Building Teams Through Difference

“Talent perceives differences, Genius unity.”— W.B. Yeats

Let’s not care so much about talent and genius — what they are is immaterial for our purposes, and in fact may hinder the development of this discussion. Instead, let us focus on the concept of difference and unity, and how there is unity to be found in difference. Sound paradoxical? Stay with me. You’ll understand what I mean in bit.

Let’s begin with a quick anecdote (very contextualised, so if you’re not from Singapore, I apologise, and you may just want to skip this paragraph). Just the other day, I was walking around the Serangoon area, Serangoon Gardens to be specific. I forget the reason behind why I was there. But the thing is, I found out that it is possible for one to walk from Serangoon Gardens to Serangoon North in less than 10 minutes. It seemed quite baffling initially, especially since I normally would have taken a bus to travel from one area to the next, and would consider them quite a distance apart, since it’s 10 to 15 minutes by bus, which would seem to imply that walking would require a substantially longer time to cover that same distance. And this obviously was not the case.

So what is the point I am trying to make here? Well, firstly, perhaps it is due to the convenience offered by transportation, by cars, buses, trains, that we have lost our ability to recognise how a plot of land, while seemingly divided by buildings, by fences, by whatever other kind of impediment thinkable, is still a united entity, and there are ways to overcome these obstacles, for instance by travelling through an obscure alleyway (thankfully Singapore is relatively safe in this aspect).

Secondly, people are in a way similar. There are people who we never seem to be able to ‘click’ with, regardless of how hard we try, how much effort we put into the relationship. However, that does not mean that these differences have to be crippling to a team. If anything, these differences are likely to augment team discussion, and provide greater depth to whatever plans may be had. Think Belbin. He found that people have different roles they are suited for in a team, and that having a combination of all the different roles is what ultimately determines the success of the team.

In a similar manner, meeting people who we cannot see eye to eye with and interacting with them is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, all it takes is a little bit of patience and an open mind, to accept their point of view, or at least think about it if we cannot comprehend it. More often than not, we will find that their points are valid in their own right, and may even give us new ideas, new thoughts, which spur us creatively.

So whenever you find yourself in a pickle, especially where it involves you and another person, with whom you cannot choose to agree but to disagree, instead of thinking war, think unity, in diversity.

Why We Should All Give Second Chances.

Time passes, people change. We all know it. However, how often do we act on this premise? When faced with a person whom we know has done us a wrong turn in the past, or we feel has displayed incompetence in his job, our first reaction is a tendency towards these past events (which obviously have little to no bearing in present circumstances) and to judge him based on these past events, without any regard for the present, or the good that he has done, which is immensely unfair. Thus, to the crux of this essay: the importance of giving second chances.

People who have had a bad track record may indeed be a cause for concern in the workplace. What if he messes up again? Will he somehow manage to undo all our efforts going into a project? What if…and the list goes on. And it may be the case that the person will cause the team difficulties if let on board. However, if never given the chance to even try, how is one to know for sure that such a person would be problematic in the team? If anything, the ‘innocent till proven guilty’ policy should be applied in such a situation, and the person in question should be given the benefit of the doubt.

Granted, it should be acknowledged that the psychological barriers are difficult to break when it comes to such decisions that can make or break a team, as letting a potential catastrophe onto the team. This is especially so for the risk averse. Thus, while it is not possible to fully welcome the person into the team from the get-go, perhaps a compromise can be made. For instance, put that person on probation, perhaps for a week or so, to test his capabilities. You never know, but he may surprise you, and exceed your expectation by a mile.

Which brings us on to the next point: that people ultimately are multifaceted and have various strengths and weaknesses. Past failures could ultimately have been due to his being in an environment unfavourable to his strengths which may have even focussed on his weaknesses, thus hindering his development and success. Reasons for failure ultimately do not solely lie with the individual, and can entail a host of external factors.

