Team Building: How to Turn an Alligator into an Advocate

Five steps to winning over your toughest critic.
by , | July 14, 2010

Meet Charlie the "alligator." An "alligator" is the person at a meeting who lies in the weeds waiting for a chance to attack. Perhaps you know some? Well, Charlie was the perfect alligator at our integrated design charrette -- not an idea was proposed that he didn't try to chomp to death.

An "integrated design charrette" is a tool we use at the Engineering and Design Institute at Philadelphia University to explore design solutions within a collaborative team model. This particular charrette was organized to design a new manufacturing plant for an international pump company. The company wanted a sustainable building to lower their operating costs and make a healthier, more productive working environment for their employees.

At first, the group viewed Charlie as something of a pest, constantly raising objections. But working through the charette, Charlie actually ended up showing the power of collaborative design teams. Through a series of steps outlined below, Charlie went from being an alligator to an advocate. It's important to note that these steps work for any collaborative team, not just design charrettes.

Design With an Alligator in the Group

During the brainstorming session, a participant proposed making the building's walls from straw bales. Charlie, who was a local building code official, immediately objected. There were no provisions in the code for using such an "experimental" material, and he was concerned about the fire code and moisture/mold issues that he felt were inevitable.

Charlie was invited specifically to participate in the charrette because it was known that he would be a very large obstacle to the design. The thought was, if Charlie could be turned from an alligator to an advocate, it would be a big win for sustainable architecture in the region.

Step 1: Listen. The first step in turning Charlie around was to listen to him. It is always tempting to marginalize an alligator, but real progress requires sincere attempts to truly listen to the obstacles. Charlie threw up objections based on ignorance and fear. He was concerned that this 'new' construction technique (new for the region -- it's actually existed for centuries) could endanger public safety and his job. But, by respectfully listening with the intent to understand his concerns, a foundation of trust was established. Charlie understood that his concerns would be taken seriously, and that he would have an important part to play in whatever solution would eventually emerge.

Step 2: See the issue from the other's point of view. Part of good listening is empathy, or seeing the issue from another's point of view. It was essential for the project's success to understand where Charlie was coming from. Charlie was a local code official charged with the responsibility of protecting the public against a host of potential building damages: fire, structural, egress and general best practices of construction.

To Charlie, all of this "green building" stuff was new and his concerns were very real, rational and admirable from his point of view. Once this "us vs. them" mentality was replaced with an attempt to arrive at a solution together, progress was possible.

Step 3: Identify and address specific objections. Because an alligator's objections are often rooted in fear, it is to be expected that the objections are emotionally driven. It is difficult to argue rationally with irrational fears, so progress depends on moving past the emotions. By tying the emotions to specific objections that can be addressed rationally, the alligator can start to buy-in to the project because fear of the unknown has been replaced by information that speaks directly to their concerns.

This happened for Charlie as he learned from a nationally-renowned expert how fire-safe straw bale construction actually is; this happened for Charlie as he learned that properly constructed straw bale is naturally repellant to mold and moisture; and this happened for Charlie as he learned that other code officials approved this construction method, after being educated in a similar manner to him.

Step 4: Demonstrate benefits. Once Charlie's concerns were addressed, he was eager to hear the benefits He was receptive to hear how straw bale and even other sustainable architectural components could help his regional environment, especially as it tied in to other challenges he had to confront, such as storm water management.

Step 5: Keep the audience in mind. A natural byproduct of empathy is communicating clearly to the audience. You must speak their language. If there is lingo the other typically uses in her profession, it is important for the ideas to be communicated using this lingo.

Speaking the alligator's language not only avoids confusion, it also builds trust.

In Charlie's case, the straw bale expert was able to communicate to Charlie in his own professional language. It was clear that as Charlie began to understand the building technology and the precedents of its use, he felt respected and not like a target for criticism. His body language relaxed, and he began to smile. Charlie had taken the step from alligator to advocate.

What We Can Learn From Charlie's Story

With patience, good listening skills and a sincere attempt to move a project to success together, it is possible to persuade alligators to become advocates. It is important to clearly and specifically address objections, and to effectively communicate the benefits from the alligator's perspective. This is essential in any team-oriented or collaborative process. And they are skills that can be learned.

Charlie went on to become a champion for sustainable architecture. He became an advocate of requiring all new construction to include sustainable components. He also approved the use of straw bale construction on the pump manufacturer's building.

To follow in Charlie's footsteps, pocket the wallet-sized "5-Step Alligator Repellant" card below. It is a great take-away tool for the next time you're in a collaborative meeting and confront one of your soon-to-be-champion-friends.

5-Step Alligator Repellant card

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