Let's be honest: Teams suck!
Let me give you an example: my Co-founder and I had some pretty rough conflicts last year.
We were running on a treadmill, trying to manage the workload desperately. What we did not realise fast enough was how we were slowly drifting apart. The conflicts between us were becoming worse and worse to the point where I dreaded going to the office. When I spoke to Max (also an entrepreneur), he gave me super valuable but equally simple advice:
"Have a one-on-one every day for 30 minutes and watch how all the "emotional stuff" will dissipate into Nirvana".
And so, we did! Admittedly I had my doubts. Our only commitment to each other was to listen to our concerns with an open heart. That's it! It only took us three days to get back on track. As simple as it sounds, we were just listening to each other's pain, and worries seemed to do the trick.
A few years ago, I was still living in Sydney. At the time, I came across a framework called RELISH. Let's take a closer look and see what insights we can gain from running a business!
When working through his personal development, Peter Burow, the author of the framework, stumbled upon many nuggets and insights from the Mayan culture to modern attachment theory. He created a succinct framework based on his research, which helps teams grow and flourish, especially in times of extreme change.
Let's look at the needs one by one and see how they might be relevant for running your team productively.
We want to belong!
And we want to know where our place in the group is. If you don't believe me, watch how people in a workshop will almost zombie-like go back to their exact seats after a break. The biggest fear, dating back to our ancestors, is the threat of being excluded from the tribe. Google also calls this the space of psychological safety. It is fundamental and develops in the infant through the attachment to the mother or father in the first 6–12 months.
Professor Matthew Lieberman at UCLA conducted some exciting experiments and found that the experience of social exclusion activates the same regions within the brain that are activated when a person experiences physical pain. The brain's interpretation of social exclusion mirrors its interpretation of physical danger.
If your team members do not experience a sense of belonging, all sorts of strange things start to happen: Politics, the culture will be spiralling down, and productivity goes into free fall. A friend once said to me: "you cannot tell people often enough how much you value their work".
So, as leaders, we need to double down on the group's identity and its members to feel valuable and safe.
Expressing your feelings is crucial.
We know from neuroscientific studies: when you mask your feelings, your intelligence drops temporarily since your brain is consistently preoccupied with hiding your genuine emotions. Hence, you will be struggling complex solving problems at the same time.
According to some UK studies, this corresponds to the drop in intelligence when smoking dope. Our brain wants to self-express. So, as founders, we need to provide the channels for our team to articulate our internal states. Do it in daily standups through a quick and honest check-in about how everyone is feeling. The articulation of your feelings alone will help release at least some of the internal tensions and help your team to focus on the task at hand.
We want to achieve!
It turns out that status and individual achievement will trigger the release of dopamine in our brains. Remember that first time you were presenting on stage and got standing ovations? Or, the feeling after that 100m sprint when you outdid the competition? Small achievements will make you feel proud and give you the energy to keep going even when things are getting tough.
As a founder, you can foster that sense of achievement by regularly recognising your team. Interestingly, money only plays a minor role in this. Aligning individual motivations with the team's goals are a lot more critical for a productive culture than financial incentives.
It's all about love!
Love is an essential aspect of your human existence. As a Startup founder, you may sometimes feel like the walking dead because your business is barely surviving, making just enough money to pay for a cappuccino in that local coffee shop but not enough to get by long-term.
Feeling genuinely understood by people who can empathise with what you are going through is often necessary. This is precisely why groups like the anonymous alcoholics make sense. We need a group of unknown entrepreneurs.
You may have heard of Oxytocin, a neurotransmitter that typically gets released in a mother when she looks at her infant. Or remember that ecstasy trip when you were young and wild, dancing away loving even your worst enemy? MDMA is the synthetic drug behind ecstasy, which fosters deep connective feelings and the release of Oxytocin. Interestingly, when we feel down in the dumps, we often get a hit of Oxytocin. This serves an important evolutionary function: to reach out to people when the going gets tough and to find solutions as a group rather than individuals.
Learning, learning, learning
The top reason why artificial intelligence has taken off in the 21st century is that we have started simulating the human brain and are feeding algorithms with experiences (essentially data) that trigger a self-learning process from the bottom up.
This happens in contrast to more traditional programming approaches where a programmer would design abstract rules to cater for every eventuality through if-then statements. So, it is not a surprise that learning is part of our human experience and makes us flourish in ever more complex life situations. This is what the 5th social cognitive need is about: our brain is looking for constant feedback to navigate complexity and deal with previously unseen problems. The advantage of working in a Startup environment is that you are almost forced to update your knowledge consistently.
You are entering unchartered territory from day one, and so learning is part of the deal. Still, it may be a good idea for us founders to facilitate proactive learning sessions where we exchange ideas, provide feedback and try to catch some of that genius from other people around us.
''Let your hopes, not your hurts, shape your future."
The brain needs reassurance that the story will end well. Provided you have done a great job as a leader on all the other social cognitive needs, hope for the Future will implicitly and mysteriously emerge. It is a lag indicator and not a lead indicator. It means when building a team. It is less critical to provide the perfect vision for the Future than to make people feel safe, let them self-express, connect with them and offer some valuable means for feedback and learning.