So it may be possible that it is only if a person truly has no strengths which align with the team that he should not be let on it. However, even then such a statement indicates a lack of understanding of that person. This is because that person, with strengths that perhaps no one else in the team has, may have vital resources, may provide a new perspective to the team, which would allow the team to elevate itself from its current position, and allow it to develop further. Moreover, weaknesses can ultimately be made up for by other people on that team who have complementing strengths.

Thus, give others a second chance. Even though they may have made a fiasco of their first, one should never be inclined to believe that it is predetermines all future possibilities.


Understanding Acceptance

“The human heart has hidden treasures, In secret kept, in silence sealed; The thoughts, the hopes, the dreams, the pleasures, Whose charms were broken if revealed.” — Charlotte Brontë

It is often the case that we fall under the illusion that we are ourselves exceedingly complex, and far more so compared to others, who appear to us little more than open books. In conflicts, this translates into “You can never understand!” and other similar sweeping statements.

Partially, this arises from the simple fact that we know ourselves best, because we understand our motivations and how they are linked to our actions. Motivations which are not apparent to others, although they like to think otherwise. Therefore, it only comes natural that we find it irksome and rage-inducing when others make attempts to project their opinions on us and impose incorrectly their views.

Ironically, even though we do not like it done in reference to us, it does not deter us from making attempts at claiming a complete understanding of others, from imposing judgements about them on them. This forms the basis for today’s article, which is about how to understand others better, and how to avoid forcing ourselves on them to create a better overall environment to work and play in.

As might be expected, the first step we need to take to achieve this is to come to terms with the fact that we do not know everything, if anything, about a person (apart from ourselves, of course). This is because it is only when we are able to do this that we can accept others for who they are and become able to see past our expectations of that person. Unfortunately, this is not something that can be achieved instantaneously. After all, it involves breaking free of a mould into which our thoughts have been led to grow to fit for years. Thus, it requires constant reminders to help ourselves grow accustomed to the idea. Nonetheless, this does not make it unachievable. It simply makes it all the sweeter once it has been accomplished.

Then, because we are ignoramuses where others are concerned, it becomes a necessary part of it to communicate. Communicate everything as is necessary. Even if it is just idle talk and platitude, some communication is better than none, for each additional insight gained into the other person’s life is an opportunity to prevent misjudgements from occurring due to a lack of understanding of that person.

Ultimately, the point is that we need to break that foundation in today’s society which is clearly built on judging others and imposing our views on them. Remember, no person is ever stupid. If ever you think that a person is stupid, then the issue is that there needs to be a shift in your mindset, to not only become more accepting of others, but to understand that others are not as two-dimensional as they are made out to be in our heads.

About the Fascination with Procrastination

“Procrastination is the thief of time, collar him.” – Charles Dickens

Procrastination. The bane of all our lives. Frankly speaking, I have been procrastinating to get this article written, and have had to literally force myself in front of the computer to do it. Well, to get on with it.

Something which annoys us to no end when we know that we need to sit down and focus on the task at hand, procrastination can make or break a team. Think about it: all that last minute rushing to put things into place, all that panic which ensues, most of the time it is attributable to procrastination, and can be avoided. But how? Most of the time it requires a fair bit of discipline to overcome the barrier emplaced by procrastination, discipline which many of us are unable to muster. Thus, here are some tips to help liberate you:

  1. Encouragement. Especially relevant whether working alone or in a team, encouragement can provide a good dose of motivation, which gives one the determination he needs to complete a task. So in a team, encourage each other periodically. Express your faith in the other person’s abilities. If working alone, while tougher, it is still possible to encourage yourself, by telling yourself not to give up.
  1. Organisation. Sometimes, procrastination occurs simply because we are not organised enough. Instead of looking continually at the final goal as what must be achieved, which can seem intimidating, set smaller, achievable goals. You will feel happier and more motivated when you achieve these milestones you set for yourself. Also, take some time to organise your thoughts, to plan what you need to do. Going in with a plan helps prevent procrastination by giving a clear direction towards which you know you have to work towards.
  1. Reward. Sometimes, the best motivation we can give ourselves is the promise of a reward when we complete what we have to do. Such rewards can take the form of anything. If you like sports, tell yourself that you’ll give yourself an hour after you complete what you have to do, or if you like food, pizza or ice cream. By promising to reward yourself with something you enjoy, you effectually motivate yourself to complete the task faster, which stops you from falling into the pit of procrastination.

