“I can teach people skills. I can’t teach them how to play in the sandbox.”
–Caryl M. Stern, president and CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, as quoted by The New York Times
Yes you can! This mindset that is voiced by Ms. Stern is a common way of thinking for many managers and leaders. However, I am living proof that you can learn these skills as a valedictorian in high school and college who thought the world revolved around book knowledge. Needless to say you would not have described me as one who knew how to play in the sandbox when I entered the workforce. Without the mentoring of several important figures in my life, I would have continued to reach a certain level of success because of my competence, but would have been limited in the area of bringing out the best in myself and in others.
The fact is that playing well in the sandbox requires a set of skills just like any other job task. However, they tend to be a set of skills that many managers and leaders do not have themselves, so they find it very difficult to teach others.
Here are just a few of the skills that are essential to “play nice in the sandbox” that are not inherent in everyone’s personality, but can be taught:
§ Building self awareness – Most individuals do not have a high degree of awareness of why they act and react the way they do, especially to the point where they can change their reaction as necessary.
§ Identifying common goals – Focusing more on daily tasks, many people never take the time to identify goals, much less what goals are universal to their team or organization, and how each person’s contribution is essential.
§ Earning trust – There are a variety of ways people describe trustworthy behaviors. One of the most common is that people Do What They Say They will Do. Try this: in a group of 10 people, ask them for a definition of that phrase, you will get a huge variety of responses.
§ Communicating effectively – Talking to one another is something that seems like it should be really simple, but based on the enormous volume of resources available on the topic, skills such as listening are on the forefront of what people need to learn more about how to do well.
§ Engaging in productive conflict – Rarely more than 5% of the room ever responds that they enjoy conflict when I ask the question. Yet so much productive conversation, innovative thinking and utilization of creative and unique approaches are never seized without a productive discussion that may stem from or be full of conflict.
§ Interacting with those very different from you – Not only do many individuals not have a firm grasp on their own style and how they come across, but seeing the strengths and benefits of others’ approach is challenging to do without some good tools in your toolbelt.
§ Increasing confidence by improving one’s own performance – There is only so much that we can improve without continually asking and challenging ourselves with what we will do differently. Consistently doing a great job often feels like enough to us, since our lives are so busy or stressful, and is considered enough by our supervisors who may not wish to challenge us or rock the boat if we are doing a good job already. Without incremental and continuous success and improvements the confidence of any member of the team can erode, which may result in increased defensiveness.
Share your insights! Agree or Disagree. What other skills have you learned that make you a better sandbox member than you were years ago? What skills have you taught your team that make them easier to get along with – resulting in better business results?