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Building Dynamic Teams: Lessons from Colonel Chris Hadfield

Building Dynamic Teams: Lessons from Colonel Chris Hadfield

The international Space Station (ISS) is home to 15 nations. For five months off planet, Colonel Chris Hadfield was the commander of the ISS. Prior to this, he served as NASA’s Director of Operations in Russia as well as the Operations Chief of the ISS here on Earth. With each mission, each project, success hinged on Chris’ ability to lead and manage diverse teams that spanned different nationalities, languages, cultures, etc.

Reflecting on his 20+ years in the astronaut corps., Chris shared some of his best lessons learned on managing diverse teams and how leaders can foster greater collaboration, resiliency, and excellence within those teams — even amidst ongoing change and complexity.

Building Dynamic Teams

Diversity is a strength. If everyone on your team thinks the same, you’re already at a disadvantage, Chris said. Diversity of thought and difference of opinion lead to better decision-making, something not only crucial in what can be life-and-death situations aboard a spaceship but also in business.

Chris shared three tips to help leaders foster a team culture where diverse perspectives are valued and encouraged to enhance collaboration, productivity, and innovation.

Recognize and Celebrate Cultural Differences

Every individual within a team, Chris said, brings a unique cultural perspective. Even those who seem to share a similar upbringing such as siblings can be vastly different in how they respond and react to different situations.

Successfully leading diverse teams begins with recognizing and celebrating those cultural differences. A good leader, Chris said, uses all expertise available to them.   

Understand the Language of Your Team

Effective communication is rooted in a leader’s ability to understand the language of their team. It’s not about using their slang necessarily, Chris said, but recognising that team members will filter information through their own language and cultural context. Respect those differences by learning as much as you can about the cultures and backgrounds of your team members and encourage your team to do the same.

Inclusive Decision-Making

In recognizing and celebrating team diversity, it’s important that a leader’s actions reflect that goal. It can be as simple as involving the whole team in choosing what holidays you honour every year, which is exactly what Chris did on the ISS. We had so many days off, he said, so we decided as a team what days they would be. This approach ensures everyone has a voice and is included in building the team culture.  

Supporting Teams Through Change and Complexity

Chris has led teams under some of the most extreme circumstances — from the International Space Station to a 14-day mission aboard the Aquarius underwater laboratory, 20m below the ocean’s surface.

Having worked and led under such extreme circumstances — where change and ambiguity is the daily norm — Chris shared some strategies that helped him keep team morale high and his team members engaged and motivated, while building team resiliency. 

Keep Yourself Grounded

If a leader is overwhelmed, their team will be overwhelmed. In challenging times, it’s easy to become hyper focused and think that no one has it as tough as me, Chris said. But history is full of wars, pandemics, economic downturns, etc. — this isn’t the first time life has been difficult. Sometimes acknowledging that can give us much needed perspective. We’re still here, we can get through this as we have many times over. We can find comfort in that, Chris said, and use it to lead from a place of calm, no matter the challenges ahead.

Build Team Camaraderie

Give people something to be excited about, Chris said. Leaders should always be looking for ways to build a sense of team. It’s very easy to focus on the bad, but there’s no point pushing against the same grindstone over and over again. Sometimes the best thing a team can do is take a break and do something fun together to build team camaraderie and trust.

Celebrate Achievements, Big and Small

Celebration is a crucial aspect of maintaining morale. Onboard the spaceship, Chris said, we would celebrate as often as possible and drop our bar of victory as low as possible. It may sound silly, but these little actions can make people feel good and significantly impact team dynamics and overall team satisfaction.

Colonel Chris Hadfield is a heavily decorated astronaut, engineer, and pilot. As a uniquely experienced leader, he draws from experiences and lessons learned during his 21 years in the astronaut corps to share the best strategies and tactics to help individuals, teams, and leaders prepare for and meet the challenges of our rapidly changing world.

Contact us to learn more about Chris and how he helps leaders and their teams thrive amidst uncertainty.

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