold onto something and help each other. And it was, in part, if you think about it, it was probably designed for an emotional roller coaster. And so when you experience positive emotions together, it connects you, and sometimes scary emotions can connect you too, especially if it’s not going to, especially if you trust the people around you. Ask me more questions, if I’m not being clear.

Richard:

Well, I mean, you know something about teams and team performance. It’s the work you’ve been doing for a couple of decades. And I hear the jargon coming through.

Vanessa:

Oh, do you? Because it’s interesting. I don’t hear it myself. I’m like thinking, “I’m saying something that’s legitimate.” I’ve been living it for so long.

Richard:

Well, totally. And even if you didn’t have the jargon, it’s totally legit. This point you just made about connecting through emotions, both the positive emotions and even the scary ones, plus even when you had the scary ones, you knew there was some safety.

Vanessa:

Honestly, I think it’s rooted in the skillset in the room or in the outdoor outdoor room, in the team. If I thought everyone just had my skills, I would have been worried because there are some things I’m good at and some things I’m not good at. I have a very poor attention to detail around a lot of things. But there were, so, hence, why I could not remember how we were supposed to build that rope bridge. It was not one of my favorite episodes of the class, but we had varied skills. And so first thing I would have to say. So there’s something there about trusting the skills, trusting in the skills, and people were listening to each other. So there was no argument over who’s in charge, who knows more. I often tell people, I do this exercise with my students. I’m a professor, right? It’s one of these survival exercises. This is interesting. I hadn’t thought about the parallel between this and these human synergistic, I don’t know if you’ve ever done any of these, sub-arctic survival, fire survival, and I always tell my students that, afterwards, of course, “If you had an Eagle Scout in your team, you probably did very poorly.” Because everyone defers to the Eagle Scouts. Everyone defers to the people who they think know more, and the Eagle Scouts are so happy to be the leader in a case like that. And I’m exaggerating. I mean, I love Eagle Scouts. People I know are Eagle Scouts. So, seriously.

Richard:

So wait, wait, let me get this straight. If you have an Eagle Scout on your team, your team will fail? No, it’s not.

Vanessa:

No, no, no, no. But you defer, if you consistently defer to someone, and they’re happy to move into that role, and that so happens. One of my interesting. Well, let me say this. That team experience, the one I’m explaining now in this outdoor leadership class and several others that I had, several others that I had throughout my youth, the first 25, 26 years of my life, led me to be fascinated by teams. So this experience was one of the reasons why I became a team researcher. Because I wanted to know, what is it that leads some teams to? Mostly my question was, why is it that I can be such a great contributor in some teams and not in others? And I mean, I think, and I knew it wasn’t just me. I could see the others around me. And in this particular team, we didn’t have anyone who needed to dominate, or we never asked anyone to dominate. We made it work. We made each other better. And so that’s, how you do that has been a quest for me in my life.

Richard:

All right, yeah, I was curious about this, whether this activity, this experience, was the one that led you to the work that you do, but you had so many experiences that led you to this work.

Vanessa:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I had so many. I worked in, I mean, I grew up in a farming community, and I. So I started working at the age of, I think, 12, working on farms, and so I have had a lot of jobs in my lifetime, and I’ve worked on a lot of teams because of that. And so, and they were the best of times or the worst of times, always. And the best of times, like this one I’m explaining to you was such a high point. The way I can visualize it right now, the way I’ve never forgotten it is similar to what I see other people talk about when they, like you, when I ask people, tell me about a good team you were on. I often ask that question.

Richard:

Yeah, and that you’ve never forgotten about it. Like this is. One of my other influences talks about it. Jim McCarthy talks about it as in the purview of history, it’s a great team. Like people are still talking about it today, and here we are talking about it today. This was definitely a great team.

Vanessa:

Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And don’t forget though, interestingly, we remember things through emotion. So strong emotion, it creates a marker in our brain. And so I think I’m just as likely to remember really bad teams as I am to really good teams. Yeah.

Richard:

How about some advice for the viewers and listeners? What are some things they could do to intentionally have a team that’s as great as this one that we’re talking about?

