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Managing Perceptions and Connections

First published in the Maverick Paradox Online Magazine October 2020

Managing Perceptions and Connections. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we maintain connections within our teams and cross-team collaborations. It became harder when nearly everyone was sent home to work. It got harder again when we were in different situations from each other: according to a September report by the Office for National Statistics, 62% of us were back in the workplace but 20% still working from home.

It would be really easy in this situation for teams to fragment and cohesion to collapse. But those connections are super important to Socialised Mavericks [1], who know that strong relationships are essential to getting stuff done. What can we do?

Consider this, which was a real conversation I had recently with a team leader in a food and drinks logistics operation in the USA. Her team of eight have all been working from home for six months. The teams they work with are largely back at work in the frontline of distribution, with all the complexities of maintaining safe distance, use of PPE, concerns for safe travel to work and so on.

It would be really easy for connections within her team, and with the frontline teams, to descend into a “them and us”: “they’re safe at home and don’t understand what we have to endure in coming to the distribution centre every day”; or, conversely, “they don’t understand how difficult it is to keep working in my home environment, where the usual boundaries between work and home life have collapsed.”

One thing my US colleagues and I have been doing, which seems to be really useful, is to get groups of team leaders and supervisors together so that they can talk this through. In a couple of hours of facilitated conversation, they can learn more about each other’s worlds, increase understanding and empathy, and acquire some useful insights into how to manage the situation better.

Which brings us back to my conversation with the team leader, which followed on from one of those facilitated group sessions.

She was already doing a lot of things that her remote team needed around connection – and doing them well. They had a clear and explicit rhythm for getting together informally as a group, so that some of the everyday water cooler conversations could continue. “When you’re walking around the office and distribution centre,” she explained, “it’s really easy to have informal conversations and pick up on what’s going on for people. We have had to find a way to do that when we’re not all in the same place”. These get-togethers were regular without being unduly time-consuming. They were welcomed by the team and helped to maintain its sense of identity and cohesion.

In addition to this, some of the team were checking in regularly with her, not to discuss tasks but simply to catch up with each other in an informal way. In some of these cases, she had initiated the check-in – for example, she had been concerned about one colleague who was living alone, and another who was juggling the responsibilities of caring for young children with the demands of a busy workday.

Nevertheless, she felt that with some team members that sense of connection had attenuated. Outside of the group meetings, she would only hear from them once a week, usually about current tasks, and often that would be on email. Some of them were showing up at the group sessions with video off, and she felt that they were not really present in the same way as their colleagues.

“I don’t want to impose a demand on them to check in,” she sighed, “but I do feel both a sense of responsibility to them as their team leader, and a need to strengthen my connection with all the team members because of the work the whole team has to do.”

As we discussed this, we realised a number of things. First, that although the team had quite rightly had discussions about how they would connect during the early stages of establishing remote working, no explicit conversations had happened about this for several months. In several cases, the original plan had not turned into an established routine. We noticed that even for those team members who were already checking in regularly, it would be useful to revisit the arrangements and establish what adjustments might now be needed.

Second, we realised that in trying to maintain these connections in a manner that was sensitive to each colleague’s circumstances and personal preferences, she had started to discount some of her own legitimate needs as a manager and team member. “I’m trying to do things so much on their terms, that I am forgetting that there are things I need and want too.” We reframed the discussion as more of a win-win negotiation, in which the parties endeavour to find a solution that meets everyone’s underlying interests.

Third, we explored where these colleagues might be coming from and how to set up the discussion. We used an approach called “perceptual positions” (see diagram), which comes from counselling, psychotherapy and neuro-linguistic programming, and is widely used in workplace coaching.

The idea here is to establish a better understanding both of our own needs and those of the other person. In this case, the team leader needed to clarify both of these, as she was trying both to find out what her colleagues needed and establish her own needs as a manager and co-worker.

We work through three perceptual positions in turn:

  • First position – me – what I want and need from you

  • Second position – you – what you want and need from me

  • Third position – detached observer – what I notice about the dynamic between the two parties

Figure 1 – The Three Perceptual Positions

If we were physically in the same room, I might set out three chairs in a triangle and ask the person I am working with to spend time in each of the three positions in turn. As they sit in each chair, I ask them to notice what they see, hear and feel in that perceptual position. In this remote conversation, talking to a team leader in the USA from my home office in the UK, we had to mentally walk round each of the three positions instead.

In the first position, “me”, the team leader was able to clarify not only what she needed from the colleague but why it was important to her. That was a really useful insight for her, as it allowed her to be able to assert her own needs with her colleagues and manage her understandable desire to co-operate “on their terms”.

In the second position, “you”, as we see, hear and feel what’s going on for the colleague, empathy deepens. I asked the team leader to refer to herself by name, as if she was her colleague looking at her – “when I look at Diane, this is what I see and hear, this is what I feel.” From this position, she could identify things that would be helpful to her colleague and spot other things that were getting in the way.

In third position, “detached observer”, this team leader’s strong analytical and interpersonal skills came into play. She was able to look at the pattern of interaction that she and her colleague had fallen into and identify steps to strengthen the working relationship. Some of these were steps that she could take for the colleague, others were things she needed to ask of them. It set up a strong basis for an explicit and empathetic discussion about how they could connect better and why it was important to them both.

In remote and virtual working environments, disconnects will happen easily and accidentally. When cracks start to appear, they have to be tackled in the interests of good work and good relationships. Otherwise they start to generate barriers, misunderstandings or outright conflicts that get in the way of productivity and progress.

To do this, we have to work explicitly at maintaining connections and cohesion, both inside teams and with the other colleagues that we work with. These are not one-off conversations but things we have to revisit periodically, in a spirit of learning, adaptation and improvement. An important component of this is to establish clarity around our own needs and those of the others around us, as a win-win conversation. Approaches such as perceptual positions can help us, like the team leader I was talking to in the US, to prepare for these critical conversations.


[1] Socialised Maverick – Judith Germain, The Maverick Paradox: The Secret Behind Successful Leaders (PublishNation 2017)

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