Using the big picture to support your team

Details on their own can be useless without the bigger picture. If we hone our ability to pay attention to tiny details and then connect them with other details, we can build a bigger picture that's useful for guiding a team in the right direction, regardless of what position you hold in that team.

Noticing details

I learned the value of perception as a skill when I worked with non-verbal autistic primary children. Say you notice a small detail about the way a child does something, such as one little boy I'll call Henry, and his tendency to always play up when his teacher Martin spoke to him.

If you keep that detail in mind, even though it might be unconnected to anything, you can combine it with other information later. In paying attention to the relationship between Martin and Henry, you can figure out how they got into a situation where the adult has become a trigger for the child's problematic behaviour.

The thing about challenging behaviours in children is that many of them are just a reaction to an adult's previous behaviour.

Some adults still believe punishment is effective, and will raise their voice and express anger at a child to prevent unwanted behaviours. But punishment has a range of unwanted side effects and often is not even effective at preventing behaviours. The best case scenario is the behaviour stops when you're watching, but continues when your back is turned.

Punishment does more to damage the adult-child relationship than improve behaviour. It also creates fear, which has a bundle of its own unwanted effects on creativity and self-expression.

Another of those side effects is revenge. If you get angry with a child, they'll feel hurt. Their natural response will be more anger, and they'll act on it however they can. If they're timid they'll find discreet ways to do this and you may never realise, such as hiding your keys or stealing from you.

So Henry was doing the opposite of what Martin asked him to do and was getting immense joy from this. Every time Martin asked Henry to go somewhere, he would drop to the floor, giggle, his body would go limp and he would refuse to move or do anything but laugh. This was hard when it was lunch time and we all had to be in the dining hall, or it was time to come in from the playground, because he simply wouldn't move. An adult would have to stay with him, and we were already thin on the ground. Our adult to child ratio was 1:2, so pressure was on the rest of us to manage with fewer adults. Some of our children attack and bite other children randomly, so this wasn't easy.

Martin was frequently engaging in a battle of wills with Henry, trying to make him do something he didn't want to do and getting increasingly forceful about it. Martin clearly believed being in control at all times was important. The child's only recourse to protect his sense of autonomy was to do the opposite of what Martin told him.

This is a natural human response when we lose our autonomy and someone is trying to force us into something. We get the urge to rebel. If we have social awareness, it takes all our will power to resist this. If we lack social awareness, we don't bother resisting.

I was at the bottom of the heirarchy on this team. I was "just" a teaching assistant, and so finding the courage to share these observations was hard, but they were heard and acted on.

Combining details to build a bigger picture

Things are a little different in adult-only workplaces. Although adults are basically large children who are better at 'seeming' mature on the outside, people don't tend to drop to the floor if their manager asks them to do something.

Details you might notice instead could be something like a colleague presenting their ideas to a team but they're a little shaky and nervous. Even though their ideas are good, they don't seem so sure.

That same colleague might then drop a hint that she's tired of arguing about a particular way of doing things, and that she just goes with the status quo now.

At which point you have two details that suggest this person feels nervous about putting forward her ideas, and has felt attacked over ideas she's shared in the past. Attacked might mean criticism, or just a simple question of why they've done it at all, delivered with a bewildered tone.

The ideas aren't what's important here, it's that the person feels safe being their authentic self at work. They may decide one day, based on past criticism, to not share an idea that could be the best the company has seen.

Maybe there isn't enough positive feedback. Maybe she constantly feels like nothing she does is great because she's only given feedback when there's a problem, and ignored when she's doing well. Maybe her positive feedback is always generic and lacks the specificity it needs to feel genuine, meaningful and guiding. There can be any number of reasons, but regardless of where you sit on a team, you can make a difference.

By asking for that person's thoughts in private and responding in whatever positive, supportive way you can, you can rebuild that safety, even privately between you. At least then if that person feels safe sharing with you, you can help them feel confident to share it wider. Sometimes all it takes to tip someone out of second guessing themselves on something is someone else to be positive and reassuring beforehand, so they're not going in blind - or alone.

My two examples are simplistic. To make my point I've had to embellish the first example to protect privacy and I made the second up entirely. There can be several details that relate to a problem and you can find them all over the place.

When observing the world around us, our brain looks for things that matter to us and discards the rest. If a detail doesn't seem relevant, we forget about it. But we don't always know if something will matter until later, so keeping an open mind about what you see and hear is useful, as details can be parts of a puzzle that later becomes easier to solve when you have more pieces to work with. Or indeed, part of a puzzle you don't know is a puzzle yet.