Building Successful Teams by Making Sure you are Communicating on the Same Scale

Building successful teams by paying attention to communicating on the same scale

Team meetings often go wrong when we communicate on different scales without being aware of it. Successful teams recognize this and by doing so they prevent time consuming and exhausting discussions.

“If you drive to, say, Shenandoah National Park, or the Great Smoky Mountains, you’ll get some appreciation for the scale and beauty of the outdoors. When you walk into it, then you see it in a completely different way. You discover it in a much slower, more majestic sort of way.” – Bill Bryson

Not always easy to explain. I will try to explain it to you as follows. 

Successful teams have an antenna that filters out three types of scale in communication:

a WHY scale,

a WHAT scale, and

a HOW scale

Having a WHY-oriented discussion, why is this important, is different from having a WHAT-oriented discussion.  WHAT do we need to achieve is different from HOW are we going to do this, how are we going to make it work.  These are different types of discussions.

Teams that navigate successfully through complex situations have developed a specific antenna that filters out the question: are we really talking at the same scale here, or not?

They are aware that in some cultures – for example, in hierarchical cultures – people are generally interested in hearing from the leader HOW he or she wants to do things.  In consensus cultures, on the other hand, people will more often think:  if the why and what are clear, then empower me on how to make things work, and I will feed it back to you.

Here is a real-life example

I was once working with a European leadership team on an important strategy execution topic, when an argument broke out between the German managing director and the Italian managing director. There was lots of negative energy in the room, lots of irritation, the meeting threatened to go wrong.

Then the CEO stepped in.  He intervened; he interrupted their argument.

 ‘Could it be that we are talking on different levels here?’ 

Turning to the German managing director, he asked: ‘Why are you so irritated?’   

Tapping irritably on the table with his fingers, the German managing director answered:

‘We already spent an hour discussing why this project would make sense, but we are still in the dark as to how we are going to do it.  I don’t like that.  We can dream up all kind of plans, but if we don’t look at the details then this simply won’t go anywhere.’

The CEO then addressed the Italian managing director, putting the same question to him.

This is what the Italian said:

‘My German friend is dragging his heels. He always finds a reason why we shouldn’t go ahead and do it.  I don’t feel he is committed.’

The team continued talking, and what they learned was that their German colleague was rather strongly oriented towards how and fact and detail. In the meetings I had with him, I was usually impressed about his thorough and detailed knowledge of what was at stake.

The Italian colleague was more thinking along the line: if we really believe this is what we should do, if we are convinced that this is what needs to be achieved, then we will find the way.  We will find a way together.  Left or right, we WILL get there.  And by the way:  he had done a lot of research. He had all the reports ready. He just thought that it was not the time nor the place to bring them to the table. 


Successful teams actively check whether the scale is an issue in a given discussion, they factor in cultural differences, and they adjust the communication scale when necessary.  What I mean is this:

If you are stuck on a ‘how’, and you go back to a ’what’ or a ‘why’, you often find common ground together.

Meetings that go wrong often go wrong because we THINK we do not agree. But if we raise the scale, it turns out that we are talking about the same thing.  We just approach it differently.  It is like entering the harbor with a boat. There is one harbor, but some boats come from the left, while others come from the right, even though the docking place is the same.   

“I decided that if I could paint that flower in a huge scale, you could not ignore its beauty.”
Georgia O’Keeffe

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Aad Boot is a global business advisor, change & transformation leader/program manager, executive team facilitator, leadership coach, and frequently asked keynote speaker. He is founder and managing partner at HRS Business Transformation Services.

Hanneke Siebelink is research partner and writer at HRS Business Transformation Services, and author of several books and the Expert Series. She is currently studying Mandarin Chinese.

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