How a Startup Created Better Communication Through Clearer Values

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Feb 20, 2020

Communication is never perfect. We hear what we want to or discern an insult where none was intended. We misread signals or choose words that have undesired effects. Part of being human is failing, at times, to be understood.

But we can always work on improving our approach to understanding ourselves and each other, especially in the workplace. As we move between face-to-face meetings, email chains, and instant messaging, the potential for misunderstanding grows. This is true for day-to-day tasks and responsibilities but also in the sharing of company values and long-term goals.

When people in a team work to become aware of their habits, they can learn to avoid repeating unhelpful patterns and adapt their communication strategies to each other. For any organization, big or small, fostering this kind of awareness can be a crucial step. It leads to better cohesion and a sense of shared purpose. It also nurtures the type of positive company culture in which employees feel loyalty and satisfaction, and where expectations and goals are clear to them. 

What I walked into as an HR leader

Spacebase was founded in Berlin in 2014 and offers an online booking platform for creative meeting and work event spaces. I joined the company in Spring 2019 as HR Manager, and it soon became clear to me that communication among the company’s 30 employees could be improved. At times, it seemed like different departments spoke different languages. Though we were all under one roof, these communication issues led to uncertainty and inefficiency, which could be avoided.

I wanted to help staff understand themselves — their feelings, their habits, and patterns of behavior in everyday scenarios. Then we needed to bring this individual focus into team dynamics — how do different personalities interact, and what are our blindspots as a company? Through this, we could then implement change and help the company grow.

It was essential to involve the entire team in this project, from interns to senior management, and so we brought in an external coach. We hoped personal coaching would yield higher levels of engagement. I talked with our coach, Frank Christie, for 3-4 months through emails and phone calls before he came to the office in September. This relationship with a coach is important. As Frank explains himself, “I would encourage companies to engage with a consultant who they are able to establish a connection with and one they can trust. It is only after this that a consultant can really add value to their business through assessment and then planning, action, implementation, change management, and engagement.”

Identifying core drivers

First, senior management sat down with Frank and identified our core drivers. Our goal here was clarity — to find out who we are as a company, based on the values that matter most to us.

On Post-it notes, we each wrote down our top five values and stuck them to the wall. This exercise gave an overview of us as a group, from values such as adventurous and creative, to expert and ambitious. The next stage was to group any values which overlapped. For instance, the expert value was combined with knowledge. Then we held rounds of voting — going to the wall and marking our choices with a small line each time until the final number was whittled down to five core drivers: strategy, compassion, knowledge, determination, respect.

For the management team, this was an important step. We had never previously condensed the organization into a few words like this, and it acted as a mission statement for the kind of company we want to be. Naming our values like this helped us align our daily actions and long-term decisions, and to better communicate Spacebase’s vision with our team.

Communicating in color

With the rest of the team, we focused on self-awareness and personal development. Before the workshops started, everyone completed individual questionnaires. The detailed results assign each person a personality type, based on a Jungian model which differentiates along axes of introversion/extroversion and thinking/feeling. These give an overview of four main styles and preferences of communication, identified by color: red, blue, green, yellow.

In the workshops that followed, we discussed the general tendencies of each style and aimed to sensitize people to how their own “color” might interact with the others. We then explored how to apply these insights to practical working contexts.

In one activity, we used Smarties to guess which color was dominant for each person. This activity involved not only self-reflection but also becoming aware of how others perceive us. Some people were surprised to learn that how they were viewed by others was at odds with how they saw themselves. Then we looked at how opposing personalities interact, for better or worse.

We discussed how, for example, a decisive and assertive ‘red’ might find a slower, consensus-based ‘green’ to be obstructive, hesitant, and inflexible — while, in the other direction, the green might find reds arrogant, demanding, and impatient. Equally, methodical and rational blue types can clash with sociable, outgoing yellows.

The workshop highlighted that different people have fundamentally different ways of expressing their needs. At the same time, colors gave a neutral vocabulary in which the team could describe themselves, making it much easier for us to open up about ourselves and the difficulties we run into. Often, when describing what a red or a blue tends to do in a given scenario, at least one person would have to smile and say, “Yep, that’s me!” As a group, we shared the experience of getting to know ourselves and each other better.

Furthermore, becoming aware of these differences allowed people to think of new strategies they might use in the office. By knowing ourselves and our audience, we can adapt how we communicate to better the chances of being understood as we intend to be. So reds might need to give greens more time to reflect on decisions sometimes, while greens should be clear and upfront about what they need from reds. This approach avoids judgment and points to clear, practical strategies.

Outcomes for Spacebase

These workshops were hugely beneficial — but we knew we needed to take concrete steps to implement lasting changes. Our priorities were to promote a feedback culture, encourage team vision, and empower team members to own the ongoing process. We worked to create a shared language and purpose which the whole team could stay committed to and involved in.

First, we encourage teams to set aside time twice a month to discuss their tasks and processes. I sat in on these at first to help guide the discussions, and since then, team leads have been responsible for continuing these meetings. They are often organized as team breakfasts, in which the team cooks together and then have time and space to give each other feedback or clear up misunderstandings. Employees know they will have this forum in which to share their experiences, and so negative feelings do not accumulate. Instead, they have been thinking consciously about how to get the best results out of each other and putting their new awareness into practice to recognize themselves and how they fit into the organization.

One employee told me they now approach their manager (who is red) differently. When meeting to discuss projects, they prepare a concise list of problems and possible solutions well in advance. This tactic means, when they sit down with their manager, they are ready to say what exactly it is they need from the manager at that time. They also know that any plans or ideas they voice will be taken as a firm commitment to delivering these outcomes. Furthermore, as a highly sociable yellow, the employee now understands not to expect small talk and not to feel too offended if the meeting is wrapped up in 5 minutes. This has lead to a clearer understanding on both sides and a more satisfying working relationship overall.

Another employee, surprised people found her logical and a little cold, has been making more effort to be available socially. She allows herself to spend some time each day talking about personal subjects, not only the details of work tasks. Taking this step, she has found herself feeling better integrated into the team. In return, her colleagues recognize her preference for details and analysis when tackling problems, and that her use of rational arguments in conversation should not be taken as hostile or difficult.

Second, we set up a buddy system. Employees each picked someone from a different department, who they can also choose to have regular meet-ups with. In these informal chats, they discuss their goals and any changes they are trying to make. Sharing these with a trusted peer makes them accountable, yet avoids a top-down hierarchy. Instead, our staff has time to reflect on their development and take control of their narratives.

Finally, we have tried out a few company-wide initiatives. We offer daily meditation breaks to ease mid-afternoon slumps and give people a chance to pursue mindfulness practices. We also changed the format of weekly all-hands meetings. Whereas in the past, these sometimes lacked a clear purpose; they are now a chance to gather and remind ourselves of the company’s core drivers. We do this by asking a different department each week to present their work to the rest of the company. They get five minutes – one minute per core driver – to talk about what strategy, compassion, knowledge, determination, and respect mean to them. It’s a way for us all to think about how abstract values translate into daily tasks and behaviors.

By timing them and shouting encouragement, we make a game out of the exercise, and it has become a light-hearted way to keep reminding ourselves of what our values look like and sound like. It also keeps our team members in the role of collaborators, with ownership of the changes being developed. It is all of our business, not just management or an external coach.

There are no overnight solutions, and the week of workshops was one of the most intense of my working life. It was a significant investment of time and energy – but the result has been an invigorated team culture, which lets people thrive, and a better understanding of who we are and what our message is.

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