Skip to content
All posts

Don't Define Teamwork as Everyone Getting Along

How do you define teamwork?

Have you made teamwork synonymous with terms like "rowing in one direction" or "going along to get along" or "acting in one accord"? Have you over-emphasized the notion that there's no "I" in team?
Graphic Showing Pulling an Arrow Up TogetherIf so, your description of teamwork -- and the expectation it sets -- may be limiting your team's effectiveness.

I wish I had a dollar for every time someone has said to me that "he's not a team player" or "she's not good at teamwork." These are easy statements to make, but they're a lot harder to substantiate. When I hear this, I ask "what do you mean?" The responses usually reveal a limited view of what it means to contribute to a team.

If you define teamwork as putting "we" before "I," consider this:

The very definition of team effectiveness allows for the simultaneous goal attainment of the team and each individual on the team. There's nothing selfish or wrong about pursuing your own interests. "I" has a legitimate and proper plan within a team.

Teamwork does not require you to subjugate your own interests to that of the team. When teams require this, individuals are unable to fully commit themselves to the team's purpose and goals.

Teamwork looks different. Everyone works together to achieve a shared goal AND everyone works together to mutually support the goals of individual team members. An imbalance in either direction interferes with team effectiveness.

Getting to the point where you can understand each others' interests and trust each other for mutual support is the missing ingredient for most teams.

If you define teamwork as compromising, consider this:

There's an inherent flaw in compromise. If there's a true compromise, one where every party makes concessions in order to reach agreement, then no one gets what they wanted. Everyone gives up something and settles for less.

You may be misusing the word "compromise" when what you're really experiencing are accommodations. If some (but not all) members of the team are making concessions and giving up what they want, they are accommodating other members of the team who do get what they want. If this happens often enough, the team's interactions become power struggles. That's not teamwork.

Urging a team member to "take one for the team" is a manipulation more often than not. Unless every member of the team has equally "taken one for the team," there's risk here of disenfranchising individuals.

Instead of compromising or expecting accommodations, aim higher. Collaboration looks for ways to meet all the primary interests of every team member in service of team goal. Assuming you've assembled a team of people who are well-served by the common goal, this should not be a burden. It will require time, trust and commitment... But these are "team forming and norming" elements you won't want to skip any way.

If you define teamwork as loyalty to a team leader, consider this:

There's real danger in confusing teamwork with marching orders. Teamwork aims to bring out the best from each individual and allows for diversity of thought. Teamwork relies on the strengths and style differences of each individual, valuing the fact that this variety is the team's greatest strength.

It won't feel much like a team if the leader's voice is the only one allowed. Loyalty to a team leader can easily be misconstrued as compliance demanded by the boss. This shuts down new ideas and results in doing the bare minimum.

When a dominant leader demands compliance and sends negative signals about dissenting opinions, teams get mired in group think. It's no better than a single person making all the decisions -- they will be uninformed, unchallenged, and uninspiring to the group. The quality of these decisions will not be as robust as decisions made by a committed group that is aiming for a collaborative outcome that is equally beneficial to all involved.

The way you define teamwork determines how members of the team work together

Take a look at the formal and implied definitions you've established for your team. This becomes, in essence, the operating system for the team.

If you'd like to make a shift and build a team that is defined by their genuine commitment and ability to reach team and individual goals, you may need to do a re-set. It will start by broadening team member's understanding about each other.

There are many good assessment tools to help get this process started. I personally prefer the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) because it brings the conversation back to basics. For a team to move through past issues and get a fresh start, this tool works wonders (in the hands of a certified practitioner). 

The MBTI assessment tool helps teams improve communication, conflict resolution, decision making and collaboration. It enables team members to understand how they can leverage their style differences to benefit the team. It provides a language and practical tips for bridging gaps between people.

Best of all, this assessment has helped many teams learn to respect each other and appreciate the contributions each person is making. It’s one of our “secret weapons” to build organizational strength by putting people first.

IIf you'd like to know more about defining team effectiveness, check out our courses on the People First Learning Academy!

CTA_IconDude_PFLA Team Effectiveness_030923-1