Ohhh, but I do love a good holiday party. The tinkling sounds of ice against glass mixing with genuine laughter. The warm smells of clove, cinnamon, and homemade dishes wafting through the room and interrupting conversations. “Oh, what’s that?” someone says mid-sentence then moseys off, following the scent of the dish just added to the buffet table.
The delightful sights of colleagues engaging with one another at deeper levels without a single agenda or flipchart in sight. “Look over there,” says someone, “the winner of the Road Warrior Award and the IT specialist who never leaves her office are… laughing. Who knew they even knew one another?” “And over in the corner,” points out another, “is it possible that the project manager and finance director are talking about something other than budgets?”
These are occasions where colleagues come together, without any expectations other than to mingle and eat. But there’s a sense of hurry in the air. Too many things to do before the end of the year. So we rush about, enjoying the moments as we can, all the while knowing that soon they will end and we will return to our routines.
The road warrior goes back on the road. The IT specialist goes back into her office. And the project manager and finance director dive back into the deep head-to-head combat between two conflicting objectives – use the money to activate the key project, versus not spending the money at all. Old silos spring back up and the competition for the same resources reignites. It’s almost as if the laughter shared at the holiday party has never happened.
But what if we had more holiday parties throughout the year? More opportunities for team building? Would things be better and/or different?
My wish this holiday season to all leaders:
may you give the gift of many gatherings throughout the coming years.
In a time when leaders are focused on creating cultures of belonging, opening lines of communications, and knocking down walls of isolation, we need more of these no-agenda gatherings. More time for colleagues to discover one another on their own terms; in their own ways. Time when people can come to care for their colleagues because - you know what - we really aren’t that different from one another after all.
What have you got to lose? Time enough later for those all-too-familiar sessions requiring PowerPoint. Take the risk. And besides, intuitively you know that more no-agenda time together today will lead to more productive structured time together tomorrow. Something the entire C-suite will see as a positive outcome. You may even make a difference in overall employee engagement.
I discovered the benefits of no-agenda gatherings while on my first assignment with Doctors Without Borders. I arrived at a small Kenyan village that sits on the shores of Lake Victoria to find that, every mid-morning, all activities would come to a screeching halt while the staff went to morning tea. “But we have work to do,” I wanted to yell, frustrated that people were leaving their posts. “What a waste of time,” I would mumble and stay, most stubbornly, at my desk. After all, as a leader, it was up to me to set an example of the performance standards I expected. And, by God, I was going to set that example. Period.
After more days than it should have taken, I realized that morning tea was here to stay. No matter how much I role-modeled behavior. And so, putting my rigid beliefs about work ethics aside, I went to see what this morning tea thing was all about.
What I arrived, I saw colleagues. Talking to one another. Really talking to one another. It wasn’t just a time for tea. It was also a time for staff to build trust with one another. When they laughed and got to know one another. When bonding was allowed to unfold in a relaxed environment. The ultimate consequence being that these colleagues came to truly care for one another. The ritual of morning tea lead to frank conversations - and ultimately the solving of much larger issues - in the afternoon.
Conversations in the morning about where best to house the “polite chicken” a grateful patient had given to the doctor led to debates in the afternoon about how best to improve patient flow. Sharing concerns in the morning over a colleague’s sick child allowed for candid afternoon discussions about performance expectations. Problem solving is just easier when it takes place upon a foundation of caring.
After my first sip of tea (which I was astounded to discover is so important that it’s actually a line item on the project’s budget), I was hooked and attended morning tea every day. And it didn’t take long before I came to truly care for my new colleagues.
Go Ahead and Leap
When encountering problems, it is in our nature to immediately leap into the murky depths and slosh around, looking for solutions. Morning tea taught me that there is nothing wrong with leaping, though it is so much more effective (and fun) to leap with people we know, trust, and care about.
So as this year counts down, savor the sounds, smells, and sights of the holiday gatherings and get to know your colleagues. And then, as we roll into the great unknown that is next year, carry the spirit of gathering together, with no agenda, throughout the months that will quickly pile up to become next year’s holiday season.