Self-help books work for teams too

3 minute read

A glance at Medium’s Top Stories on most days suggests I’m not only one who reads a lot about self improvement.

Sundry productivity and “life hacks” are mainstays (“23 Best Productivity Hacks of the Year” is trending at the moment), but a lot is just general advice for a healthy and positive outlook on life (“Always Believe You’re Good Enough” is near the top as I write this). Both types have obvious applications in a work setting — perhaps even for determining precisely which type of work one should be doing.

But lately I’m intrigued by finding ways that self-improvement advice might also apply to a group or company as a whole system, and not just the individuals within it.

There’s evidence that groups of people behave (and on some level “think”) if not perhaps quite as a literal single organism, then at least like any other complex organic system — and so it follows they might respond to similar techniques as individuals for improving the group’s health, productivity, and overall well-being. Here’s Jonatan Haidt, writing in “The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom”:

David Sloan Wilson has recently argued that the banishment of group selection theories on the basis of some oversimplified computer models from the 1960s was one of the biggest mistakes in the history of modern biology. If you make the models more realistic, more like real human beings, group selection jumps right out at you. Wilson points out that human beings evolve at two levels simultaneously: genetic and cultural. The simple models of the 1960s worked well for creatures without culture; for them, behavioral traits must all be encoded in the genes, which are passed on only along lines of kinship. But everything a person does is influenced not only by her genes but also by her culture, and cultures evolve, too.

With that passage on my mind, “The Side Effects of Should” surfaced. It’s a reminder that “should” is one of our inner critic’s most potent weapons, frequently “Used to indicate obligation or correctness. Often used to criticize.” The post argues for eradication of “should” from conversations with ourselves (in favor of owning and honoring what is), and after reading that I thought about how often that word comes up in meetings and memos — and how even when well intentioned, it can be corrosive for a team or group:

  • “We should have a better mobile strategy”
  • “We should go after the Chinese market”
  • “We should really add blue widgets to our product”

“We should” creates an implicit sense of obligation among those it’s (ambiguously) directed at about a “correct” action. (And in my experience it’s indeed often used to criticize: if something is the right thing to do, and “we” have an obligation to do it, then if we haven’t done it already, well then someone’s probably to blame.)

The problem with “we should” is it leaves out vital information. Is it the correct thing to do? What is likely to happen if we do? If we don’t? If we do X, then what Y are we then not able to do (that someone else might just as reasonably say we “should” do too)? What could we do instead of X to accomplish our goal?

The next time you hear someone use “We should do X” (especially if it’s you!) try one of these reframing approaches:

  • Reframe it as a question.Should we do X?” Just swapping those first two words transforms the phrase from a foregone conclusion to an exploration of future possibilities, which is a much more creative space for the group to think about the future rather than judging the present.
  • Return the obligation back to the proposer. “We could do X, but ….”. “Bob, that’s a really interesting idea, and we could do X, but first I have some concerns, and I’d like to see if anyone else has them too.” By removing the assumption that it’s the (only) “correct” option, you have the chance to evaluate the idea in a wider context as just one of many possibilities, all with particular tradeoffs.

Effective. Mindful. Kind. Generous. Honest. Successful. So much of what we wish was true about ourselves also describes the kind of groups we’re likely to thrive in. Perhaps there’s ways to use at least some of all that self-improvement advice out there to build better organizations too.