How to never work with strangers again

How to never work with strangers again

Jamie Johnson1One of the quickest and effective ways to create caring, productive relationships between employees is also one of the easiest. And it just requires sharing a few stories. The day I learned that lesson was the day I had a long conversation with Jamie Johnson. . .

Starting a new job is one of those infrequent occasions where you can remake yourself into a better you. Working with new people who don’t have any preconceived notions about you is a gift of a blank canvass to paint the new you on. Everyone has some part of themselves they think could be better— even hardworking people with a good reputation. That’s exactly what Jamie Johnson was thinking in 2008 when he joined Seek, a research firm in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Jamie is a talented consumer researcher with a strong work ethic. He’s quick to laugh and has a warm smile—the kind of guy everyone likes. But by his own admission, he was somewhat robotic in the office, preferring not to mix business with his personal life. “I’m not here to make friends so much as to get my job done,” he thought. So the relationships he had at work were cordial, but superficial. His hallway conversations were shallow—the weather or the football game last night. On his first day at Seek, he vowed to change that. He wanted to have more meaningful connections to the people he spent eight hours a day with. With the best of intentions he started his new job with a friendly attitude and a welcoming personality.

How did Jamie assess his progress?

A year in, nobody liked me.”

That, of course, was a humble exaggeration. But the truth is, his relationships were no deeper than at previous jobs. “Why isn’t this working?” he wondered. “I’m a professional consumer researcher. I spend every day getting people to open up to me and tell me their innermost thoughts and feelings, their hopes and their dreams. And these are complete strangers I met 20 minutes ago! What am I doing with them that I’m not doing with my coworkers?”

That turned out to be the right question to ask. Actually, Jamie did have several techniques he used professionally to get people to open up to him. Self-deprecating humor always worked well. “Oh, did I ask you that already? Sorry, I’m a slow learner.” Sometimes he would find a common interest. “Hey, I have that same Beatles record. I stole it from my mom!” But the most effective technique was opening himself up, and letting himself be vulnerable—sharing a weakness or an insecurity.

All these things Jamie did with the people he was interviewing for research, but never with his coworkers. So he decided to give it a try. A few weeks later, Seek was celebrating its tenth year in business. After a tour around the city, visiting their previous office locations, they settled into a meeting room for the rest of the afternoon for team building. That’s when Jamie got his chance. The founder of the company said, “Share something about yourself. As much or as little as you’re comfortable with.” Jamie took a risk and shared a very personal story.

Jamie has depth collaborationJamie’s story

He told them about him and his younger brother, Steven. Both of them were raised by the same parents and grew up in the same house. While nobody’s life is free of turmoil, Jamie had a pretty good childhood. He had a loving family and nice friends, did well in school, and generally felt good about himself. His brother, on the other hand, suffered from an undiagnosed case of bipolar disorder. Sometimes called manic-depressive disorder, his brother’s condition meant he suffered through extreme mood swings. One day he could be on top of the world. The next day he could be paralyzed with depression and anxiety.

Without any treatment, the emotional roller coaster was more than his brother could handle. On April 16, 2001, at the age of 19, Steven got in his car and drove west. After crossing two state lines, he ran out of gas and pulled over to the side of the highway. He then took out a gun and shot himself in the head. Jamie describes Steven’s drive that day as a final act of respect from a fantastic young man. He wanted to spare his parents the graveness of finding his body near home.

While the tragedy was certainly painful for Jamie, there was some good that came from it. He told his coworkers, “I realized I had been taking everything in life for granted. I stopped doing that.” Now Jamie makes it a point to appreciate the many blessings he has. He also spends more of his time volunteering. He coaches both volleyball and football for local kids, and belongs to a group that supports families during the holidays when they can’t make ends meet. Not surprisingly, he also works with suicide prevention organizations around the country to help them raise money and awareness for their cause. “It helps me remember and honor my brother in a positive way.”

The result for Jamie

By the time Jamie finished telling his story, half the room was in tears. When the meeting was over, instead of a high-five on the way out, several people stopped to hug him. Some of his colleagues commented to each other later that they didn’t know Jamie had so much soul and emotion.

All of a sudden,” one of them commented, “Jamie had depth!”

His story even earned him the respect of the most stoic men in the office. A gentle punch in the shoulder, an admiring nod, and a brotherly, “Solid, man,” told him he was now in the inner circle. Within days, he realized his shallow hallway conversations had turned from the weather and sports to genuine interest in his family, his life, his dreams.

The result for Jamie’s team

Certainly Jamie enjoys his work more now that he’s better connected to his colleagues. But how has his new acceptance impacted his ability to lead? “My team performs much better now. People stop watching the clock as much when they’re working with someone they care about.” He knows firsthand now that it’s easier to get the best out of people when you have a meaningful relationship with them. And for him, that meaningful relationship started with a single story.

The lesson for you

As Jamie’s story illustrates, one of the most effective team-building activities you can construct is also one of the simplest. Have people sit around in a circle and talk about themselves— the more personal the story, the better. And as Jamie learned with both the consumers he interviews and the colleagues he works with, the most effective will be the stories that create vulnerability by showing an insecurity, or describing a painful time in your life or a costly failure. They’re exactly the kind of stories people don’t want to tell to a bunch of strangers in the office— and that’s the point. It’s a vicious circle. We don’t tell our personal stories because we work with strangers. They remain strangers because we don’t tell our personal stories. You have to break the cycle. Challenge people to tell their stories, and you’ll never work with strangers again.

[You can find this and over 100 other inspiring leadership stories in my book, Lead with a Story.]

PAS square profile Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.

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