Seeing the World Through Your Teammate’s Eyes

Published: November 14, 2017

Our contribution to our teams includes a history of bias. We each see the world through a unique lens filtered by a blend of past experiences and learning style. Often, innovation is hampered by bias. We believe we are considering every possible angle yet we’re limited by the boundaries of our own perspective. Alternate views are alien and cause discomfort if they don’t fit the tidy little universe we’ve created. What might happen if we turned it upside-down? Reflect on these two examples:

Bias: 50 years ago

Visiting friends over the weekend, we entered a warm and inviting living room with a fire blazing in the fireplace. A relaxed conversation over appetizers turned to the topic of fire building. The host invited the guests to describe the steps in building a fire. Having learned the art of fire building 50 years ago as a Cub Scout, I confidently described the process of working from the bottom up beginning with kindling and moving upward with increasingly larger wood. After all, heat rises and the little stuff gradually ignites the bigger stuff. I finished my summary by reminding everyone how to periodically stoke the fire and add logs to keep it burning.

The host smiled as his fire continued to roar unattended. There was no stoking nor did he add any logs. He shared that he, too, had learned the bottom-up tepee method of starting a fire as a boy. A few weeks ago, however, he had been challenged by a friend to consider the opposite approach. He was coached to place the largest logs at the bottom, followed by gradually smaller wood and then topping it off with a few pieces of dry kindling. His friend assured him that the burning kindling would slowly work its way down into the logs below resulting in a no-maintenance fire lasting the duration of the evening. Hours later, as we departed our friend’s abode, the fire continued to crackle.

Bias: 15 years ago

Back when my son was a Cub Scout, he participated in the annual Pinewood Derby. While some scouts focused on building cars for speed, my son was inspired by appearance. He wanted his creation scroll-sawed into the windy shape of a snake. He carefully painted the name “SNAKE” on the side of the car. Unfortunately, when he installed the wheels, the front wheel covered the “S” leaving only the “NAKE” visible to observers. The finishing touch was to craft a forked-tongue with a rubber band and attach it to the front of NAKE.

NAKE ran four races. He lost the first three by wide margins because he never made it to the end of the track. My son would dejectedly pick up his vehicle with a quizzical look. In the final heat, the dad responsible for placing the cars at the starting gate inadvertently placed NAKE backwards thinking the forked-tongue was a tail. My son protested in a desperate effort to persuade the dad to reverse NAKE’s direction. It was too late. The starting gate lifted and NAKE zoomed to the finish line backwards – way ahead of his competition. He was much faster running backwards than ever imagined in his frontwards design.

Chances are someone else on the team sees the challenge differently. The wider the disparity, the greater the opportunity for something truly innovative to occur. Suspend belief long enough to imagine a future contrary to intuition. Let common sense become uncommon. How does the world look through your teammates’ eyes?

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 University 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.