Vanessa:

My, again, I’ve been studying this for a long time, and I’ve kind of peeled away the onion over the years. And sometimes I see something at the core of the onion, I don’t fully understand it. So let me tell you a little bit about what I saw 20 years ago, and then how I understand it now. One of the variables that my good colleague Steve Wolf and I have studied for a long time is something that we call team member understanding or really understanding the people who are, getting to know the people who are on your team. And that shows up in lots of different ways. It doesn’t necessarily mean I need to know everything about you. In some contexts, it shows up as I want to know more about your job, your background, just work related things. In some context, it shows up as, “Yeah, what are you doing like to do on the weekends? Do you have a partner? You know, what’s your life like?” But anyway, I could never quite understand. I used to ask audiences all the time, looking for the answer, why does this matter so much? Because it always mattered. Well, I’ve come to understand that we have this need. We have certain social needs that we’re completely unaware of. And Matthew Lieberman who’s a social neuroscientist at UCLA says that we know more now from studying the brain. We know more about our social needs than we ever have in the past. And one of the things that we’ve come to realize is that organizations aren’t designed for the social needs that we have. And by that what he means is that we have a need to connect, and we have a need to feel like we belong to a group, but organizations don’t allow us to do that very easily. Things are typically kept at that superficial level. So, but anyway, one of the things that I’ve discovered, or I’ve begun thinking and talking about and learning about and reading about writing about right now is this need to belong and how it all starts with people knowing you, feeling understood, feeling known, and then of course, then feeling, which is more easily happens, which is that people begin to care about you. That more easily happens if they know something about you. It’s hard for me to care about a person I don’t know anything about. I don’t find any sort of personal connections there. So to create those kinds of relationships where you feel known and understood and cared about, you have to get to know one another a little bit. So that’s something. I’ve just gone on a long discussion about that.

Richard:

How to do that? Are there any tricks or practices or habits for team members to be able to do that?

Vanessa:

Sure. The problem is the one thing that gets in the way is time. So the question is, how do you do that given time constraints that are out there today? The classic one which you know from your Agile work is check-ins, checking in at the beginning of every meeting, and over time, you begin to see the way people process information. I know someone who purchased a soccer ball on Amazon, and on every one of those little hexagons there’s a question. And so she was a team leader, and she used to pass the ball or roll the ball to people back when we were face-to-face, I have no idea how she does it now, but she might just catch the ball and say, “Okay, here’s the question for you, Richard. In 25 seconds or 30 seconds, what was the best thing that happened to you this weekend?” Or whatever the question was that popped up at the top, and people would answer that. And so there’s ways to, and people disclose. That’s the other thing. We know building relationships requires some disclosure, some personal disclosure. The whole relationship research area supports that. So that’s one way to do it. Check-ins, lunch dates. It doesn’t have to be always everyone in the group. I’ve seen teams do it where you sort of pair up, have lunch on Zoom together, so those kinds of things.

Richard:

Yeah. Is there anything else you want to talk about? Anything you want to add on to our conversation. Anything at all ?

Vanessa:

About teams?

Richard:

Anything, what have you been working on recently? I’m curious about your current work. I’ve become acquainted with you and your work through Steve Wolf through that article you guys wrote in the Harvard Business Review 15 or something years ago. What’s been happening in the last 15 years? What’s been happening most recently?

Vanessa:

Yeah, well, I got distracted from my writing for quite a while because I was pulled into so many consulting gigs. I’ve been coaching a lot of teams and using that model to coach teams, and that’s been really exciting. So I’ve been traveling around. I would say about five years ago, I kind of stopped that because I wanted to come back and start writing, and I wanted to come back and start investigating, which is how I have come to this new literature on the need to belong. And so I’ve been focusing on that a lot now, and I’ve been doing a lot of writing on it and basically talking about, how do you build a culture of belonging? And I really think that our team AI model has a lot of lot to offer in that area. And what’s happened too is that there’s been a lot that’s come out in that area because of all the diversity initiatives have come out in the last couple of years. And also there’s been a lot of call for that. So I’ve been asking, had lots of invitations for various things. Because people are feeling there’re cracks in their belonging, cracks in their inclusion, given that they’re not meeting face-to-face anymore. And it’s been fascinating and sad. And I’m really back to this fabulous quote from Matthew Lieberman who said organizations aren’t designed for our social needs. Well, right now, our social needs are, we are really learning as the great resignation, whatever you want to call it, 41%, World Economic Forum projected 41% of people worldwide were going to be leaving jobs this year, 2021. We’re almost at the end of 2021. 41%. Yeah, people are saying, “Hey, you don’t need me. I don’t need you.” And so they don’t feel needed. They don’t feel understood. They don’t feel cared for. They don’t feel part of something. So how do you create that right now? It’s all about relationships. And teams in particular, I think, are where those relationships can be really meaningful, these high points that we talk about and the positive emotion. There’s nothing like working with a great team, as I was mentioning before, and I think you were concurring. I think you were, maybe you weren’t, But, you know? A great team, being part of something that makes you better that you continually learn from. That’s the other thing. I mean, the great teams I know are teams that are really focused on this sort of, you know, constant learning, lifelong learning, growth mindset.

