Different doesn’t equal deficient: How simple group tasks firm up emotional intelligence and teamwork

Different doesn’t equal deficient: How simple group tasks firm up emotional intelligence and teamwork


Unless you’ve spent your entire project management career with your face bathed in the light of your computer monitor, you’ve probably come across the concept of emotional intelligence. Popularised by Daniel Goleman at the end of the last century, emotional intelligence or “EQ”, can be condensed to three criteria: self-awareness, the awareness of our impact on others, and the good sense to make better choices as a result of that awareness.

I’m not recommending increased awareness – mind you – because I was a heck of a lot happier when I thought other people were to blame for all of my problems. But if you want to be an effective leader you’ll probably have to risk it.

There’s no guarantee that a bunch of high EQ people will form a high EQ team (witness politics, any party), but it’s a good start. Reflecting on a couple of decades of working in teams, I’ve had the opportunity to work in teams that that were emotionally intelligent, and in teams with the collective “EQ” of a scallop.

Emotionally intelligent teams are a lot more fun, and get way better results. The Enneagram, available from The Enneagram Institute and numerous other sources, is one tool that I’ve found extremely useful for increasing the EQ of a team. It’s a model consisting of nine different strategies for getting things done, and the motivations that drive those strategies. Like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), DiSC, Belbin Team Inventory, and dozens of other such tools, it can be misused to categorise people into confining behavioural boxes, and contorted in a search for confirming evidence that they belong in that box.

But, wielded with care, this tool can reveal aspects of our own behaviour that were previously blind spots, opening a door to understanding the behaviour of ourselves and other people that might have previously been characterised as irritating, strange or just plain sociopathic.

While the Enneagram is just way too rich of a tool to be completely described in a brief article, here’s a whirlwind tour, based on a bag of M&M candies. I’ve found this a quick, fun and illuminating way to introduce teams to the Enneagram, and very useful in helping them work together more effectively. In order to fully appreciate the rest of this article you’ll need to stop reading right now and run out to the store to buy a bag of M&Ms (you know, the candy coated chocolates that melt in your mouth, but not in your hands).

Once you’ve got the little buggers, tear the bag open and spill them onto a plate. What do you see? At first this may seem like an easy question to answer, but – not so fast! – you might be surprised to learn that I typically get as many different responses to this as there are types of seafood at a Tokyo fish market. People see the world very differently, even a pile of coloured M&Ms.

As simple as it is, this exercise vividly and undeniably illustrates the spectrum of strategies that people use to get things done in project teams. I’ve been doing this exercise for years all over the world with groups of people who want to learn to work more effectively together.

Before we begin I must warn you that we humans tend to prefer our own strategies over those of others, and judge other strategies as deficient, or even downright wrong. That’s akin to judging someone inferior because they are left-handed instead of right-handed, something that was common practice in the US a mere 50 years ago. Different doesn’t equal deficient. There are many paths to truth. People use different strategies because they work! We each just happen to develop a strong preference for our particular favourite approaches. That doesn’t mean we’re right and other people are wrong, but it sure does feel like that sometime!

Don’t eat all of the M&Ms quite yet. The first step is to get your project team to take the Enneagram assessment. Then group people according to which of the nine strategies they prefer most strongly. Give each group a small bag of M&Ms – not the super-size bag, for pity’s sake, the size a normal human being could eat in one sitting.

Ask each group to pour the candy out onto a plate and give them two minutes to write down a description of what they’ve got. Then have each group share their description, which is where the real fun happens. It’s always amazing to me how different a bag of M&Ms can appear to different people! Let’s have a look at what typically happens. And please do excuse my snarkiness and irreverence! I couldn’t help myself because of my two favourite strategies.

The ONE Strategy – Being Perfect

At their best, people in this group think that their behaviour is reasonable and objective. The dark side is that they wonder why people don’t listen to them, since they are right most of the time. Give a bag of M&Ms to a group of people who rely heavily on this approach to results and you are likely to find that their description of the M&Ms includes a list of the number containing cracks or chips. They’re also likely to arrange them all with the “M” side up. This is the main reason that I recommend a small bag instead of the “party” size. These people will be there all day turning the M&Ms “right” side up! If you ever have open heart surgery, make sure your surgeon is an Enneagram ONE strategy. But if you need to get a “good enough” product to market on time, keep them out of the critical path!

The TWO Strategy – Being Connected

This is the doormat strategy. The upside here is behaviour focused on being caring and helpful, but watch out when they start feeling taken for granted. They are inconsolable. Groups dominated by people who prefer this strategy usually end up having a wonderful time talking among themselves and eating the M&Ms, but may wonder why their bag contains fewer candies than the others. The business world is a bit too harsh for them, and they probably would be better off joining a non-profit. Nevertheless, if you happen to have one of them on your team, enjoy! They’re usually really nice people.

