Sometimes you don’t see it until you run right into it, like an old spider web in a dimly lit corner of someone else’s basement. It jolts your senses milliseconds before a nerve inducing ickyness traces the length of your spine.

It was the middle of July a few years back, and our client’s team members were excited for an outdoor teaming program. It was a chance to be in the fresh air and steal something from the day that would otherwise be lost to the usual routine and confines of their desks. Grateful for the parking garage that would shade them from the sun, they quickly made their way to our race car and pit area for a fun day that would prove insightful to everyone involved.

This client was one department of an extremely large financial services company keenly interested in building some function into a group that had seen a 60% turnover within the past year. This newly formed team shared an exuberance so rich it was as if they were a child tasting sugar for the first time. Bright eyed and full of vigour, they weren’t ready for the sugar crash that would soon follow.

Around the race car, it was evident very quickly that everyone on the team were keenly focused on ensuring their job was done well. They asked plenty of clarifying questions, were deeply engaged, and the only thing to expect would be a great first run from the entire group. The time came to change the race car tires, each of the four newly minted pit crew teams took turns and launched from behind ‘the wall’ to change the tires with full force.

Before the last group would finish, it came into view for me, something I didn’t expect nor see until they were into it. They had this, individual heads down drive, like a field of race-horses, blinders over their eyes, all rushing toward the finish line with a lack of any concern or awareness about the performance of others on the team. In contrast, the execution looked more like herding a group of hoodwinked cats, than any sort of thoroughbred racing. What was missing is they didn’t help or look out for each other. They appeared directionless, and it came with an unanticipated price: failure. They were trapped in “silos of one”.

Breaking down silos is one of our main learning take-aways, and this was going to be the team’s biggest challenge for the day. The participants shared that they felt they needed to have permission to act differently, and while they had a desire to work across those individual boundaries, they did not feel they had that permission in their workplace and that came through in the metaphor of this experience. With such a large turnover looming in the recent past, they shared there was a collective feeling that they could lose their job if they did not focus solely on their own work, and that they knew they were being watched.

Just like in any business, the metaphor within the Pit Crew Challenge is often a reflection of what happens every day at work when people are thrust into unknown scenarios. Team members must work collaboratively and have a strong awareness of what is happening around them. It is the only way for high performing teams to succeed, especially if something goes sideways. This group struggled. Knowing your job and doing it well is important, yet working on your team’s interdependencies is critical for collaboration.

With the majority of the team new to their roles within the year, and a lingering awareness of the turnover issues, it was as if they were in a dense fog that would not clear. For them, it created an uncertainty and ambiguity of what the future may hold for them personally. How would they ensure survival in their role? What is their best strategy?

Cultural ambiguity in a new team is a thing. As certain as mosquitos on a camping trip.

The norms for behaviour have not been established or understood, add to that elements of the unknown, and you get fear, a ‘silo of one’. It is a defence mechanism that grows quickly. Individuals may say subconsciously, “I have to prove I can do MY job well, then they can’t fire me. It’s every one for themselves out there.” Where there is ambiguity, fear and risk rise quickly.

When clarity is not readily available, the most powerful tool against ambiguity is permission. It is the oft forgotten tool that has the magic to change behaviour and culture both for individuals and teams. People need to feel that they have permission to take risks, and that includes setting norms within their culture. Without that psychological safety net, feelings can grow to the fear of being pushed out of the group, easily leading to the den of self-protection. Many corporate cultures are full of people who have figured out very well how to keep their head low enough from the sickle of unwanted attention in order to garner some sense of security.

Permission to collaborate. Permission to make decisions. Permission to take risks. Permission to think differently. Permission to speak up. Permission to learn new things. Permission to challenge assumptions.

Permission to ?…

What sort of permission does your team have when it comes to making decision, executing, and performing? The place where the permission stops is likely to be the most frustrating silo keeping you from high performance. Asking your team to share their frustrations with where they feel the limits of their permission lies, will uncover a potential to what roadblocks you as a leader may be able to remove and overcome. You may unwittingly discover that where you thought people had permission, your team concluded the complete opposite. The loss of potential always lies in the shadow between the pillars of perception and reality.

By the end of the day, our wonderful financial services pit crew was able to remove some ambiguity, apply some needed lessons, and redefine a culture that allowed them to succeed. That success only came because they were willing to learn from their failure.

All they needed was the permission to do so.

Is your team operating with the same permissions?