Group Affirmations

Hugh MacDonald

Affirmations can be a great way to bring two groups together. I once engaged a third party to help improve the level of trust between two groups of managers responsible for an outsourcing deal. The plan was to demonstrate the value of communicating intentions as a technique for building and sustaining trust.

After surveying the two groups and conducting interviews to obtain information and insights about trust, the perceived status of the relationship and what needed to be done to improve it, the participants were brought together to review the results. The interviewer reported that there was some good news: The individuals in both groups felt that everyone else was hard-working, competent at their jobs, well-intended, appropriately candid and excited about working on a high performing team. There was some bad news though: There was a low level of inter-group trust.

During a subsequent workshop the joint team explored this issue and concluded that much of the distrust resulted from not being explicit during high-stress communications. At such times, team members would sometimes make assumptions about each other’s motivations and behavior. This led to confusion and frustration—especially when the assumptions people made weren’t accurate.

One example of assumptions commonly cited by workshop participants involved requests for reports and other information. When those making the request did not provide context about why the report was needed or what it was intended to accomplish, those providing the information tended to make assumptions—usually wrong ones. A simple request for information on the number of hits to a Web site might be seen, in the absence of context, as a query about how well the Web site was being managed, how accurate the data was and whether last month’s service level report on Web site hits was accurate. In fact, none of those issues were involved. The person who made the request was intending merely to write an article for an internal newsletter about how successful that particular site was, a fact she didn’t take the time to share.

The team decided to take what they had learned at the workshop and turn it into a group affirmation. The participants agreed that they would use this affirmation to develop a new pattern of behavior over the next few months. The formulation they crafted read, "We don't assume or blame. We state or ask for intentions and communicate honestly, respectfully and immediately. It's not personal."

Three months after the original meeting, the parties came together again. Once more they were surveyed, and their self-disclosed communications were much improved. As for the trust ratings, there was also an improvement—albeit a small one—but a step in the right direction. Trust takes time.

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