Story, Teams, and Building Character

It may not surprise you that shared personal history plays a significant role in building social teams that can collaborate effectively (and that, of course, team members communicate this history by telling and reliving stories of it).

It may not surprise you that the stories that grab us the most, whether movies, television, written or oral traditions, operate off of central characters that must make a defining decision when confronted with a difficult choice.

The stories that may wow us stylistically (special effects, cleverness of prose, etc.), but still leave us cold and disconnected from true highs, forget about these kinds of characters, struggling to find their way down thorny paths. Thus you have Hollywood action movies and so on.

It may not surprise you that, when your parents or elders put you into tough situations, that compelled you to make tough decisions, and they told you it would “build character”, they meant exactly this (even if they didn’t know it).

Human beings eat story like a food, breath it like air, walk on it like earth, deepen intimacy with it like physical touch.

Most of us avoid conflict and discomfort, and help others to do the same, without realizing that a world without conflict and discomfort means a world devoid of story.

Which means a world devoid of food, air, earth, and physical touch.

Some peoples in the world experience constant conflict and discomfort (how many wars in the ‘third world’ do we have raging right now?), so the answer doesn’t lie in neverending struggle.

Rites of Passage, intitiations, and such experiences create a safe space to have conflict and discomfort, and to make difficult decisions.

Also, living a life where, once we’ve recovered from the last one, we dive right into the next edge-pushing experience, will build our interwoven personal stories and characters.

The most powerful and intimate relationships come from people who’ve shared incredibly harrowing experiences – plane crashes, war, abuse, and so on. Sometimes, rather than strengthening bonds, this breaks them, and the people involved. But when they work, they work because of the extremely condensed story they’ve shared together, of one conflict after another. One could have the same result just by having a friendship over many years. Sooner or later the number of conflicts and ‘character building’ moments will add up. Unfortunately, sometimes conflicts do overwhelm the participants, and rather than building them up, they break them down.

Thus the need for safe space for conflict! Our culture itself can create (or discourage) an atmosphere of this. Unfortunately, our culture conflates conflict with violence, and intimacy with sex.

An argument means you’ll come to blows, and a heart connection means sexual attraction, according to our cultural mythology (‘our’ meaning modern American culture).

Can you get into a safe argument with someone?

Can you feel a heart connection safely (with a matching gender, depending) without sex coming up?

Don’t get me wrong. I love violence, and I love sex. I also love conflict that doesn’t break friendships, and heart connections that enrich rather than unnecessarily complicating my life.

And don’t get me wrong on the other count either – ‘building character’ doesn’ t have a linear progression. One can build one’s character into a sneaking and deceptive diplomat, as well as a forthright and nurturing caregiver. I know who I’d want to spend more time with, but a good story needs all kinds of folks.

So, ‘building character’ really means revealing character.

In fact, working on a team with someone who I know has a tendency to lie or shirk jobs, under certain pressures, may work out just fine, because at least I know them.

I know their limits, and I know the times they’ve supported me too.

In fact, suddenly I wonder if anyone exists who wouldn’t reveal ‘interesting’ character under intense enough pressure.

Then this all starts to make much more sense – virtues and flaws fall away, and we begin to realistically care for another, and understand each others capacities and incapacities.

And so working on a high-performing team of folks, or interacting with a close and collaborative family, means you’ve reached that point. You’ve lived the story, you’ve seen character revealed, and you accept each other, warts and all.

Familiar warts can actually inspire quite a bit of affection, don’t you think?

Written by Willem