Not to say that procrastination is all bad. Sometimes the most marvellous things happen when we are in the midst of procrastinating. For instance, because we are not doing what we have the opportunity to distance ourselves from what we have to do, there may be a much-needed creative spark which comes to us in the midst of all that procrastination which comes in the form of a solution to all our current problems. Moreover, if under severe stress, procrastination can help by giving an outlet for that stress, enabling one to relax and think more clearly.

However, more often than not procrastination simply impedes progress, and should the case be as such, hopefully we have given you the information you need.

Why Should We Forgive?

“Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs.”— Charlotte Brontë

Falling out with friends and family; making the acquaintance of people whom you just cannot see eye to eye with. These are all part and parcel of daily life. But what do we do when we find ourselves caught in such positions of conflict? It is easy to be angry, become enraged, and let ourselves be ruled by our seething emotions, where we become marionettes to mere chemical impulses. Yet, simply because it is easy, does not mean that it should be done.

What we can do and should do is to look the other way instead, and turn the other cheek: just because we disagree with someone does not mean that it is necessary to start or prolong a conflict.

In fact, if we think about longstanding feuds such as those which have occurred between families for multiple generations, most of the time we find it to be the case that the participants do not know the history behind the feud. They get embroiled in it simply because of a shared history; it is just one of those things they are a part of. Nonsensical, is it not? Similar to saying that we should hate the Japanese or the Germans for the atrocities they committed during World War 2, even though the people of today have had nothing to do with it.

Granted, to accept wrongs, to take blow after blow without ever retaliating, is too much to ask one for. Thus, instead of asking one to tolerate all wounds inflicted on him, it is more practical to ask him to tolerate to the extent that he is able to.

Not to say that anything goes beyond that threshold of tolerance, but rather that if the conflict does escalate beyond what is bearable, or that the person just seems to have a vendetta against you, then perhaps it is time to rethink the relationship with that person. Perhaps it is time to break off all contact with that person.

Yet even after we no longer have anything to do with that person, such is the irony of life, that we cannot forget about that person, and we are left with such deep impressions on our hearts and mind, that a single reminder of that person will leave us spiralling in descent back to the horrible experiences we have had in the past.

Thus, there is a need to forgive whatever wrong has been done. This comes naturally with time and distance — the longer we are apart from the person, the easier it will be to forgive and even forget that person. However, in the case where we still come into contact periodically with that person, then forgiveness only happens when we choose to make it so.

To facilitate the process, it is useful to imagine that the person regrets what he has done, to have lost a friend, a confidante. Or, we ourselves can be the catalyst, by realising that nursing grudges, pampering hatred, is little more than a redirection of our energy, energy that could have been used more productively.

When talking about teams, it is the unfortunate truth that we often do not have the chance to choose our teammates, which means that in the event that we are grouped with someone with whose ideologies ours fail to coincide with, then it is necessary, if common ground cannot be found, to learn to forgive. After all, our time is limited. So what is the use of fostering thorns and letting our emotional wounds fester?


Pride: Overcoming the Overwhelming Tide of Emotions

“Proud people breed sad sorrows for themselves.” – Emily Jane Brontë

Pride in moderation. It is perfectly normal to find delight in our achievements and in the achievements of others. But pride can be blinding: allow that sense of satisfaction to grow unchecked and it can become the debilitating disease of egoistic pleasure, where we take pride in ourselves; call it Narcissism if you will. And the most widely-known example of such unrestrained pride: Lucifer, who did not end up in a very desirable situation, I should think most of us should agree.

