Ten Commandments of Teamwork

A group of my students were working on a team project, and were experiencing some problems getting their act together.  Nothing too serious, just the sort of symptomatic problems that seem to get in the way of top-notch performance from team efforts.

Why do we seem to have problems working together on teams?  Everybody knows about Teamwork.  In simplest terms, teamwork is working together with others to achieve a common goal.  Look up teamwork in the dictionary and an additional element emerges.  According to Merriam-Webster, teamwork is:

“work done by several associates with each doing a part but all subordinating personal prominence to the efficiency of the whole”

so there seems to be a requirement to sublimate egos in the pursuit of the team goals.

And, of course, all of the members of the team have to be working in a coordinated way to achieve an agreed upon goal, or the results can be disappointing, or worse….

Surprisingly, the word, “teamwork” hasn’t been around for all that long. The ancient Greeks and Romans had no word for teamwork. It first showed up in the English language in the 1820’s, from a simple combination of the words team and work.

Teamwork isn’t a concept limited to homo sapiens. Team-like behavior in the animal world is so common that Ken Thompson has fashioned the term bioteaming to describe the application of behaviors found in nature to the work of teams in human organizations. 

There are countless examples of so-called symbiotic relationships in the animal world. The remora is a fish that attaches itself to larger fish like sharks, sometimes to whales, much like getting on a bus for easy transport through the oceans.  The Egyptian plover is a bird that feeds on bugs and debris caught up in crocodile’s teeth – saves the croc a trip to the dentist while making dinner a thrill ride for the plover.

Social insects like bees and ants demonstrate the importance of different actors playing out clearly defined roles.  Wolves learn to hunt in packs, chasing down and overwhelming larger prey through coordinated attacks.  Canada geese flying in formation trade-off the “lead bird” role; when the bird flying at the point of the V-formation begins to tire, it moves to the back and another bird moves up to take on the more tiring lead role. Even our canine companions sometimes work together to do what they couldn’t accomplish on their own.

Nonetheless, with all of the advantages that we have over bees, ants, birds, fish, dogs, cats, and other animals, we still have trouble forming and performing as teams.  I think what may be needed is a way of looking at Teamwork as a concept that represents a set of values that encourage listening and responding in ways that provide support and cooperation, giving the benefit of the doubt, and making it as easy as possible for all team members to contribute as richly as possible to the team effort.

Over the years I’ve collected a set of guidelines or rules that can go a long way toward delivering strong team performance.  The rules are personal and deal only with our own behavior, NOT what the other members of the team are doing..  That makes sense to me, since the only person’s behavior I can control is ME.

Now, I certainly don’t want to imply that I am in any way, shape or form a Paragon of Pure and Perfect Team Play.  Too often I tend to act as if I am the only one who really knows what to do and how to do it.  Arrogant and abrasive are adjectives that come to mind.  Those who have worked with me can verify that.  Regardless, I’ve seen that when I do behave like a good teammate, I can dramatically improve the chances that the team will perform well.  I’m not ready to get out the hammer and chisel and engrave these rules on tablets of stone, but here are my Ten Commandments of Teamwork:

  1. Don’t make quick judgments about the capabilities or potential to add value of other members of the team, especially if they are negative judgments.
  2. Don’t be a smug, pompous, know-it-all ass.  Help build a team, not your ego.
  3. Be open and trusting toward other team members if you want them to trust you.
  4. Be able to work with and learn with other people who will be thinking about things in different ways and at different speeds, than you are. Lots of people won’t be flying at the same altitude as you are. Accommodate them.
  5. Don’t argue.  Stay off the soapbox, but don’t avoid confronting issues that arise.  Find a non-argumentative way to get to the heart of issues without getting personal.
  6. Don’t give up and start flailing if things don’t work out well on the first attempt.  Put your best efforts into every attempt.  Don’t dwell on past successes or failures, beyond what can be learned from them.  Live in the moment and make NOW the best possible now; then move on.
  7. Work hard to build a broad network of contacts; this will enhance the flow of information, which is the key to good decision-making.
  8. Acknowledge and share your personal agenda, but be ready to dispose of it if it’s not going to help move the team toward it’s goals.
  9. You can’t always pick you teammates, but never pick on them.  Help them if you can, but don’t overdo it.  Admit that you’re not always right.
  10. Keep a big picture perspective, but remember that, in the end, the down-to-earth details are what usually make the difference between success and failure.

What do you think?

The Games of Golf

One Saturday in August nearly 25 years ago, I was playing golf with my friend, John Gregorits, at Flanders Valley GC in Morris County, NJ.  John was a fine golfer, who usually beat me like a drum, even when I played well.  But that day, although he got ahead by two holes after we’d played only three holes, I played steady, if unspectacular golf, and he didn’t play well at all.  I cleaned his clock, shooting 87 to his 93 – and he’d given me two strokes a side.

It was the worst I had ever seen John score; but he just kept plugging away.  When he hit it in the woods, he just went after it and whacked it back out.  He never complained.  John kept plugging along, in spite of whatever frustration he may have been feeling.  He just kept after it, and was good company in spite of what, for him, was awful golf. (He usually scored 80 or lower.)

After the round John told me, “I could try to shoot low scores every time I play.  But sometimes, like today, I want to hit certain kinds of good shots.  I want to shape tees shots with the curve of the fairway, fade or draw approach shots to the green around rather than over bunkers, and get really creative on little pitch and chip shots. If the shots workout as planned, that’s great.   If not, no big deal.  I’m out here to have fun, and today, fun for me is more about ‘good shots’ than ‘low score.’”

