Group operations

Last night I got to catch up with my B, which was wonderful—a humming re-synchronization that only paused because it was almost 10pm and I hadn’t eaten any dinner. Yes, I was hungry sooner but I missed her more, and each of our schedules is sufficiently both full and fractured enough that this three hours was a gift.

At the beginning of the end—that is, the first time I mentioned that I hadn’t yet eaten dinner—B paused, and told me she had something she needed to share, that she wanted my emotional support with. It seems that all the members of one of her pre-Spring Break project teams gave her a scathing review: harsh, combative, running roughshod over each of them and all of them. Which blindsided her: she hadn’t picked up on that during their time together. More than that, the feedback stabbed her in her professional pride: her skills as a project manager.

It was unexpected for her biased mother as well. I’ve watched her operate in her heterogeneous Girl Scout troop, and while she’s energetic and (quite literally) leans in, she usually has enough emotional awareness to sustain pleasant working relationships.

What I found myself wondering, as one who spent a decade in mostly-male, tech-focused workplaces, was whether she had just been pummeled for not being a guy.

That is, if she had been the other gender, would her team have instead sighed and rolled with her energy, her spurts of words, her quick-minded ability to hear to the end of someone’s words before they finish them, assess the content, and draw a conclusion that she’s outlining even as their last phrase fades from their lips? Because that was how most of the team and staff meetings I participated in went during my tech-life.

I did not find this comfortable, mind you. It took me some time to fully absorb that the noise, the body-shift into face-to-face proximity, the energy had nothing to do with emotions—or not people-emotions. Just idea-emotions. And at the end of the meeting all the idea-emotions would fall to the floor, we would walk out, and happily go to lunch together. It was as alien to them that any of this would be personal as it was to me that all this passion and energy would not have interpersonal ripples.

I practiced rolling with it. It was tiring, but I wanted my presence in the room to have weight and my voice to be recognized…and this seemed to be the way that would happen. I had a female colleague who flat-out refused—would not raise out of her chair to lean across the table and say, “Hey! You just repeated my idea. You left out the part about xxx.” She justly pointed out that she should not have to change herself, that she should be able to be herself and be heard. True, but being true didn’t mean it was going to happen.

I think B would fit in fine in my former workplaces. She might even operate well in Intel’s (in)famous “creative conflict” culture, though that would be a bridge too far for me. And that may be how she got this far—she’s been leading projects since she was 14—without getting this particular critique. In the continuum that is project-group behavior, she’s toward the driver end, and groups handle drivers differently.

On the commute this morning I found myself remembering my favorite moment of my high school educational career. It was in 10th grade. In Global Studies, which was secretly a critical thinking class that overtly covered geography and world affairs. I had been with this cohort of classmates since 7th grade, an unusually long time in my life experience, and I was known to be a bossy brain. None of you is surprised that I had acquired the role—I have always had big, clearly-assessed ideas that I gather quickly and can articulate thoroughly.

But I hated the position. I hated being “outside” and other. I hated the feeling that came off my classmates as I tried to get everyone to contribute to the plan, hated pushing noodles. Hated the resentful faces that my assigned teammates showed me on this particular day. The project at hand was to develop an African poverty initiative, United Nations-style, that was inclusive and could be implemented across multiple nations and ethnic groups. Oh, and we would be graded not only on our group’s presentation, but on our group’s ability to answer questions on our plan: any team member, any question. So much for the usual “divide into content fiefdoms and separate” approach.

As Mr. Douds explained the assignment, I mulled my loathing for the emotional climate to come. And somehow, I decided I would do this a different way. This was well before all the great training I gained through therapy, so I can’t tell you how I reached this epiphany. But I decided:

I would not have a plan. I would not express an opinion. I would be a true facilitator: I would write things down, and I would ask questions. And I would write down those answers and ask more questions. I would ask questions that would turn into a schedule, and turn into task assignments. And I would see what happened.

Frankly, I didn’t see that it could possibly be any worse than what went before.

Instead, it was magic.

It was challenging magic. I had to bite holes in my lip and my tongue. I had to practice my poker face, and use what I later learned to call “non-anxious presence.” It was as much work as the previous method, but I found it energizing. I particularly found my teammates’ response energizing, as they unfolded and stretched into the space I cleared for them and their ideas.

We got an A. Better than that, when we’d finished our presentation and opened the floor for questions, my teammates fell all over themselves trying to answer them—interrupting each other, adding, and amplifying in their eagerness to share the beautiful thing that we’d made together. I don’t think I even answered one.

I can’t say I shed my bossy-brain image. But I gained so much it didn’t matter.

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