Shane Snow shares his advice on staying in the zone. Learn how to promote play and humor, explicitly encourage dissent, share stories, debate (not brainstorm), speak candidly, and do not allow tension or conflict to get personal.
- We talk about being in the zone in popular terminology as this place where you feel infinite, where you're doing great work, where you can kind of pull off anything. When I think about a team that's in the zone, I think about tension. That the zone where the magic happens is when you're engaging with the tension between your different viewpoints, your different ideas. It's kind of like a group of people pulling on a rubber band. The tension on that rubber band is what gives it potential energy. It can go flying. A rubber band sitting on the ground has no energy and we're all afraid of the part when the rubber band snaps.
We're engaging in the tension between our different viewpoints, but at some point things might boil over and we're afraid of that. That's why we hold back. That's why organizational silence often happens, where we're not speaking up, but the job of a team that has all the potential to become great, to become better than the sum of their parts, is to engage in that tension and to stay in that zone. The job of the leader, actually, is rather than being right and being the hero and having all the answers is to facilitate the group to be in that zone where they can pull off the impossible.
Where they can make progress because they're engaging in that tension. Now, this is easier said than done. There's a couple of things that I really like that are little hacks I guess from psychology that can help a group of people with all that potential to not go over the cliff or snap their rubber band. The first one is actually play. A very simple thing that our brains when we play with each other, or when we have jokes or we are humorous, we enter this sort of magic circle, psychologists call it, where everything is safe. You're playing a game, your brain knows that there's no real danger and so you simulate this anxiety, but actually everything's fine.
When you play or when you joke around, you can depressurize tense situations and you leave the game, whether it's chess or basketball or just a joke, feeling a little bit better about everyone who participated in that. In psychology, there's this thing called in-group and out-group psychology which is basically people who you are very comfortable turning your back on because they look like you, they act like you, whatever it is, they're part of your tribe, they're safe. You can kinda say anything you want with them. You can actually have hard conversations with them and it's okay.
Your out-group are people who it's a little less safe to turn your back on and this comes from years and years and years ago when we were living in tribes. We should be afraid of the people who are not like us, 'cause they might kill us. Now, we need people who are not like us. How do you feel more comfortable around someone who maybe has differences or different opinions and you don't quite feel safe? Play a game together or use humor to depressurize that. That's my first trick that I love. The second is something that's really dear to my heart as a journalist which is storytelling.
When you tell a story that's personal, or emotional, or vulnerable that has a real character in it, the brains of the people who hear that story will generate oxytocin which is a little neurochemical that basically makes your brain have empathy for whoever that story is about. It turns out that groups of people, teams that share more about their own personal story with each other tend to feel more safe around each other. They have more empathy and they can have those harder conversations. In fact, a lot of companies nowadays are actually using storytelling and personal narrative as a device to depressurize tense situations among their team members.
If you're having a problem working together, they'll assign you to actually go to dinner and you can't talk about work. You only have to talk about your story and what you care about and your life, and it makes it easier to have these hard conversations and stay in the zone. This idea of the zone is about you wanna get out of this place of inertia where you're all thinking the same, you're all agreeing, into this place where you have tension between ideas and you can sort of turn things around. You wanna stay away from this part where you're gonna destroy each other, so you do that by humor and play, and by sharing stories.
There's other things that leaders can do too, but just keeping in mind that this is where you want the team to be, 'cause that's where you're gonna make the most progress. If you feel safe having that conflict, then it feels like you can do the impossible. That's what being in the zone is about.