OK, so what did I learn?  Maybe I had been fooling myself about golf.  I had been thinking that it was all about results, and “who I am” was measured by accomplishments, like golf scores.  As if I were a more worthwhile human being if I could say, “ I am a six handicap” instead of “ I play to a twelve handicap.”

That day I started learning that it’s not what score I write that’s the measure of what kind of person I am.  It’s not that at all.  It’s whether I enjoy the Game of Golf [whichever Game of Golf I happen to be playing that day], and my playing partners; the beauty of the golf course; the thrill of good shots and the challenge of recovery from bad shots.

I began to realize that maybe the same is true for the Game of Life.  Every time I play golf, I have a choice.  I can choose to feel good about the game, and myself, or I can choose to feel lousy.  Every day I wake up and I have a choice.  I can choose to feel good about life, and myself, or I can choose to feel lousy.  Why choose to feel lousy?


Leadership Wisdom of the Cheshire Cat

A student in one of my Leader Development Program sessions was grappling with his role as a leader in his organization. He felt that he had never sought out a leadership role, and wasn’t sure that it was something that he really wanted to do.
He was fascinated by Nelson Mandela’s concept of “Lead from the Back,” and suggested that what he really wanted to do was simply help people to be the best that they could be.  If he accomplished that, even if only for some of the people in his organization, then he could feel good about what he had done as a leader. He went on to say that “Leadership is only a word; it is the impact that you have on others that is what really matters.”
I think he’s partly right, but largely missing the point.  For me, leadership is more than just a word.  It is, perhaps more than anything, a state of mind.  It is a communal activity — no one talks about the great leadership abilities of hermits. Most importantly, leadership implies directionality.

Recall the encounter between Alice and the Cheshire Cat, as related by Lewis Carroll in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:
“Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?,” asked Alice.
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care,” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
Whether you lead from the front, the back, or the middle, as a leader you are setting the direction for yourself and those who follow you  — be it your business, your team, your neighborhood association, or any other group you are a part of.  If you hope to be successful as a leader, you have to help answer the question: “Where are we going?”

On the Lookout for Wisdom

I was trying to understand the popularity of websites like Yelp.com and Digg.com. These sites rely on the so-called Wisdom of Crowds to identify the best places to eat, shop, etc. [Yelp] and to determine what news is REALLY news [Digg].  Apparently,  when we somehow aggregate the knowledge and information of a large number of people, we come up with better decisions than we would if left to our own devices. There is lots of criticism of this idea, and I’m not sure whether this really works, other than in highly controlled circumstances, but to me, it’s not really wisdom.

If you’re like me, you think you know what wisdom is, but you’re hard pressed to define it.  That puts us in good company.  The University of Chicago has  launched a $2 million research effort,The Defining Wisdom Project, to get a better handle on exactly what “wisdom” happens to be. I’m not sure I’d be willing to spend $2 million, but I applaud their efforts.

Look up the word “w-i-s-d-o-m” in the dictionary. Merriam-Webster offers several definitions, all of which seem to involve a combination of knowledge and insight, resulting in good judgment.   That feels right intuitively.  We think of wise people as those who know what to do when something difficult has to be done. We seek them out for advice because they’ve demonstrated that they know how things work, and how to get things done with minimum fuss and bother.

The ancient Greeks considered wisdom to be a virtue.  Socrates and Plato literally created philosophy [philo-sophia] as the Love of Wisdom.  Plato’s utopian philosopher kings would not only understand the right things to do — The Form of the Good — but would have the strength of character to do what what was right.  To Aristotle, wisdom was more than knowing that things worked in a certain way, but called for the deeper knowledge of why things were the way they were. In the Christian tradition, Thomas Aquinas called wisdom the “father” of all virtues.

The Inuits saw wisdom as the aim of all teaching. An Inuit elder supposedly said that people were wise when they could see what needed to be done and do it without being told.  That’s a sort of practical wisdom that the world could certainly use a lot more of.

Never willing to leave matters of the mind in the hands of philosophers, psychologists entered the debate about what wisdom really is.  I particularly enjoy the definition of wisdom found at Psychology Today Basics:

Like art and pornography, wisdom is hard to pin down, but people generally recognize it when they encounter it. Psychologists pretty much agree it involves an integration of knowledge, experience, and deep understanding that incorporates tolerance for the uncertainties of life as well as its ups and downs. There’s an awareness of how things play out over time, and it confers a sense of balance.”

I agree with most of that description, but have to take issue with the notion that we-know-it-when-we-see-it when it comes to wisdom.  I think we overlook the wisdom that can be found everywhere, both within us and in the world in general, because we simply don’t bother to look for it.  Worse, we may not know how to look for it.

To further complicate matters, at least some wisdom, [not the wisdom that Plato is so enamored with, based on innate and universal ethical principles], in the area of practical affairs, seems to be highly context sensitive.  For example, the purchase of Alaska in 1867 for $7.2 million was denounced at the time as “Seward’s Folly.” The discovery of gold in the 1890’s changed everyone’s view, and the storehouse of natural resources found in our 49th state makes Seward look like a particularly sagacious Secretary of State. Of course, Seward didn’t know about the gold, the oil, or much else about Alaska at the time of the purchase, so perhaps he was just a lucky fool with a great sense of timing.

As for me, while I’m not ready to go as far as author  Douglas McKee in his latest book, Already Wise: Our Inborn Ability to Make the Best Choices, and say that we  simply have to learn to unlock the nascent wisdom inside each of  us, I am on the lookout for wisdom, wherever I may happen to find it.

For today, I’ll leave the last word to Bard Will Shakespeare, who wrote in As You Like It [Act V, Scene 1 for those who care to look it up]:

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.