Thus, to heed by Lucifer’s lesson, it is necessary for us all to possess a degree of humility. But not in the modern sense of the word which is a grotesque disfiguration and the opposite of its original meaning. Instead, when we refer to possessing humility, we refer an inhibitor that stops us from getting ahead of ourselves, from allowing that pride to overrun our consciousness.

For instance, constantly reminding ourselves is that there is always someone better than us: the Chinese proverb, 一山比一山高 ( yi shan hai bi yi shan gao), which roughly translates into ‘there will always be a mountain taller than the last’ aptly encapsulates this idea. By telling ourselves this whenever we accomplish something, we can thus moderate swelling emotions.

Yet something intangible like the above can only do so much, and in the event that we are overwhelmed by our emotions, we need something tangible to keep us rooted in reality. Thus, while the past may hold many memories which we are not proud of, it is good to keep at least some relics from it, to not only serve as indications of our progress, but also to serve as reminders that we once had humbler beginnings.

Ultimately, there is a need to have an awareness that success and failure, like light and dark, while appearing to be contrasting forces, are in truth dependent on one another. One cannot exist without the other. Thus, successes are like failures: just part and parcel of life. As much as we love them, to be ruled by them is to give up our fundamental free will as our choices become dictated by them.

Extending this concept to the team level, take some time to celebrate together when your team achieves something. It works wonders for team camaraderie because there is a shared sense of achievement. However, do not let the team as a whole become complacent simply because it has faith in its achievements. That hinders progress, and can even lead to regression. Thus, be proud, but not too proud.

Turning Things Around: Breaking Free From the Cycle of Doom and Gloom

“Reflect upon your present blessings — of which every man has many — not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.” – Charles Dickens

“It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.” There are many idioms, proverbs, and sayings, all of which support the idea that compared to the good, the bad invariably has a greater hold over us. In the study of Psychology, this notion is supported by the concept of Negativity Bias, which states that the brain is naturally hardwired to have a greater sensitivity to unpleasant experiences. Thus, trying to look for a silver lining in the midst of a catastrophe is not as simple as we sometimes make out to be. Neither is trying to look on the bright side of life when things go wrong.

However, when in a team there is nothing worse than letting an obstacle pull you down. It takes one bad apple to spoil the whole bunch, and simply allowing that negative situation – whether personal or work-related – to influence your actions can mean disaster for the team. Thus, it is imperative that we are able to remain positive even when adversity rears its ugly head. This is possible, provided that we make several realisations:

  1. We are not alone. Oftentimes when we feel under the weather for whatever reason, the first thing that we feel is an excruciating sorrow that stems from the perception that we are alone in this world and that no one will ever understand our situation nor know how to remedy it. Unfortunately, or rather thankfully, this is false, and the reverse is true. There is definitely someone who has gone through what you are going through and has felt what you are feeling. There may even be someone going through the exact same experience. It does no harm to seek advice from such people. Their words will be enlightening and will see you through your crisis.
  1. Whatever challenge we are facing, it will come to pass. Nothing lasts forever, everything is transient: all joys, but also all sorrows. It is thus needless to say that brooding over something, imagining what could have been, thinking about what could have been done, is nothing but energy being wasted. Instead, try channelling that energy into thinking of a solution. A low is nothing more than an opportunity for creativity, for innovation.
  1. A person is not defined by his failures, just as he is not defined by his successes. It is a slippery slope down when we are feeling at our worst, as we tend to find ourselves caught in a cycle of hopelessness, as though Providence is against us, as though we have been forsaken by the universe. However, for everything wrong in our lives, there are just as many if not more that are right. Got your ideas rejected over and over again? You still have your family, your friends, your hobbies. That sense of futility is secondary in the great scheme of our lives, and there is no need to stay trapped by it.

So for those of you who feel down, fret not. Things will turn around soon enough. You just have to take the first step and realise that there is nothing is ever truly futile. And trust us, from experience we know that your team will appreciate your efforts.

Observe the Magic Around You

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” – William Butler Yeats

Look around you, what do you see? Nothing particularly interesting? Think again. Even in the doldrums of the mundane and commonplace, there is something that you did not see before, that you did not notice before, but that you would have, either in retrospect, or with a second look.