The THREE Strategy – Being Outstanding

People in this group focus on being highly effective and looking good in front of others. It’s likely that this group will finish describing the M&Ms first, and they’ll do the best job of it. Be sure to give them lots of praise for doing such excellent work. Naturally they will suspect that the other groups are jealous of their accomplishment, but, never mind, they’re better than everyone else, and that is what really matters.

As long as the voice in their head keeps urging them onward you’re sure to achieve great things in your business. Make sure they get all of the credit and they’ll be happy.

The FOUR Strategy – Being Unique

Sensitive and intuitive, I’ve rarely met anyone in the business world with this as their favourite strategy. I’m pretty sure that frustrated actors, tortured artists and goth teenagers tend to rely heavily on this one, though. If you do have one or two people who favour this strategy, chances are they’ll figure out ways to adorn their bodies with the M&Ms, or crush them into a paste and create a candy collage.

At any rate, keep them off the critical path of any important projects. If they are on your team, let them go where no man has gone before, but be sure they are back by 5 PM for the status report! You just never know what’s going to happen with this group.

The FIVE Strategy – Being Detached

Characterised as intelligent and perceptive, don’t be surprised if this group reads the package, calculates the weight, in grams and ounces – per M&M! – and arranges the candies into a histogram by colour, in order of decreasing frequency. (Of course, this group is so smart that they aren’t at all surprised that no one else thought of this!) If you need to solve impossible problems, these guys will be more than up to the challenge. But if you ask them how they are feeling, well, be prepared to wait a good 8-10 seconds for an answer, or to be asked “Can I get back to you on that?”

The SIX Strategy – Being Secure

Committed and dependable, this group will be sure to follow your instructions carefully, so please clearly state what is to be done. They also usually caution against the poor nutritional value of the M&Ms, and the vague dangers associated with eating this sort of thing. If the package is tattered in any way, this group can be counted upon to express concern about the age of the M&Ms, and whether they are still fit to eat.

They will DEFINITELY check the expiration date! If there is only one of a certain colour they may eat it, or otherwise dispose of it, so that it doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb. Bottom line, these guys aren’t taking any chances. And if something goes wrong in your business, it’s definitely not their fault! They warned you, but you wouldn’t listen.

The SEVEN Strategy – Being Excited

Happy and enthusiastic, this group is definitely the gang that you want to put in charge of end-of-project celebrations. People who prefer this strategy often describe how bright, shiny and colourful the M&Ms are.

They’re typically the only group that mentions smell and taste, and they will find the descriptions of the other groups somewhat boring, if not shocking, although they’re usually too kind to say so. Transfer them into sales as soon as possible!

The EIGHT Strategy – Being Powerful

Strong and assertive are the words they’ll likely use to describe themselves, but they are also called other, less flattering, names by those using a more timid strategy. They Eight Strategy can be pretty bossy, so make sure that these guys don’t take the M&Ms from the other groups, or try to tell everyone how to do the exercise. They also won’t like having to wait until almost last to share their description, either, but torture them be skipping them and letting the nine group go before them. Don’t be surprised if they are deeply hurt, because the eight strategy masks an emotional well deeper than a plumber’s gluteal furrow.

The NINE Strategy – Being Peaceful

Easy-going and tranquil, this group won’t mind being the last to share their description, and will probably agree with pretty much everything that everyone else said, especially if that makes it possible to avoid a conflict with those in the other groups.

BOTTOM LINE: If we can have this range of responses to a simple task like describing a pile of M&Ms, it’s no wonder that working in teams sometimes pushes our hot buttons. Working with people who see the world the same way as we do might be easier than working with a collection of diverse human beings with their own peculiarities. But imagine a baseball team where all nine players were excellent pitchers, but no one could hit worth a damn or catch a fly ball to save their life. That team wouldn’t have much of a chance of success, and neither will your team if you don’t cover the field of needs in your business. Don’t just tolerate . . . embrace the diversity on your team! If we all see things the same then we only need one person!

There is a bright side and a shadow side to each of these approaches. Everyone can, and does, use each of these strategies to some extent. But, just like most people have a preference for which hand they use for writing, each person tends to over-rely on a couple of their favourite ones. Try signing your name with the hand opposite the one that you normally use. Sure, you can do it, but it takes a lot more concentration, is more tedious and the results are often messy, looking more like the scratching of a school kid. With practice you would improve the speed and skill with which you could write this way, just like practicing different strategies will increase your skill in applying approaches other than your preferred ones. Which one’s right? Mine, of course!

Write and guess my top two favourite strategies and you’ll win a signed copy of my “Scrappy Project Management” book, available at fine bookstores everywhere, and busily propping up many computer monitors to the right height around the world.

A Tell report / reproduced with the permission of the author Kimberly M. Wiefling, M.S. Kimberly is a global business leadership consultant and author of Scrappy Project Management – The 12 Predictable and Avoidable Pitfalls Every Project Faces. She specialises in global team effectiveness. She is founder of Wiefling Consulting, Kimberly has worked with people form over 50 different countries.

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