Remember your kindergarten report card, when you were evaluated on things like your ability to follow directions, name the colors, and sing the alphabet? It also included an early assessment of a skill that would influence your success for the rest of your life: the ability to “play well with others.” The criteria were pretty basic at the time: share, wait your turn, don’t hit or yell, help when someone is struggling. As you grow up, many of the same basic principles apply, but situations can be much more complicated for adults to play well together and still achieve desired results.
Context and personal needs often create internal conflict when trying to weigh the needs of the few against the good of the whole. And as a leader, sometimes you have to make a conscious choice to make others unhappy. Still, with a little finesse, you can meet objectives and still all play in a happy sandbox. You may not satisfy everyone all of the time, but then working together to resolve conflicts, rather than just being pleasant all of the time, can make a team stronger.
Here are seven ways to apply what you learned in the playroom to the boardroom and beyond.
1. Be truthful.
I personally find it fascinating that as kids, people are constantly taught not to lie and yet somehow as many get older sharing truth becomes harder and more rare. Of course many people believe they are honest and don’t usually lie just to get what they want, or to avoid getting in trouble. But those same people who claim to have integrity will let their colleagues and employees head off a cliff rather than say something that might offend. Of course, you don’t have to say everything that comes to mind (like a kindergartener would). And you certainly shouldn’t be unkind in your delivery. But direct honesty in most cases will solve problems quicker and earn you respect with others on the team. Discretion will help avoid hurt feelings or unnecessary social awkwardness.
2. Be fair.
Studies have recently shown that cheating is at an all time high among top ranked colleges. That means that you are likely surrounded by people in your office who don’t believe in playing fair. While it’s true that many don’t get caught right away, the odds eventually catch up. And it only takes one time doing something dishonest to be branded a cheater and lose the trust of your team. Don’t cheat to find a quicker path to success or a short cut past unpleasant tasks. You also want to be careful about playing favorites for the wrong reasons. This doesn’t mean you can’t seek efficiency or bypass bureaucracy when occasion demands. You know where the line is and why you shouldn’t cross it; listen to your inner preschool teacher’s voice.
3. Ask questions.
On the playground, kids don’t automatically assume that someone else has all the answers. They unabashedly ask until they have clarity and understanding. There is nothing worse than heading down an unproductive path because you were too shy to ask, or worse, you simply jumped to conclusions. Encourage your own. Admit when you don’t know something. Eagerly, energetically ask for clarifications and explanations, then listen to the answers.
4. Play nicely.
You can’t always choose who comes to a public playground and unless it’s your company, you won’t always get a say in who your team members are. You don’t have be friends with everybody. You don’t even have to like everybody. But there is no need to foster unnecessary conflict. A variety of personalities and types can add differing perspectives to help make a team more productive. Nobody is perfect. Engage your tolerance so you can show respect, make space, and cooperate. Do it well and everyone else may show their tolerance for your annoying idiosyncrasies as well.
5. Let things go.
The only one who suffers from a grudge is the person holding it. Make a concerted effort to address the conflict as it occurs. Then learn to let the small things go. This doesn’t mean you have to be gullible or foolish. You don’t have to play Charlie Brown to anyone else’s Lucy. But don’t waste your time on festering resentment or people who continually let you down. Resolve the conflict or walk away and move on so you can focus on doing your best work.
6. Try and try again.
When you are young you feel resilient and invincible. That very feeling caused me to jump from the top of a jungle gym and split open my chin. But sure enough, after I got my stitches out I was right back on the jungle gym (a little wiser this time.) Toddlers fall down constantly. Then they get back up and run. The older you get, the more you remember falling hurts and the more willing you are to stay on the ground. Resist that temptation. Be willing to try and fail, and try again. If something doesn’t work out, take stock and move on.
7. Say you’re sorry.
Apologizing was hard to do when you were five and your Dad was standing next to you. It is even harder to do when some adult isn’t compelling you. But a sincere apology often goes a long way to making things right. If you have made a mistake, have the humility and generosity of the spirit to admit it. And make an effort to do it in person rather than an email. Of course a hand written card is also nice.