In a seasoned team, members tend to take each other for granted, and tend to be under the impression that their teammates are little more than open books. No surprise there. Unfortunately, having such a mentality can be counteractive to a team, especially where members begin to think that their understanding of a person is so complete that they can make decisions for that person.

There is a need to realise that humans are all complex beings, and that our understanding of another person will always be incomplete (unless you are a mind reader, of course), since our knowledge of a person is based on what we see and hear, which gives only a fraction of the complete picture – people are adaptive creatures and portray different selves depending on the situation.

To know a person inside-out, or outside-in rather, is thus nothing less than a Sisyphean task. However, it is not impossible to obtain a fuller picture of a person. All it requires is a person to expand his faculties:

Look, it is okay to watch that person, provided you do not stalk. We are all of us inquisitive, so let that scientific curiosity loose, and observe. Mannerisms and body language, the way he interacts with others and reacts to situations or words, a lot can be learned.

Listening to gossip about a person, especially malicious gossip, is something you should avoid. The only thing that gossip achieves is influence over your impression of a person by creating a false image. Whether that image is good or bad is inconsequential. However, what matters is that gossip prevents the formation of an accurate understanding of who a person is by creating ‘noise’ that is difficult to block out.

Thus, listen to the person of interest instead. After all, people like to talk about themselves. Give that person a chance, and he will reveal a lot about himself to you, even if he is introverted. This is the best way to learn more about a person, and you never know but something he shares with you may come as a pleasant surprise to you.

Last but not least, talk. It is good and all to want to be a quiet observer, but frankly, people want to know more about you just as much as you want to know more about them. It is a reciprocal kind of thing. You need to contribute as much as you want to learn. Plus, the team would benefit from knowing more about you. Of course, try not to make every conversation revolve around you. No one other than yourself would appreciate it.

So look, listen, and talk, and you will be able to learn things about someone you never thought you would ever know. In addition, it would help you avoid being found at a crossroad, not knowing what you said to offend a teammate, and how to reconcile with him, although the reverse is true too.

Power and Control – When Enough is Enough.

What do you think of when you hear the word “leader”? Famous leaders of countries like Julius Caesar or George Washington? Brilliant military generals like Napoleon? CEOs of multinational companies like Bill Gates?

Fortunately, you do not need to be ‘great’ like the above figures to be a leader. Leadership comes in many forms, and can be found in many places. That said, the responsibilities of a leader remain largely unchanged: a leader has to motivate his teammates to scale greater heights than they could possibly achieve as individuals.

Ironically, a team leader is unlikely to have power over his teammates in the same way a king would have authority over his subjects. Thus, some would say that the team leader has a tougher job, because not only does he have his own job to do, he must also lead his team in the right direction. In addition, he is the held liable for his teammates’ actions and mistakes.

But is it a bad thing that leaders do not have absolute power? What if a team leader did have complete control? Chances are, such a leader would be overbearing, and micromanage his teammates, forcing them to do and redo tasks until they meet his ludicrously high expectations. Such leaders make others feel unneeded and unwanted, and inhibit the growth of ideas. Thus, rather than a mass of ideas brimming with potential, everything ends up revolving around the leader, and creativity is stunted as people become afraid to voice their opinions and simply slave over their assigned tasks.

What if the reverse were true? In contrast, a leader who is too lenient may appear weak and lackadaisical, which creates other problems – because that person may be viewed as a pushover, or otherwise unqualified, the team may eventually lose confidence in the leader, and the team would lose its direction, and work less diligently and less creatively. After all, without a person with a strong will who can make tough decisions and resolve conflicts, the team will inevitably be set adrift into the hazy ocean of uncertainty.

It is therefore necessary that a team leader balances being authoritative and lenient when carrying out his duties. However, what then is the ideal balance? We would compare a good leader with a willow tree- flexible like the trunk of a willow tree, able to adapt according to his teammates’ needs, yet strong like its roots, able to be firm when necessary. Like a willow tree, such a team leader would be able to ferry his team through tempestuous times.

