25.2.08

Politics and Religion

Every "Management 101" course I've ever seen cautions the neomanager against certain topics of discourse. I'm going to go out on a limb and offer, as food for thought, an idea that will make your HR team and your company's lawyer's blow their gaskets.

I think you should talk about politics and religion with your coworkers, especially if you are part of a global team.

The only times I've seen groups of people, remote from each other or collocated, work well together is when they function as a team. I've been thinking of this as the One Team Rule. (unoriginal, I know, but descriptive...)

It's easy to test for adherence to the One Team Rule. If you ask a manager how their offshore engineers do something, and they start the answer with the word "We", then that group of people is a team, and in my experience they are likely to be successful in what ever endeavor they undertake. If the answer starts with the word "They", there is no team, and it is likely that their efforts are in trouble, and are quite possibly doomed to failure.

I've given some thought over the last week or so to how I've achieved that One Team feeling. I'll start by saying that I haven't always achieved it. In some cases, I've come very far from achieving it. But when I have, it's been because somehow, the people on the team stopped perceiving one another as "them", and started perceiving one another as "us."

But how do you make that happen?

For me personally, talking about politics and religion is a great way to get down to that human to human level of discourse that leads to understanding, rapport, and ultimately "teaminess."

When I was in Sri Lanka for the first time, I was a bit overwhelmed by the amount of military presence around the airport and government buildings. I asked some of the people who worked for me why this was necessary, and they sheepishly told me that there had been "some trouble" with the LTTE - the Tamil Tiger rebels. I dug into this further, and got a detailed (though somewhat uncomfortable) telling of the last 20 years Sri Lanka's on-going civil war (or rebellion, or insurrection, depending on who's talking). The team seemed at first awkward, then amazed that I was interested in talking with them about this.

Here's why I defied my training and the advice of lots of allegedly smart people, and had this conversation about the politics of Sri Lanka with my team there: The people in Colombo, who worked for me, lived this rebellion every day, as a backdrop to their lives. When there was an attack in the North, or a suicide bomb in the capital, it impacted them. If something impacts my team, I need to know about it and understand it, for obvious reasons. That conversation went a long way toward helping me understand my team's day-to-day life, and it went a long way toward helping them understand that I was a "normal person" who was interested in their plight and the plight of their country.

We achieved an important first step toward becoming a team by talking about the sticky mess of Tamil separatism in Sri Lanka.

On that same trip, I did the culturally insensitive act of offering to take the team (which consisted of mostly Buddhists, a religion the devout practitioners of which don't drink booze) out for drinks and snacks after a long day of meetings. The team all came out, and a few of the engineers had cocktails while I had a beer or three. While we were standing around in the bar of the Trans Asia Hotel, I asked them about Buddhism in Sri Lanka. These engineers and managers had just spent the whole day telling me how hard the team works, and how eager and hungry the work force is in Colombo. I asked them how that work ethic they had described squares with a philosophy and world view that holds material attachment to be the root of all suffering.

They were more than a little shocked that a software manager from the USA knew something about Buddhism (which doesn't speak well for software managers from the USA, as a class). But after they got over their surprise and reticence, they seemed delighted that I was interested in their lives, their religion, and how they melded the two. We proceeded to have a great, long discussion about Buddhism, the Middle Way, the Eight-Fold Path, and how to live a spiritually enlightened life in a capitalistic, materialistic world. It was a great talk.

When the Sri Lankan engineers figured out that I was interested in Buddhism, and in understanding their culture, they really opened up, and talked with me about stuff I suspect I never would have heard or learned otherwise. We left knowing a bit about each other that would have never come up if I had steered clear of Religion as a topic.

In my own experience, religion and politics are acceptable if not excellent topics of discussion. I'll offer the caveat that you shouldn't be a jerk. But if you can manage that trick, these two topics, like no others, cut through the workaday banalities and really let people expose who they are. And that is crucial if a group of people is ever to become a team.


As a very cool aside, the engineers in Sri Lanka, upon learning my interest in and openness to Buddhism, told me about a place I really want to visit on my next trip to Sri Lanka. It's called "the Temple of the Tooth", and it houses a holy relic believed to be a tooth salvaged from the funeral pyre of Buddha, brought to Sri Lanka in the 4th century. The relic is celebrated annually in the Esala Perahera, or the procession of the tooth. If you like elephants, particularly elephants dressed up like Christmas trees, this is apparently a must-see event!

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