4 Ways to Engage Your Whole Team

Inviting, including, and understanding all team members’ perspectives at the table can help you reach bold, unexpected outcomes.

The Fringe at Center Theatre Group is a young theatergoers membership program that emerged out of fresh perspectives from junior staff members. Photo: Casey Curry.

In today’s rapidly changing marketplace, it is clear that organizations need to innovate. At times, however, it is less clear about exactly how to do that — especially in a way that engages all members and perspectives on your team.

1. Innovative ideas can come from anywhere, not just an organization’s senior staff.  

I’ve heard the assumption that those with the greatest expertise will always have the most innovative ideas. And yet, sometimes, what’s needed is a fresh perspective.

At Center Theatre Group, an example of this can be found in The Fringe @ CTG, a membership group for young professionals that was created by two junior staff members in the program’s target demographic. Since its inception in 2009, The Fringe has become one of Center Theatre Group’s most effective tools for engaging a growing number of young, diverse theatergoers who regularly attend shows and mixers.

In addition to fostering future subscribers, donors, and community leaders, The Fringe has generated a variety of unanticipated benefits, including the enthusiastic support of our board of directors, who have hosted recruitment events, contributed to the group’s fundraising efforts, and instituted a mentorship program for The Fringe leadership team. The staff response to The Fringe has been similarly animated.

2. Diverse working teams can lead to more thoughtful, creative outcomes.

The Fringe has benefited greatly from the work of a staff task force that meets monthly and includes representatives from the artistic, management, education, development, marketing, casting, and payroll departments. This diversity in perspective and background has been vital to generating creative, out-of-the-box ideas and encouraging company-wide investment. It has also promoted participation. Members of the task force invite their friends to Fringe events, generate conversation online, and help staff the group’s leadership committees.

Of course, pulling together the right mix of people is only part of the equation. Once we look outside our traditional sources of ideas, how we then respond to differences in approach, communication style, and priorities is also key.

3. Embrace rather than resist difference.

Teams are strongest when they comprise individuals with complementary rather than homogenous skills and styles of behavior. This has undoubtedly been the case with The Fringe. Working against this principle, however, is our tendency to favor like skills and values, a concept known as ingroup bias, which can limit our ability to solicit and appreciate perspectives that contradict our own.

Dr. David Kantor offers a helpful model for recognizing the value of different communication styles and team roles. In Kantor’s “Four-Player Model,” effective teams include:

  • Movers, who initiate and provide direction
  • Followers, who support and provide completion
  • Opposers, who challenge and provide correction
  • Bystanders, who observe and provide perspective

Kantor suggests that each of these roles is necessary for a team to function properly, and that no one role is superior to another. When team dynamics start to feel confusing or unsettling, artist Janine Antoni has good advice. Perhaps the quickest path to finding our balance is actually to get more comfortable being out of balance. In teams, one expression of this concept is our willingness to invest time in true collaboration, rather than rushing prematurely to find common ground.

“Compromise produces results that are intermediate, lukewarm, mediocre, vague, average, and ordinary.  Collaboration produces results that are unexpected, synergistic, transformational, unique, creative, and amazing.” – Dr. Kenneth Cloke, co-author of The Art of Waking People Up: Cultivating Awareness and Authenticity At Work

4. Strive for collaboration.

Many of us have been taught to look for common ground, and while this is indeed vital to resolving conflict and protecting relationships, disagreement can also be quite helpful to innovation. It expands our perspective, encourages critical thinking, and leads to unexpected solutions.

Conflict over differences can be uncomfortable. Often, our flight-or-flight reflex kicks in and we either compete (fight) or accommodate (flight), which means that creative ideas and important considerations are lost. While compromise may be the most common alternative to these two options, collaboration is actually much more beneficial to innovation.

Compromise assumes a limited set of options, or a “fixed pie,” and thus involves mutual concessions that can make for a watered-down, uninspired solution. Collaboration, in contrast, assumes that divergent interests and priorities are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and that a potential solution may exist which can accommodate the various considerations of a diverse working team. Collaboration focuses on expanding the pie, and allows us to approach the problem from a completely new vantage point.

To innovate, we need to encourage this kind of expansive, imaginative thinking, and authentically welcome the many voices we invite to the table.

Jean Kling is the Director of Institutional Support at Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, where she has spearheaded several major grants for innovative new program initiatives.