Though it is not easy to strike such a balance, which often involves a great deal of trial and error, with time and experience it can be done. If anything, the process can be accelerated through the use of team building activities, where real life challenges are simulated in a safe, controlled environment. So fret not if you are not the perfect team leader. Take every opportunity to learn, and be sure that in time you will soar and excel.



Lies and Deceit and the Journey to Self-discovery

“This above all: to thine own self be true” is probably the most insightful utterance made by Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Ironically, Polonius as a character is hardly true to his own self, and typically bends his will to concur with the opinions of others, as occurs in the following absolutely hilarious dialogue between him and the titular Hamlet:

HAMLET: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?

POLONIUS: By th’ mass, and ’tis like a camel indeed.

HAMLET: Methinks it is like a weasel.

POLONIUS: It is backed like a weasel.

HAMLET: Or like a whale.

POLONIUS: Very like a whale.

By now you might be wondering: what exactly is the point of all this? To keep it short and simple: whether in the workplace, at school, out with friends, or even at home, the hard truth is, very rarely do we portray ourselves as we are in the absence of people.

This is natural, as people adapt themselves to the situations they are in. This adaptive quality is part and parcel of being human. However, the problem comes in when we change ourselves just to make ourselves more likable to others. To accomplish this end, the tendency is to create entirely different lives for ourselves as we weave fictitious ‘truths’ to hide what we feel are our inadequacies. This is toxic to any relationship, as the lies eventually grow larger and proliferate, eventually becoming a monstrous agglomeration that cannot be controlled. At least till light is shed on the truth and the entire structure comes crumbling down, and people develop a distrust of the architect.

Thus the importance of ‘to thine own self be true.’ By being true to ourselves, we eliminate the possibility of lying to others just to make ourselves look better. While difficult to achieve, the benefits that we reap from so doing cannot be discounted. As we believe that to accomplish this primarily entails gaining a greater understanding of oneself, here is some information you can use on your journey towards self-discovery:

  1. Understand and appreciate your flaws. Each person has a unique set strengths and flaws. However, a person only truly understands himself inasmuch as he is aware of his flaws, however debilitating they may be. This is because ultimately what defines us as who we are is not what we can gain recognition for, but what we believe can potentially lead us to ruin.

People often talk about strengthening weaknesses and possibly turning them into strengths. However, this is wholly unnecessary. We believe in the view that focussing on strengths leads to a much more productive life, as should we focus on strengthening weaknesses thereby neglecting what we are good at, we become jacks of all trades and masters of none. The key then is simply to always keep these weaknesses at the back of the mind when undertaking tasks or assignments. In this manner, we know how to avoid them destroying us without having to conjure falsehoods to cover them up.

  1. In line with the above point, reflect. By this, we do not mean to look at yourself in the mirror and admire your body. Instead, we mean to think about the way you handle situations and your reactions to what is said and done. Take note of how your behaviour in social interactions could be improved and resolve to stop yourself from succumbing to habits if you recognise them as something that will not be of benefit to you. For optimal results, put aside some time daily, in the morning or at the end of the day, to reflect on your experiences of the day (if in the evening) or the previous day (if in the morning)  to carry out these reflections. In time to come, you will gain a greater understanding of yourself, and come to be more comfortable with who you are as a person, making it easier for you to be true to yourself.
  1. Lastly, communicate. While it is possible to mitigate one’s weaknesses by one’s sheer willpower, it is better to let others know about them so that there is an awareness, which empowers others to help you when you need assistance. It also indicates that you trust others, and inspires trust in them, as you show them that you do not fear them seeing you in your most vulnerable.

Being able to be comfortable in your own skin is vital in optimising your performance in any social setting. The key is not to avoid situations that make you feel awkward and prompt you to resort to deceptions to make yourself feel comfortable, but rather to garner a greater understanding of yourself so that you have greater confidence and believe in yourself when caught in such situations.