What Makes a Team Work?

Vince Lombardi once said “Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”  With that much at stake, why would “teamwork” get such a bad rap? Back in the mid-80’s I was working for a large energy company.  “Teamwork” was in vogue, and every training company and consultant scrambled to put together a program that would capture this niche market.  When I reflect on a couple courses that I attended, they were really just a focus on better communication.  Although extremely important, these courses failed to address the real underlying behaviors, to develop a truly cohesive team.  I see three key problems:

  1. There is not a focus on collective results.  The individual commitment is to the individual, not the team.  Examples are everywhere.  The salesperson who steals accounts and hoards information for himself.  The hockey star who is more concerned with how many goals he scores than how many wins the team has.  The condo board member who is there only to promote his personal interests.
  2. “Groupthink” drags the team down, because there is no healthy conflict.  Under experimental conditions, psychologist Solomon Asch showed that 70% of the time, people will cave in to group pressure, even when the group is clearly wrong.
  3. Authoritarian leadership is still prevalent in the workplace today.  Milton Rokeach (another notable psychologist) said that people who like hierarchies seem to be comfortable giving orders, and are authoritarian personalities.  And those same people who like giving orders – they also like taking orders!  They seem to thrive on hierarchy.  They also tend to be closed-minded to new ideas and problem solving.  Open-minded personalities like to seek new solutions.  Given that many organizations promote authoritarian personalities to leadership positions, there’s a built-in obstacle to effective teamwork.

Patrick Lencioni says in his best-selling book, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” that the single most untapped competitive advantage is simply teamwork.  Communication is the under pinning to the five behaviors that are required, but to master each of the behaviors, you need to know what they are and really work on them.

As a partner with Wiley & Sons, we have been blessed to work with Lencioni to develop a program entitled “The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team.”  Every time I facilitate this workshop, I realize how relative it is to any team, be it at work, in sports, or even the family unit.  I remember playing football in high school and getting pummeled every week. We were in the wrong division, but I had the time of my life, and so did every guy on the team. There was a huge amount of predictable trust – everyone knew their role and we had each other’s backs. On and off the field. The camaraderie was outstanding and we had fun. Even though we did not win on the scoreboard, we set other goals and achieved them. Like doing 155 grass drills to overtake the Green Bay Packers in the Guinness Book of World Records.

When it comes to teams in the workplace, this same level of predictable trust is paramount to achieve great things. You have to be able to predict, and trust, what each other is going to do in so many ways, to be able to count on each other. This only comes from observing consistent behaviors over time.

But there is more.  Vulnerability based trust takes a team, or even a family, to much higher levels of greatness.  It is only when every single team player is willing to own up to his or her mistakes, shortcomings, and weaknesses – without fear of reprisal – that a team becomes truly cohesive.  That is when great things happen, because the team goes to work to overcome the weaknesses together.

I experienced this recently as a father. When having a meaningful discussion with my son of 30 years, he said “These are the conversations I love, Dad. When we can open up and truly express our struggles and concerns.” If I could turn back the clock, I would start that kind of dialogue with my children when they were toddlers, instead of trying to be the strong and macho dad that had no faults.

Once you have vulnerability based trust, the other behaviors follow:  engaging in healthy conflict; being committed to decisions; holding one another accountable; and focusing on collective results.  When these behaviors are embraced, every member of the team becomes a leader.  And I quote from James Kouzes, “You either lead by example, or you don’t lead at all.  When leaders do what they say they are going to do, it is a better indicator of profitability than any customer satisfaction scores.”

Written by Murray R. Janewski

Published by workplace.ca | Member Quartely – Winter 2016 Newsletter