Even the Berlin Wall could not stop people from reaching out to communicate with each other. There are countless powerful stories of strangers and family finding ingenious ways to overcome the massive obstacle to human touch. In one such story, Michael Mara, a guard who defected from East to West, built a communication system with packs of cigarettes containing hidden messages that were flung over the wall to guards on the other side, with small notes wrapped around stones returning in the same way. It’s hard to fathom what this experience may have been like.

In our teams and businesses we face walls too. They may be invisible and seemingly harmless, yet their impact is the same – to break the effortless flow of good communication. This has become even more apparent now that we face a virtual world with all kinds of new barriers to overcome. And so, all too often, teaming is derailed by communication failures that take place within and between professions, organisations and other groups. People think they communicate. They participate in endless meetings and they work hard, only to have their projects fail. Why?

As individuals bring unique and diverse expertise, perspectives and goals together in innovative team configurations to accomplish challenging goals, they must overcome the hidden challenge of communicating across diverse types of boundaries. Some boundaries are obvious: being in different countries with different time zones; gender, occupation or nationality; or indeed a solid wall of concrete. Others are more subtle. Like when two engineers work together for the same company in different facilities and unknowingly bring different taken-for-granted assumptions about how to carry out the technical procedure to collaborate.

At its core, teaming is about reaching across these kinds of boundaries. Communication with anyone from a different group is fraught with small hurdles. There are three ways compassionate leaders can facilitate better communication across boundaries.

  1. The first is to establish a shared goal that unites people and motivates willingness to overcome communication barriers. Emphasising a shared goal should be recognised as one of the core leadership tasks. In the case of Berlin, the shared goal could be defined as the right to freedom of movement and association. For more insight into purpose and the core, click here.
  2. Secondly, leaders must display and encourage genuine curiosity about what others think about, worry about and aspire to achieve. Through cultivating one’s own curiosity about what drives and motivates others, each one of us can create an environment where it is acceptable to express interest in others’ feelings and thoughts. In Mara’s case, his curiosity about the guards on the other side led him to realise he was not alone and the ‘enemy’ was just like him. To find out more about releasing team resistance, click here.
  3. Thirdly, it is important to establish process guidelines that everyone agrees to follow. These are needed for specifying points at which separate teaming activities must come together to coordinate resources and decisions. Mara and the guards established a protocol on how, when and where to communicate over the wall. To read the story in more detail, click here.

In closing, it’s essential to remember one of the greatest causes of barriers in a team. When there are prominent status differences within a team, fear can create a huge wall, hindering communication and sharing. A compassionate leader understand this and works to establish an environment of psychological safety within which it becomes easier to communicate and experiment across those boundaries.