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Why Your Team Needs To Focus On The Forest And The Trees

Forbes.com / William Arruda

Working in a business setting can be frustrating for all involved. Those who work on the front lines often think executives have their heads in the clouds, too far removed to do much good. Management often sees junior-level employees as having their heads buried in the weeds, unable to be strategic because of their limited view.

What if they’re both right? The truth is, both perspectives are necessary for an organization to thrive. If leadership is only interested in the bird’s-eye perspective while their employees only want to zoom in on day-to-day feedback from customers, the business – and the brand – will suffer.

People across all levels of the company may feel tension, conflict, and competition when they encounter differing perspectives. A savvy leader will orchestrate these roles and acknowledge that each team member may have differing but equally necessary perspectives. It’s not a matter of which people are more perceptive; they’re simply privy to different information. While a call-center employee may be worried about the problems users have with a new feature, the chief officer who signed off on the feature knows how it will pay off in the long run. But that long-term goal won’t be met without solving the users’ problems or giving the frontline staffers a “why” to carry out a “how.”

In fact, communicating a “why” that can be shared throughout the entire company is a significant hurdle for many companies. Sixty-one percent of employees don’t know their company’s mission statement; even worse, in a recent study that presented employees with six possible mission statements, only 29% were able to correctly identify their company’s.

Gaining Perspective Will Spur Growth

Bringing different business perspectives together is a lot like jumping out of planes, says Curt Cronin, a former U.S. Navy SEAL and the cofounder and CEO of Ridgeline Partners, a consulting company focused on purpose and peak performance. “Jumping out of a perfectly good airplane is always a risky initiative. Jumping out of a perfectly good airplane at high altitude with the intent to open one’s parachute at a very low altitude is a different level of risk altogether,” Cronin says. To ensure a jumper makes it down safely, he has to reorient his perspective through each phase of the harrowing jump.

“When stepping out of the aircraft at around 40,000 feet, you can see the curve of the Earth and the expanse of everything for hundreds of miles. At 20,000 feet, the detail of the landscape starts to come into focus, and the big picture begins to narrow,” he says. “By 10,000 feet, the view reveals more of the tactical details of where you’re headed. And in the final few thousand feet, for once, it’s all about missing both the forest and the trees.”

Similarly, Cronin says, business leaders need to check themselves to maintain perspective at every level: “In the complex world of business, oftentimes leaders lose perspective on what the view from the middle and the tactical end of the business looks like; in doing so, they lose the ability to communicate effectively.”

Here’s how leaders can ensure their teams see the forest and the trees:

1. Remember that your perspective may be skewed by where you stand.

It’s essential to keep in mind that a leader’s perspective isn’t more important than a lower-level employee’s; the leader simply has more tools at her disposal to influence the outcome. That means she needs to give herself “gut checks” and see how others view situations to determine whether she’s missing vital details.

One great way to do this is by asking others what they think before offering an opinion. Cronin says a willingness to listen not only reveals blind spots, but it can also repair breaks in communication between different people and departments. Asking first, declaring second gives leaders a good opportunity to hear things they might not otherwise know and to ask follow-up questions. It also gives both sides a view into how they might achieve their shared objectives.

2. Consider roles not just in terms of doing, but also thinking.

As Mark Bonchek and Elisa Steele explained in a recent Harvard Business Review article, “We normally think of roles as being about what people do, such as team leader, project manager, or researcher. … But in today’s marketplace, the smartest companies aren’t those that necessarily out-produce the competition. Instead, it’s the organizations that outthink them.”

The New York Times highlighted research showing that how teams think together determines their performance above all else. Ensuring that teams have different perspectives and strengths – and giving airtime to each – means they don’t overlook opportunities or threats, making them more innovative and competitive in the marketplace. HBR recommends determining where each person lies on a matrix of focus – fixating on ideas, processes, actions, or relationships – as well as orientation (micro or macro). This helps lock in a variety of perspectives and ensure the right people are in the right seats, both in terms of doing and thinking.

3. Don’t penalize differing perspectives.

To make sure the other two steps aren’t for naught, leaders have to examine whether they’re punishing those with contrary viewpoints. Some companies penalize those who think outside the box or quickly assign blame when risks don’t pan out. In creating a punitive atmosphere, leaders shut down other unique perspectives that are the key ingredient for growth.

To address this, managers should discuss how they respond to failure, not just how they reward success. They should also create a system of checks and balances to eliminate a biased approach that only seeks information supporting one point of view. If the data contradicts conventional wisdom, everyone needs to feel okay bringing this to light.

It may take time for the big-picture people and the detail-oriented people to get comfortable looking through each other’s lenses, but the end result will be mutual clarity – and truly visionary thinking.

Originally published on Forbes.com on 07/15/2018

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