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How to be the Right Stuff – Artemis Westenberg

Monday, January 24, 2022

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Article by M.A. Artemis Westenberg,
CEO, Explore Mars Europe

When we think about working in Space Exploration we envision problems with engines, with solar panels, with orbital mechanics, with all things technical, but in reality making Space exploration happen centers around the humans doing the engineering and the research.

How you handle that well, mesh with your team, truly fit in with your team has all to do with how you interact with others, and they interact with you.

This must be a ‘duh’ moment for many of you as you all have been children playing at a playground, interacting with fellow students at your elementary and grammar school and then on at your university. Still, too many of us are not taught how to manage being part of a team. We are tasked with a team-project and that usually means some shoving back and forth (hopefully just in words) between you and your team-mates. In general, very little attention is given to how to build a good working team. How to be a good team member. How to de-escalate tension and conflict. Many of us will end up shying away from conflicts, which is a shame as from fervent discussions come great ideas, but that means that you must feel safe enough, all of you, to speak up.

I endeavour to lay out here the ground rules for successful cooperation. Whether that is in a team project, as an analogue astronaut or even as a factual astronaut with NASA, ESA or any of the other Space agencies, when they start sending whole teams into Space.

The first, very basic truth is that Respect is a Two-Way Street. When I give you respect, you will be inclined to give me respect. What does that mean in real life? Well, it starts with listening carefully. Giving respect is expressed by letting someone ask questions, put forward ideas, giving someone literally space and time to be part of the team. Another ‘duh’ moment for you? Great.

If not. Imagine working in a group of people and only one or a few of that group is allowed to pose questions, to propose ideas. Anyone else is ridiculed, or just simply talked over, not given the time to word concerns. This is often the case with group dynamics. Now, the good news is, that you do not need to be the group leader to be able to change that dynamic. Simply standing up (literally if needed) and succinctly voicing your wish for someone else to be given the floor to speak, already changes the group.

The second truth is Aim for the Win-Win. At the end of the teamwork the feeling should always be ‘It was nice working with you’. I know, I know, not everyone is as easy to be around with. However, many people are only difficult, because they feel misunderstood. Which means, again, listening to them. Ask them WHY they say it that way. Give them time to feel safe. And yes, that also goes for guys, even if this admonition might make some of the gentlemen reading this feel icky as it centers around feelings. Unless we all acknowledge that we are human beings with emotions, with wants and needs, that team is not going to mesh. Being attentive is not mushy, it is classy, as in literally the thing that the upper classes used to be taught: ‘noblesse oblige’. You owe it to your self-worth to be humane and decent to all around you.

The third truth is Always act in Good Faith. It is a proven fact that a street that is cleaned up will stay cleaner. The same holds for cleaning up our interaction with others. Act honourable, honest, reasonable, and compassionate and that will resonate, not just in your team, but also between your team and others. Good behaviour simply begets good behaviour. That means that you should put faith in your co-workers. I know from decades of experience that this works wonders for the team’s social interactions, but also, and for your job this is probably far more important, it will work wonders for the creativity, output level and general success of your team. Being decent verily brings out the best in people.

The fourth truth is Perfect is the Enemy of Good (enough). You can only be as good as you can be. Give it your best effort, expect others to give it their best effort, but that should be it. Have, and show, compassion for the fallibility of humans. Don’t beat yourself or your team-mates up. Inspire and strive for the best, certainly, but be kind.

The fifth truth is Separate People from the Problem. Working on high end projects or on any project will create stress. Deadlines that must be met. Design problems that seem unsurmountable. This kind of stress will create conflict, even in otherwise well cooperating team-members. Generally speaking, each member of the team wants the project to succeed as that will bring glory to each member, not just to the team. To deal with conflicts focus on interests, not on positions. What do we want to accomplish? How can we make that happen? Who can contribute and in what way to that success?

This brings me to the sixth truth: Projects are Better Managed in Small Doses. Concentrate on the many, incremental steps that bring the project to fruition. By all means, know the end goal, but focus on the here and now. On the day / week / month portions of the progress towards that end goal. That is how real astronauts cut up their hours long space walks to repair or install segments on the ISS: they focus on the NOW.

The seventh truth is Privacy is not something that you Have, it is something that is Granted to you. Working in close knit teams often means that we see sides of our co-workers, and they see sides of us, that we might like to keep covered. We all have idiosyncrasies that makes us imperfect. Each one of us has those imperfections, even the Dalai Lama. Be kind and compassionate. A basic rule for working in close proximity to others: Do unto others as you would want to be treated yourself. Looking through a set of somewhat rosy and foggy glasses towards your fellow worker will generate an emotionally balanced and safe working environment for both of you.

This all said, there will be moments in your work life that you will encounter dishonourable behaviour, and that might spoil the pleasure in your work for you. However, remember that most people (like 99%) are people like you that feel less stress and more accomplishment if they are nice to others. Don’t let the few disgruntled push you to be not like your decent self. Practically speaking, schedule a conversation with this not-nice person. Perhaps you can iron out what is eating them. If nothing else, at the end of the day you can at least look yourself square in the eyes in the mirror, knowing you are a decent human being. In short, you worked at being the right stuff.

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