What Training Bears Taught Me About Communication at Work: Part 2

This is Part 2 of a 3-Part series. Click here to read an introduction to the series as well as Lessons 1 and 2.


Lesson 3. Plan of Attack

Training bears for the sake of training bears isn’t useful. It’s also borderline dangerous. Before every session, our team made sure we had a plan and that we were all on the same page about that plan.

One time we weren’t.

Every year we had a consultant come in to help make sure all our procedures were correct and help identify areas of improvement. We were wrapping up our latest training session one day when the consultant said he wanted to see something. We got the bears loaded safely in their transport trailer and everyone gathered in the yard. He said he wanted to role play a situation with one of our university sponsors pretending to be the bear.

Unbeknownst to us, he had given the sponsor and our trainer secret instructions to make a surprise attack on the trainer.

After a few minutes of routine exercises, the sponsor pounced on our trainer and wrestled him to the ground in a cloud of dust. The consultant started yelling at us that this was an attack and we needed to implement our emergency procedures...NOW!

We all froze.

The simulation took us all by surprise. We tried to organize ourselves and implement the procedures, but it wasn’t exactly a well-oiled machine. We fumbled through and reconvened. “This is why we have a plan,” said the consultant. “We need to talk about it and execute it more often so it’s always in front of our minds.”

Does your team have a plan? Do they know what that plan is? Do you talk about it? What are the goals of your current project? How does each team member fit into that plan? Does your team have permission (implicit and explicit) to ask questions along the way?

What happens when things don’t go according to that plan? When one team member takes vacation how does the team function? How agile is your team when change arises?

The answers to these questions can only be uncovered through intentional, clear, and consistent communication. Plans aren’t the same as vision statements on a website or performance review check boxes. They’re unified; they’re collaborative; they’re consensus-building. They don’t need to be a memorized script that people walk around chanting under their breath, but each person needs to be able to verbalize the plan in their own words.

One simple strategy to help get your team on the same page is what Koch Industries CEO Charles Koch calls RR&E’s – Roles, Responsibilities, and Expectations. This useful rubric covers the details team members need to operate effectively while also providing accountability. Roles help answer any questions about “Who” (who is the owner of each part of the project). Responsibilities answer the “What” (what exactly are each person’s tasks). Expectations answer the “How”, “Why”, and sometimes “When” (how am I expected to execute this, why is this important, when is the deadline). When each member is clear on these three points both individually and as a team, the chances of “freezing” during a tense moment drastically decrease.

Your job might not have the same stakes as a bear attack, but if it involves multiple people it is worthy of a strategic, well-communicated plan with goals for the short and long term.

Make a plan. Communicate it often. Communicate it clearly. Periodically ask your team if the plan needs to change. Listen when they say yes.

Lesson 4. Managing Pressure

Not many people know what it feels like to be face-to-muzzle with a bear. It’s a special experience. The pressure of knowing you’re counting on your teammates and your teammates are counting on you is an incredible bonding agent.

This culture of healthy codependency (you’re not going to let me die, and I’ll return the favor) came about due to an amalgamation of the previous three lessons. Our leaders earned trust by communicating service, our behavior was managed appropriately through the right combination of appreciation and correction, and we moved forward with a clear plan in mind (most of the time, at least).

Turns out, this was our saving grace in the attack simulation from Lesson 3. We weren’t perfect, but because we knew how to communicate as a team, we didn’t totally fold under the pressure.

How does your team respond to stressful situations or surprisingly tight deadlines? What happens when you get handed a high priority project from the C-suite and you have to drop everything? Does the team split into silos, or is there a healthy codependence where everyone feels like their back is covered?

Pressure can be a tremendous team builder if the foundation has been laid correctly; members will come out the other side with a shared experience and sense of accomplishment. Alternatively, pressure can fracture a fragile team and expose areas of poor communication.

What this does not mean is that everyone has to be super close friends. We had our dysfunctions just like any team. What matters is healthy codependency. Trust and safety. Do I trust my teammates and my leader(s) to have my back, and am I willing to have their backs too? If the answer is no, don’t be surprised when stress causes splinters. If the answer is unwaveringly yes, pressure can take your team to a whole new level.

Take note of your team’s communication style when it’s under stress. Create a healthy codependency and lean into pressure situations. Don’t wait for the pressure to lay the foundation.

Part 3 Sneak Peek!

Why standing on your toes is dangerous, plus the most important lesson yet. Don’t miss it!