Richard:

Yeah, now, when you’re talking about connection and feeling connected, is that the same thing, or how is that like or how is that different from what people call inclusion?

Vanessa:

So inclusion, the way I picture inclusion, is that you can be included in a conversation. I mean, you are really included. And so you’re listened to, and you’re not just in the room. Your voice is taken into account. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you feel known, heard, understood, cared for, okay? So belonging is, it’s the social need. So there are these social needs that we’re discovering that are innate, and the irony is, we don’t even know we really have them, because you have them here. Here it is, Maslow’s hierarchy. You know, you come above the physiological needs and the housing needs, being in a safe space. The next one up is what he called love and belonging. And the argument that’s being made now is that just like when you don’t have enough food, you realize how badly you need it. You don’t recognize your need for food until you’re hungry. Well, you don’t recognize you need to belong. And belonging is the social need that rules them all, if you will. So belonging, all the other social needs feed in to helping us belong. This is a theory that I’ve been reading from social psychologists, like Susan Fiske at Princeton, and Baumeister, I don’t know where Baumeister is now. I think he might be at Florida. He used to be at Case Western, and Matthew Lieberman, again, social neuroscientists are talking about this at UCLA. And so we don’t realize. We keenly know what rejection or ostracism feels like, but belonging is one of those needs that we can’t quite articulate, especially in the US. Because in the US we have a cultural norm of independence.

Richard:

Yeah. Yeah, we make believe we don’t need belonging.

Vanessa:

We make believe. We’re unaware of it, yeah.

Richard:

So as you’re explaining this all, and I’m imagining, could it be possible to conduct some sort of large-scale experiment to keep workers apart from each other in physical space and see what happens to their sense of belonging? Yes! Would be tough to do. We talk about ethically, it would be difficult, right? Yeah, right?

Richard:

Maybe some kind of natural experiment might happen.

Vanessa:

Some natural, something could happen. Right. Yeah, and then we could see how many people want to stay in their jobs because they don’t feel they belong, or which is obviously what we’re learning now, the cracks in the foundation of organizations. And we’re really, again, I’m going to mention, again, just the need, the way that organizations aren’t really designed for our human needs. There’s also though, we have the power to change that. And a team is the perfect size for, it’s more, changing an organization’s culture is difficult, but changing a team’s culture is certainly within our capabilities. We get to decide the culture of our teams, whether we realize we can or not, we do. We vote with our behavior every day, right? I mean, you know that from all your Agile work that you take a framework, you put it on, it changes everything.

Richard:

Absolutely. Absolutely. Is there anything else, else you want to add on? Are you doing any current research, any investigation right now?

Vanessa:

I’m just doing writing. I’m kind of in the, I have papers that haven’t been published sitting on my desk, and that’s one of the things I need my friend and your friend Steve Wolf for right now to help me get those out the door. So rather than taking on something new, I mean, that’s my ADHD has always led me to want to do something. What’s the next thing? What’s the next thing? Rather than finishing what I’ve done. So at the moment, I’m not doing any new research, although I would love to be doing research on this topic. Instead, I’m just a sponge for looking at everybody else’s research on the topic, and there’s some great research out there.

Richard:

Yeah. Yeah. I’m going to be checking all the authors and references you’ve been sharing with us.

Vanessa:

Good.

Richard:

I can’t wait to get into it. I love reading. Vanessa, if somebody wants to get in touch with you, is that possible?

Vanessa:

