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Managing your 'little monsters'

Susanne Bransgrove

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How clear values can help tame teams.

The concept of values is certainly not new. We are all familiar with the posters citing “teamwork” or “loyalty” displayed in many offices.

Yet in most cases, leaders and their staff are not able to name their company’s values, what it means to live by them and why they matter, nor are they able to articulate their own personal values.

Values form an important part of creating common language among your team to build a strong foundation of understanding, which is much needed to provide a team environment where people feel comfortable, safe and able to concentrate on their tasks.

Before you dismiss the concept of values and common language as a bunch of soft stuff that doesn’t seem to relate to business, consider that neuroscientific research has increasingly found proof that our brains are social, and that social pain is experienced as vividly and painfully as physical pain. The only difference is that social pain can be remembered more intensely than physical pain. The more sensitive a person is, the stronger the experience.

If your team members are experiencing social pain in your workplace, think about the consequences this has on their well-being, let alone on team harmony and business performance.

To create a workplace that can go from a battleground to your vision of brilliance, below are some insights that can help you better understand the basics of human behavior and the possible reasons for disruption in your workplace, along with tools and approaches to improve the status quo:

1. If our brains are social brains, how does this impact team behavior and show up in the workplace?

Human beings have a fundamental need to belong and are incredibly sensitive to their social context. Our brains are hard wired to minimize threat and maximize reward, so we are naturally motivated to remain in good standing within our social groups — including our work team — and we want to avoid social exclusion.

There is a strong argument that considering the social, emotional responses and needs of others plays a strong role in helping people successfully collaborate and understand each other.

This is a long way removed from thinking that tasks, KPIs and deadlines are key to helping your team perform well.

If individuals on your team experience social exclusion, the pain this causes will result in fight, flight and freeze responses. In turn, their response can flow to other team members, who consequently might feel threatened.

If you would like a starting point to understand the main areas that can cause your team members to feel socially excluded, you can look at the SCARF model. These five domains can influence a wide range of human emotions, and the model can be used to create common language and improve your team members’ capacity to understand their own and others’ behavior.

Status: sense of importance relative to others

Certainty: need for clarity

Autonomy: sense of control over the events of one’s life

Relatedness: sense of connection and security with others

Fairness: just and unbiased exchanges between people

2. How can values help create common language, and why is this useful?

Every person is different, and how we experience and assess a situation will vary. What might be experienced by one of your team members as fair will not be perceived as fair in the eyes of another — possibly triggering an emotional response.

While the emotional response might be seen in the eyes of some as unjustified, others might align with it. This becomes a source of friction that can be avoided.

Spending time to clearly articulate the business and team values helps to create common language, which aids understanding and allows team members to feel safe.

Below is the outline of a workshop you can share with your team to identify your shared values:

What do we believe our core values are? Make sure every team member provides their own short list, and then distill your top three to five values as a team.

What actions do we feel are in line with our values, and why does this matter to us?

What behaviors are not in line with our values?

In a review session, ask your team to bring images that reflect each.

Reference these values in your meetings and performance reviews.

3. What if the concept of common language can be extended to assist with emotions?

Given that every brain is different and every person in this world experiences any situation uniquely, there is also evidence that our emotions are constructed by our brain. Lisa Feldman Barrett, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at Northeastern University, refutes the idea that emotions are things that simply happen to us. They are learned and constructed by us, unique to each person.

I am sure we have all seen emotions as one of the key causes for dysfunction and conflict in any team. If there is no absolute, then how do we create harmony?

It’s helpful to remove the stories that individuals associate with emotions, therefore lowering the impact of their individual constructed emotion and putting some common agreed-to label on emotions. Apart from creating clarity, this also engages our executive function in the brain, which reduces the fight, flight and freeze responses.

Closing thoughts

Managing and leading teams is complex and requires care and effort. We shouldn’t try to simplify the work by relying on job descriptions and performance reviews to enforce a desired behavior.

As leaders, we have the ability to impact those we lead, and we have to invest in understanding our team members. We have as much opportunity to have a positive impact as there is a risk that we might negatively impact those who trust us.

Try some of the above tools to create a safe space for your team to prosper.

Susanne Bransgrove is a speaker and panelist at national and international events, best known for her passion for simplifying the complexities that exist in teams, especially family-business teams. Contact her at


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