It’s been 16 years since I left the front of the classroom for a seat in a cube farm in IT, so I was excited when my son’s school asked me to chaperone a week-long trip to an environmental learning center. As I prepared for the trip, I deliberated about what pearls of wisdom I would impart on the 14 ten-year olds that week. Little did I know, I would be the one learning lessons on how to work more effectively and efficiently in my role as Chief Essentialist of Continuous Quality.

Lesson 1 of 5: The Emotional Intelligence Tug of War

By the time the busload of kids showed up at Wolf Ridge, they had already completed their forming stage of group development and were ready for the chaos of storming. After a quick lunch, the group of eight girls and six boys embarked on a three-hour lesson on north wood mammals. My role as informal leader didn’t call for discipline as much as it did advising. I told myself, “I can do this, I do this with my clients every day” as we prepared ourselves for a long walk in the woods.

As we trudged along, my instincts told me to try and connect with the students and create “norms” with them. I tried being sneaky, inserting myself into conversations when I could, smiling as much as possible, and talking about everything I knew about ten-year old pop culture (i.e. video games, farting/other body functions, sports, boys, snapchat, and the “floss” dance). Some kids gave me the benefit of the doubt as an “authority” figure and let me in right away, others not so much.  I quickly realized I was going to have to use my emotional intelligence to earn their trust.

The first day was a breeze until the boys in my bunk began testing my tolerance at bedtime. My sons would say I’m a fairly intimidating person, and most of their friends were afraid of me until they got to know me. I was hoping this characteristic would be an advantage in getting the group ready for bed, but 4th graders are smart! What started as general laughing turned to sharing bad jokes, needing to use the bathroom, wanting water, and ultimately full-blown anarchy (well, it certainly felt that way to me)! What should have been a 15-minute process turned into a three-hour tug of war of what the boys wanted and what I told them they needed. Finally, both sides tired and we all fell asleep around 1:00 am. I definitely lost that round, but realized that although the night felt long, tedious and exhausting for me, the kids were bonding, building trust, and creating memories – such an important part of taking this trip, which kids look forward to when they finally hit 4th grade.

The next morning (when the boys woke up at 4:30 am), I had some time to reflect on the events of the previous night, and discovered that I face a similar tug of war at work each day. Instead of dealing with 4th graders and a struggle of wills, I work with organizations that are struggling with how to improve their quality maturity. In the workplace tug of war, organizations are faced with the reality of trying to deliver world-class quality on shoe string budgets, aging technology, a workforce in need of “refreshing,” and the ever-changing complexity of IT. What’s more, organizations face the hyper-speed demands of a global economy with thousands of choices and no appetite for waiting. Trying to win in this tug of war creates a tremendous amount of consternation in CIOs, IT leadership, and the hard-working folks on product teams.

When I’m at work, I’m fortunate enough to create a “norm” with my clients by working through a discovery workshop. I spend two hours with product teams to understand their current state, flush out pragmatic and practical goals, and identify success criteria to measure improvement. In addition, I’m able to create a sense of empowerment (from the team), trust, and, in a lot of cases, relief. After said workshop, I leave the client with a vision, strategy, roadmap, and recommendations, a battle plan of sorts for their tug of war.

But the problem facing me that morning wasn’t an organization in need of a trusted advisor, it was 4th graders who saw me as the “death of fun.” If I wasn’t going to be able to use my typical toolbox to norm and perform, I was going to have to figure out a different strategy…divide and conquer, King of the Jungle, Mr. Nice Guy, or father figure? I’ll save you from all the gory details (it actually wasn’t that bad, even the farting contest) and skip ahead to the important reminder I received from my 4th graders:

People connect/bond/succeed with each other in different ways and trying to leverage a single way with everyone is never going to be successful, especially when you put them in difficult situations.

This realization reminded me of a situation where a client decided not to extend a resource (who by all accounts was a rock star) because he didn’t like sitting in a loud team room. The consultant’s style of work, and desired environment was “different” than what the client wanted, but instead of using emotional intelligence to provide a positive experience for both groups, they lost a good resource creating a lose – lose situation for everyone. At that point, I resolved to do better and work hard to connect with each of my kids in whatever unique way I needed to. For instance, with Suzie (not her real name), it was a piggyback ride whenever she was tired. With Ellie, it was stepping into her fantasy world where she was dictator and only 22 other people could visit (she never did invite me to her world). With my toughest case Paul, it was showing him I was the boss and I expected better of him and was going to hold him accountable.

As more and more organizations push their teams to work more collaboratively, it can be easy to forget that people see the world differently, are motivated by varying things, and have preferred ways of connecting with others. When you’re working with 4th graders, it’s a great reminder that different is not necessarily bad, and we can all become more emotionally intelligent.