Absolutely. I’m on the faculty in the business school. It’s called the Peter T. Paul College of Business at University of New Hampshire. You can look me up there, and I’m also on LinkedIn, and, I’m happy. I always love to talk about teams and share my ideas. Yeah. And pass the word. I mean, this is just like with you. I mean, teams can be the best of times. We need to get out there and help people do that. One more thing I wanted to say is that I learned recently, and I only learned this recently. I was asked to give a keynote address, and I learned that we don’t teach leaders how to build teams. It’s one of the reasons why the Agile movement has been so powerful. because I think it’s the first movement that’s been focused on, well, beyond the way of restructuring work, which is brilliant, but just how to lead a team, how a team should operate in order to be well functioning. We don’t, all of our development of leaders is around individual skills. Go back and look at it. I mean, I spent a lot of time, and what I could find were articles saying, “Hey, there’s an individual bias.” We are definitely individually biased here in the US, but people like to work on themselves when they’re learning how to lead. They’re not that interested. It took me a long time to crack the code in figuring out, how do you get people interested in teams? Because I used to give presentations on individual emotional intelligence, and people would be riveted, and lining out the door to hear more about it. And then I’d give a talk on teams, and they’d be like, “Oh, ho-hum, you know, teams.” And so you have to really speak to the human side of teams, and you have to really be concrete and really succinct and all kinds of things to grip them, as I’m sure you know, yeah.

Richard:

Yeah. Oh, the thing. Yes. Yes, thank you for that .

Vanessa:

Okay, good.

Richard:

And I share this in the Agile class I teach at university and in an Innovation class I teach it at university as well. One of the first things we do is skills and habits and practices for having a great team above all else.

Vanessa:

Fantastic.

Richard:

Yeah, it’s super cool.

Vanessa:

It’s so fantastic. I mean, it’s hard.

Richard:

I love that I get to do that.

Vanessa:

Yes, and plus, I’m so glad you’re doing it because you’ve got the experience. You got so much experience in it. And what I find is that when people don’t have a lot of experience in it, they go in there, and they start teaching individual development in the team class. I mean, I’ve sat in on lots of so-called team development classes that are all about, “Well, let’s learn each other’s personality,” which is important. I’m not saying it’s not, but that doesn’t teach you how to lead a team. Knowing other people’s personalities doesn’t teach me how to lead a team or how to work with those personality. Yeah.

Richard:

Yeah. I read some research a year, a couple of years ago, that correlated, large multinational company, they noticed that the people who were geographically near each other had tighter bonds. And it didn’t matter who they were working with, what team they were on, where their teammates were located, whether or not they worked with the people who are near them geographically, they always felt more connected to their geographic peers. What do you think about that? Especially now that people are taking new jobs now that are like remote first or remote only.

Vanessa:

Yeah, it’s powerful. I’d love to, if you remember what that article is, I’d love to see it, I’d love to read it. Okay, so I do have some thoughts about that. I’ve thought a lot about it. There’s some things that I call, and there’s been research on it, and it’s called something, there’s another label for it, but I call it psychological distance. And I first learned this when I was a professor, and doctoral students used to move away, and you can do, you write your dissertation, you can do your research from afar. So you can go live with your partner rather than living where the university is located. But they were always so nervous about not being co-located, located right at the school. And they felt so psychologically distant, and I would talk to them, and they’d be like, “I don’t know what’s going on there, what’s happening. I feel like everybody has forgotten me.” And yet, you know what? I used to talk to them more than the people I saw locally. And so it was really, so I started noticing that. And then I started seeing it in the dispersed teams that I’m in. And I started thinking about it in my own life. So there’ve been times when I’ve lived overseas, and my parents would be here in the US, and I’d be like, “Oh, I can’t talk to them. They’re so far away.” And then I’d moved back, and I’d be two hours away from them, and I call them every day, you know? And so I think this is a very powerful psychological, there’s another term for it. I think Mark Mortenson who’s at INSEAD in France now. I think he’s got a term for it. I don’t know if he calls it emotional distance or something. But it’s, what it does, It keeps you from picking up the phone or from connecting with people more often, and what you want to do, it makes it even more important to build those relationships that I was talking about earlier, because what you want to do in a team is have people feel like they can, at a moment’s notice, pick up the phone or text or connect. “Richard,” blah, blah, blah. “What do you think about this?” You know, everybody’s texting these days. I’m still old school where I prefer to talk on the phone. But you don’t want them to hesitate. But if they’re psychologically distant, they don’t do that as often. And so the communication breaks down. And so you do have to overcome that. That’s my thought. You have to really consciously overcome that.

Richard:

Awesome, thanks for that. Well, I think it’s time to wrap up.

Vanessa:

It’s been a pleasure, Richard. I really appreciate meeting with you and having you interview me.

Richard:

Yeah, it has been a great pleasure. Thanks, Vanessa. Thank you so much for joining me, for joining us, for sharing your thoughts and wisdom and ideas with everybody.

Vanessa:

Thank you.

Richard:

Thank you. And I wrap up with this . And remember, viewers and listeners, to support this podcast, visit my website, kasperowski.com.

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