When I discuss teamwork and the formation of strong teams with companies and organizations the most frequent question I am asked is “why is it so hard to form and keep a good working team?” Managers tell me that “everyone has the same goal; we all work for the same company, why can’t we get along and pull together?”
My question in return is “what are the expectations of each of the team members?” What I am asking is what each member of the team expects to get out of the team experience.
Forming a team is a process which is much like baking a cake. You must assemble the ingredients, mix them properly and gently, then apply the heat or, (in the case of a team), encouragement to finally create the finished product. Unlike a cake the team formation process continues so long as the team exists.
The most important factor in creating a good team is to get the team members to think as a unit rather than as individuals each out for their own ends. At the same time the team leader needs to recognize that each member has their own drives, motivations, and desires. The leader needs to be the baker and properly combine the human traits of all the team members into a unit which performs much better than the sum of the parts.
As a user of a guide dog for forty-seven years I must apply this principle every day. My guide dog and I have adventures, misadventures, disagreements and successes because we have learned to work well as a team. Every team leader and all team members need to recognize this rule if the team is to succeed. Dogs want to be part of a team much more than most humans it would seem. Their unconditional love leaves them open to trust and positive interactions. We humans aren’t so easy to convince.
A team can truly begin to work together when we recognize that there is no “my” in team. Phrases like “my team”, “my effort”, “my success” need to disappear from the team mentality. It is “our team,” “we pulled together to make the effort,” etc. One person may have made a significant contribution to the team’s success, but it is still “our success” because in a good team everyone made a contribution which lead to that success. As soon as team members forget the “our principle” the inevitable process of team breakdown begins.
Recently, I saw a great example of the lack of a true team spirit during a TV interview with the U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner. A reporter was talking with Speaker Boehner about the looming budget crisis. The reporter asked whether Mr. Boehner was willing to make significant compromises with President Obama on remaining budget issues. Speaker Boehner’s reply was that he was “going to get the best deal for my team.” He did not say he wanted the best “deal for America” or that he wanted the best compromise for all Americans.
Speaker Boehner’s comment is not the only example in the recent political debate. Other members of Congress have made comments like “I want… in order to show the folks back home that I am doing what they sent me to Washington to do.” The rhetoric we have heard typifies a fractured team where no one seems to have an idea or possibly even a real desire to create a unified team approach to problem solving.
Teams discuss, argue, and even have extremely strong debate. However, once the decision is made good teams know that they stick by the decision until it is truly proven wrong or until the next discussion and evaluation time comes about. In the case of the recent budget crisis, the budget had already been approved. Because the fractured team could not or would not create a complete funding bill once the budget was passed, we as Americans were stuck with needless debate and attempts on all sides to create new policy after the fact.
If we are looking for a role model for healthy team building and functioning we must look elsewhere than the political arena. This is unfortunate since in a republic such as ours we need leaders to be out in front of a united presence promoting real teamwork.
I mentioned earlier the human-guide dog team as a good example of trust and teamwork in action. Corporations and other organizations can have and sometimes do exhibit good examples of positive teamwork in action. An example of a strong team I have personally witnessed involves Thomas Nelson Publishers, the publisher of my soon to be released book, “Thunder Dog.” Last Month my colleague, Susy Flory, and I had the opportunity to visit Thomas Nelson and meet with the marketing and sales teams as well as some of the officers of the corporation. I came away impressed with the enthusiasm, spirit, and teamwork I saw there, which greatly added to my own spirit of excitement and encouragement.
Even before going to Nashville to meet with the team face-to-face, I found them to have a strong desire to partner to make the book a success. We had discussions and debates which always lead to improvements in “Thunder Dog.” Collaborating with Thomas Nelson, Susy Flory, and my agent, Chip MacGregor on the book has not only contributed to a better final product but it has created a strong coast-to-coast collaboration which will survive long after this first book is published.
Everything in the team effort with Thomas Nelson and with any team for that matter goes back to eliminating “my” in the word “team.” Of course, there is no “my” in “team.” So, why do we keep trying to add it where the word does not exist? If you want to form a real team, one which is strong and one which will get the job done, first begin speaking of every project and every single step along the way in the team lexicon of “our” and not “my.”. The more you think collectively the more you will find ways to work together, creating a unified team approach to any challenge.