Tree with exposed roots

We’re On The Same Team

Years ago, after one of those silly arguments all couples get into, my wife and I made a rule for ourselves. No matter what the disagreement, we must always keep in mind that we are on the same team.

We may vehemently disagree with the other about the topic at hand, but fundamentally, we are in this together and reaching for the same goals. We are both trying to improve the relationship and push our shared goals forward, even if the way we do it may differ or if we make mistakes along the way.

We’re on the same team.

This creates a foundation of understanding and trust, a lens through which to view flare-ups and screw-ups, and a way to move forward together.

That escalated quickly

Years later, I had a situation at work that could have used this foundation. A person on my team screwed up. I don’t remember exactly what the incident was, but it was minor.

The Account Executive on the account stormed into my office claiming that both I and my direct-report who had made the error were sabotaging the project, that my direct-report should be fired. To top it off the AE questioned my abilities as manager (this person had never managed a team).

I didn’t know where to begin. I was angry at the accusations and the mountain-out-of-molehill nature of them, but knew I had to find a way to calm this person down (they were on the verge of tears) and make progress on resolving the issue in the short-term and keeping an effective working relationship long-term. This wouldn’t be the only project we worked on together.

Root cause

I couldn’t help but be reminded of the arguments my wife and I had gotten into. The AE wasn’t concerned over the actual mistake, she was expressing a much deeper concern. I took a deep breath, asked the AE to calm down, and told them the story about me and my wife (with more detail than I did above).

First off, this took us both out of the heat of the moment so we could calm down and gain some perspective. Second, I was sharing a personal story; opening yourself up emotionally is always disarming. Third, it gave us a productive way forward and allowed us to address their concerns.

Most importantly, it addressed the root cause. This was not about a missed deadline, a website error, an unsent email, or whatever the actual mistake was. This was a trust issue. The true problem, that would continue to come up if unaddressed, was that the Account Executive did not think, did not trust, that we shared their goal.

I reminded them that no matter what happens, even if someone screws up, we have to go into every discussion with the trust that we’re on the same team, we all want the same thing: a happy, successful client.

We’re on the same team.

Trust + shared goals = happy client, happy team

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the last time this happened with this Account Executive. I, and others, had multiple tear-soaked run-ins where minor mishaps were turned into catastrophe and career questioning. Now we all had a useful shorthand to diffuse the situation and remind everyone what was important. It became our mantra:

We’re on the same team. We’re on the same team. We’re on the same team.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Kandinsky abstract art

Empathy & Ego: What I Learned During Six-Hour Art School Critique Classes

All sophomore photography majors at the School of Visual Arts are required to take a six-hour critique class. From 9am to 3pm every Thursday, with brief breaks for snacks and smokes, a steady stream of aspiring Avedons tack their work to the wall one by one and defend it against the jaded questioning of the thirty or so others in the class.

The six-hour critique format was brutal and by design.

If you were lucky enough to present during the first hour, before the coffee had kicked in, you could expect to get through the proceedings without too much trouble. Hour two would bring raised voices and lots of, “But whyyy did you choose to do that?”

Yelling was to be expected by the pre-lunch hour, when people were fully caffeinated and starving for calories and cigarettes. By hour four, the gloves were off and tears weren’t uncommon.

Ego is an Impediment and an Imperative

Great artists figure out their best work is an extension, a reflection, of themselves. It is quite a trick to both be and create that mirror (a mirror, not a movie, big difference).

This is why it is so hard to hear thirty caffeine-fueled, nicotine-starved self-proclaimed artists rip apart, sometimes literally, the work you put on the wall. It is not a piece of paper up there, it is literally you on that pockmarked wall, crucified by thumbtacks.

Eventually, we learn we must put all of ourselves into the work and then separate ourselves from it.

We learn our ideas aren’t sacred.

We learn we are a work-in-progress.

We learn others can help us improve.

We learn ego is an imperative and an impediment.

This is as true for the artist as it is for the entrepreneur or the designer, the intern or the CEO, the husband or the wife, the student or the teacher.

Empathy is a Superpower

Empathy, the word, is adapted from “einfühlung,” a German word coined by an art critic, imagine that, looking for a better way to talk about and understand art. In order to do so you must project your yourself into the art. Einfühlung translates as “into feeling.”

Empathy then is not simply sharing or understanding the feelings of another. The Oxford English Dictionary contains this early, fantastic definition:

The power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation

You catch that? Empathy is not an emotion, it’s a power. It requires you to not only understand the object, but crucially, empathy requires that you understand yourself.

Two Key Lessons

I didn’t become a professional artist, but the lessons from this marathon class arise almost daily in my professional life as a marketing / product development executive, team leader, and mentor.

  1. Put your best work out there, but understand that no idea is sacred. You must accept the fact that your idea can be, will be, improved by revealing it to others.
  2. When giving feedback, fully understand both what the creator is trying to achieve as well as what you are bringing to the discussion.

None of these things were in the syllabus. Wisdom only comes with time.


Thanks to Fawn Potash, the professor of my sophomore critique class. 

Thanks to Jon Budington, for originally exposing me to the word einfühlung and the true meaning of empathy.