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He Cracked the Code! How to Build Team Spirit at Work

Shouting matches were the norm. Fist fights had been averted, so far. Name calling and personal attacks had become commonplace.

Inside and outside of the Boardroom, this executive team went after each other... hardly the model example of team spirit at work.

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The company's robust growth masked the problems. Their strong brand enabled more of the same bad behaviors. When you're successful, your faults don't seem as significant.

But then, something happened that would change everything.  

The Straw & the Camel's Back

To manage and sustain growth, the executives agreed new company-wide processes and systems were necessary. They convened an ERP task force to select a vendor partner to identify best practices and map out the action plan for integrations. Like the executive team, the members of this task force came in swinging. The implied message they'd each heard was defend your functional business unit.

Their disagreement swiftly escalated back to the top. In fact, it reached the attention of a Board Member who publicly called out the CEO.

Time Out

That's when this executive team of eight highly paid, highly competent individuals spent three days in an off-site retreat. Good idea, bad execution. They spent most of time arguing about the minutiae of day-to-day work flow. They accomplished absolutely nothing.

They were able to agree on one (and only one) thing: they needed help.

Peace Negotiations

Five of the eight were able to agree on a single coach. They hired a team coach to facilitate their meetings and help them build their own team effectiveness. (Once they worked out their own issues, the coach also supported the task force months later.)

There was a lot of baggage. Their shared history and their bad habits. They operated with mistrust and internal competition and personality conflicts and inflated egos.

Step one, the Coach decided, would be to crack the code of this team's unique dynamics. 

Here's how he did it, and what he found.

Team Spirit at Work Isn't the Same as Team Spirit in Sports

When the Coach interviewed each team member individually, he picked up on a theme.

Seven of them had significant athletic backgrounds -- a semi-pro tennis player, an LPGA golfer, college football and basketball stars, and a distance runner. 

It became apparent that winning mattered greatly to each individual. But each had a different definition of what it meant to win and how to do it. While all had a sense of "team," their perceptions of their roles within the team varied dramatically.

The "A-ha!" moment was that team spirit and team contributions look different in the workplace than they do in sports. Among the differences they identified:

  • Work teams have to take a longer view, beyond the game or the season.
  • Doing their individual part on a work team often means stepping back to make room for others.
  • There's no need to constantly compete for a spot on the team. Your position is secure unless you under-perform or impair the team's effectiveness.
  • You are always on the field and everything you do impacts the team.
  • Drive for individual achievement can get in the way of work team effectiveness.
  • It's not necessary to win every argument so long as the group progresses on its shared goals.
  • There is no win/lose construct inside the team. Two seemingly competing agendas can both be achieved if the team is creative and committed to collaboration.

Team Spirit at Work Elevates Cooperation to Collaboration

With these discoveries, the executive team acknowledged that they had been competing with each other. They decided to work on cooperating instead.

(It was a good first step, but not the ultimate goal.)

To cooperate: To work together; to get along

Breaking their habit of competing enabled them to work together and get along. One team member likened it to the way two-year-olds play together.

They aren't interacting, she said, but playing side-by-side, with an occasional exchange of toys or some acknowledgement of each other.

The team relaxed into cooperation within a few months. They held each other accountable to working together and getting along. Then it was time to take the next step: turning cooperation into collaboration.

To collaborate: To join together; to join forces

As children get older, their playtime becomes more interactive. They play together instead of merely playing side-by-side. This team did the same.

As they joined forces, they expanded their own capacity. They learned more about each other's challenges and enlisted support from each other more frequently. They brainstormed and problem-solved together. They broke down silos between their respective departments.

Over time, they came to appreciate the power of collaboration. They enjoyed the strength that came with joining together vs. working alone or side-by-side.

Team Spirit at Work Requires a Different Kind of Commitment

Unlike a game or even a season, work teams must be committed to something more. They must be committed to each other. 

Long-term success requires true collaboration where the team commits to giving the best of themselves AND to extracting the best from each other. This commitment extends from the strongest member of the team to the weakest.

Letting some sit on the bench while others get to play isn't collaboration. 

Passing the ball to a single dominant player who consistently scores isn't collaboration.

Looking at individual stats instead of overall team performance isn't collaboration.

The commitment to collaboration changes things. This commitment includes:

  • A long-term view to accomplish bigger picture goals like the company's mission
  • All team members helping all other team members develop and expand their own and the team's capacity
  • Joining together to make things happen and taking collective accountability when things don't work out. 

If your team needs to build a strong skillset for collaboration, start with this CONNECT2Win Skills Checklist for teams. Consider bringing in a team coach. Have frank discussions about what it means to truly be a team.

Next Steps for Building Team Spirit at Work:
  1. Read examples and stories about other effective teams for inspiration and ideas. 30 guest contributors from around the world are featured in this eBook.
  2. Download one of our popular infographics for teams. Decision-making for teams provides a step-by-step approach for collaborative decision-making. New Call-to-action
  3. Book a PFPS facilitator today to facilitate critical team meetings, to speak at your leadership or team events, to conduct customized retreats or workshops to improve your team’s effectiveness.

CONNECT2Win is the blog for everyone who works with anyone. Published weekly, the emphasis in 2017 is on the basics of team effectiveness for team leaders and all team members who want to contribute at a higher level.

Deb Calvert is President of People First Productivity Solutions, the company that’s been building organizational strength by putting people first since 2006.  Deb’s fortune 500 background in Human Resources, Sales and Operations gives her a unique perspective on working with cross-functional teams. She is a certified Executive Coach, MBTI practitioner, Certified Master of The Leadership Challenge®, bestselling author, instructional designer and gifted facilitator.



Topics: teamwork, team work, team effectivness, team member, team player


Deb's new book is a behavioral blueprint for success. It shows that tactics of highly effective sellers are also those of highly effective leaders -- and team players.

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