Dancing with Strangers

Published: June 16, 2014

Engaging with unknown partners poses risks. Without the context of a track record, it's hard to predict the direction collaboration might take. A cocktail of trust, courage, and adventure must be consumed before dancing with a stranger.

Recently, five leaders with disparate talents and divergent backgrounds agreed to embark on three-day marathon retreat with no prior history of working together as a team. The project goal was defined yet the achievement path was open for debate. With each participant established as a leader in their respective area of expertise, the prospect for conflict was high. Who follows if everyone leads?

The outcome was magical. Deference was the common fuel for creativity. When one person soared to the clouds with an unusual idea, another remained rooted in practicality so the soaring talent could keep an eye on the ground. When anyone expressed a hint of frustration about being accurately understood, teammates increased the sensitivity settings on their listening mechanisms. When a well-intended contributor slipped down into the rabbit hole getting lost in the murkiness of micro-detail, a collaborator offered a hand so his or her partner could resurface to a place where the bigger picture was visible.

Beyond the accomplishment of the project goals, friendships were forged. Sometimes, it takes years of trial and error to establish a reliable foundation of trust. Other times, trust is granted for free and the risk it will be broken is assumed collectively. When you dance with strangers, shared risk sometimes becomes shared reward.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst College where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.