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The great Myth of Teamwork

12th Mar 2003
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Kim Coe, CEO of the The How2 Group, sees successful group working as a matter of removing internal competition.

Many speakers and writers have done a much better job than I ever could in illustrating team work and team building in the worlds of sport, great exploration and even war, so I am going to have to restrict my comments about teams to the world of business and organisational life.

And the first statement I want to make is that there is no such thing as “Team” in the world of business, which makes writing the rest of this article a little difficult for me, let alone for you reading it.

Unless, that is we can live and function quite happily in the world of paradox.

So, when is a team not a team?

There are many influences that act as a sort of forging mechanism on a group of people, such as great leadership, shared values, common goals and complimentary perceptions, as well as the combination of unique and different skills. If you are old enough to remember ‘The A Team’ then you will know what I mean.

However, there is really only one quality that generates a team and that’s... loyalty.

Loyalty to what though? Well, loyalty to just about anything actually.

Whatever its application, loyalty - although an old fashioned word unless applied to modern speak like ‘brand loyalty’ - is still the true touchstone for team, teamwork and teambuilding.

Quite simply, it means being true and committed to something over and beyond personal survival and individual agendas and this is why the domain of sport, charity and patriotic survival can boast the best teamwork examples.

And why the business domain can boast so few.

Disloyalty in the business domain

Having already said that ‘team’ doesn’t exist within the framework or paradigm of commercial life, here are just a fraction of the events I have witnessed that, in each case, turned the most seemingly loyal culture into a cesspool of distrust and fragmented teamwork;

- Someone else got credit for what another person did
- Pay increases were given in recognition of status rather than merit
- Goals were raised with no explanation
- Redundancies were made, regardless of performing and non-performing staff
- Only certain people were invited to join the management for ‘a drink in the pub’
- A group was selected to be part of the company’s latest and most exciting venture
- Jack was sent on a training course that Jill wanted to attend
- Jill wasn’t sent on a training course and Jack was, but he didn’t want to go
- The sales department earns more money than those having to deliver
- Only the delivery people were invited to attend the client’s awards event
- The person across the office has a larger workspace

... and so on and so on and so on...

The fact is that business is categorically ‘not fair’ and there are always going to be mistakes and transgressions, even with the most enlightened management at the helm.

But actually that isn’t why loyalty doesn’t exist, it’s why the thing masquerading as loyalty gets dropped when unfairness steps in.

What most people think of as loyalty is actually about agreement and compliance.

A little bit like saying ‘terms and conditions apply’ when making a commitment to something or someone, which could hardly be called unconditional loyalty and unshakeable teamwork.

Loyalty in the business domain

Even if we were smart enough to avoid every potential pitfall, we could never really overcome varied perceptions when it comes to the principle of loyalty and it’s only a matter of time before some offence is unwittingly given.

One management decision or act will be perceived in many different ways and then there is always the Groucho Marx syndrome; “Any club that would accept me as a member, I wouldn’t want to join” making the encouragement of loyal, fully aligned, committed team members a moot point.

So, how do we bring about the ‘magical essence of team’?

Well, the answer is not in psychological profiling that’s for sure. Please don’t misunderstand, I think these exercises are highly useful for a balance of skills and likely character traits defined and combined correctly, as near to perfect team profiling as possible.

But they will not ‘ignite’ the team. They will not guarantee that the ‘bigger picture’ in each person’s case is going to support the notion of teamwork or their fellow team members when it comes down to it.

In order to bring about so-called team magic, we have to recognise that although the business environment does not lend itself to loyalty, human nature in fact definitely does – as the sports and other ‘worlds of honourable endeavour’ constantly prove.

In other words, we have to ‘release’ teamwork and ‘realise’ the potential of the team, not build it up according to any external models or our perceptions of what it should be like.

And to do that, we only have to confront the one barrier that stops authentic and powerful teamwork happening spontaneously...

Competitiveness and the death of the team

The most destructive component to a team is competition within itself, whether it’s based on money, status, approval or control or anything else that is considered as a statement of superiority.

I remember once, when I was talking to a highly successful salesperson about breaking through to the next level and I suggested that they were more likely to win if they could be satisfied with their endeavours to date, which really were quite spectacular.

The person reacted strongly and said “Oh, I can’t do that. If I become satisfied, I will lose my ambition” which is utterly untrue.

Yes, we all need a sort of divine dissatisfaction that keeps us going but in many ways, that approach is somehow satisfying too, is it not? There are countless examples of people being satisfied and going on to do more and more, becoming more and more successful and satisfied.

And, in the same way people don’t need to be dissatisfied in order to be ambitious, they don’t need to feel in competition in order to succeed.

However, management fear being what it is, and after decades of the old ‘carrot & stick’ style of team management, we have a deep, collective belief that says competition is healthy. Funny, I must have missed that one of the ‘ten commandments’ or ‘collective laws of gravity’.

Anyway, watch next time a junior staff member does something well and see if their manager tries (without realising they are doing it) to take some form of subtle credit.

Watch next time someone achieves a big sale and look at the faces of their peers acknowledging them.

Watch next time someone does something like empty the waste bins even though it’s not their job and see how many people actually notice.

You may well go mad doing this but you will see that every event during every day is being assessed subconsciously to see who is moving up or down the ‘approval & control ladder’ and where they are on it themselves that day.

Removing the barrier to natural team behaviour

Assuming you agree that true loyalty is a dynamic that can have a team work at its best, overcome anything and create literal miracles if needed, and assuming you think there might be something to be said for removing the competition-barrier in order to release ‘natural loyalty'...

The first thing to do is become aware of this internal competition phenomenon and the second is to know that it is a very easy thing to eradicate.

All management needs to do is step back and look at how their style may be provoking feelings of competitiveness and how they may well be perpetrating it as a means of controlling their people.

After that, it’s a matter of being congruent with those wonderful values that we are more than happy to expound to the team given half a chance. In other words, if we do believe that the collective power is greater than the sum of the parts, make sure that everyone knows they are all participants in the individual’s success and be generous in your congratulations, without robbing the person who did it in any way whatsoever.

Talk to the team about internal competition and state your position up front. Encourage discussion to help raise awareness of the tendencies and let them know it’s perfectly normal (human) to feel a bit down or even inadequate if someone else is successful.

Tell them it’s okay and it doesn’t dilute the pleasure they feel for the other person or the pride they should rightly feel in the team as a whole, whosever’s day it is.

In conclusion

As there is no ready platform for team building in organisations, we have to put one in or more accurately help ‘bring one about’.

Whereas the cut and thrust of business and the dry preoccupations with wealth and status make perfect breeding grounds for non-teamwork (and competitive relating), people are inherently a team animal and each of us instinctively has that compulsion and a desire to be loyal to something greater than our petty concerns.

None of what I have said refers to a liberal management style or democratic team management. If anything, the need to allow consequences to take place against failures and successes is even more paramount, or unfairness will again drown out loyalty.

You can still reward performance and acknowledge contribution and you can still attack negative issues and upbraid failure... that is if you have removed the tendency for internal competition.

Then you have a true meritocracy, which is the perfect breeding ground for building successful teams.

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