How Does a Team Work?

‘Teamwork’ has become so cliche it’s been rendered almost meaningless…we take it for granted…kind of like ‘nice’ or ‘love’…or the calories in most drinks on Starbuck’s menu (I mean, they are not part of our daily count)…we click the thumbs up on ‘teamwork’ and just keep clicking…

But our current pandemic has me thinking a lot about teamwork. Come to think of it, Chickens, I’d be surprised if you weren’t thinking about it. Every commercial (…am I the only one impressed by how quickly the smallest local businesses right up through the largest international corporations have churned out new ads on all the major networks and streaming platforms?) reminds us that we’re “in this together” and “though we’re apart, we stay connected“…

And this is no coincidence…

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent. ~John Donne

…pandemics, definitively, are continental. So our distance is giving me a new perspective on teamwork, though I readily admit I’ve been “socially distanced” from the concept for a few decades now. Maybe because I’m a passionate individualist, or an introvert, or competitive by nature, or as my mother liked to say “prone to an artistic temperament,”…when I think of teams…if I’m honest, I think…enh. I mean, I’ve had some great ‘team’ experiences, personally and professionally…and I’ve had some excruciating ones too…I don’t think I’m unique in this regard…but we are a social, civilized species so our survival depends upon our ability to function collectively, on a pretty ‘macro’ scale…to say nothing of the ‘micro,’ more nuanced implications that hold our days together like plain weave.

shorpy_29008u.previewFor many of us in ‘merica one of our first, official run-ins with teamwork is little league. I started playing softball when I was about 7 or 8…because I could throw the ball farther than most of the other girls (…accurately, well, I was less effective in this regard) but the distance was enough to land me a position on 3rd base. The thought of pitching, all about accuracy, terrified me (even with someone’s dad standing on the mound)…ditto catching and first-base (those balls come hard and fast, even at that age, and I was way too vain for a broken nose or busted lip)…and we all quickly realized the “right-field girls” didn’t much like to run. Or catch. Or throw. We also quickly learned that a win meant the whole team piled into the back of a Chevy-pickup to scream-sing our way to Dairy-Queen. To this day, ice-cream has never tasted so good.

All this to say, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on what makes a ‘team work.’ In the Harvard Business Review, Martine Haas and Mark Mortensen claim there are 4 “enabling conditions” required for a team to thrive:

  • Compelling direction
  • Strong structure
  • Supportive context
  • Shared mindset

Compelling direction = purpose. Why are we doing this? It’s got to be a purpose that has substance (which is why the parental “because I said so” loses its effectiveness), it has to hit the “zone of proximal development”…some educational jargon that means it needs to be challenging, but not too challenging,…and it has to be consequential…another facet of human nature is that there has to be some perceived benefit…

Since we’re all members of ‘Team Education,’ this is revealing. So many of us struggle, as students, to feel connected to our team’s ‘compelling direction.’ I see it in my son as he approaches college…unsure about his purpose, how can he possibly plug global warming or WWII or 1984 or 5-paragraph essays into it…to say nothing of how algebra could possibly fit?!? Struggling with Kant readings, way outside his ‘zone of proximal development,’ in philosophy class…while rewards like being a ‘well-rounded citizen;’ securing a fulfilling, lucrative career; or heck, even earning an ‘A’ seem intangible to say the least.

Strong structure…Brady-Belichick-Gronk. The Ghostbusters. The Avengers. The 3 Amigos. The Rebel Alliance. Apollo 11 astronauts. The 90s Chicago Bulls. Every good team needs the right mix of members…there were 3 amigos, 12 Bulls…5 on the court, 7 on the bench…(most sports have a penalty for too many players on the field) so quantity matters, but quality does too. By this I do not mean that some human beings have more value than others and neither do the experts…only that high-performing teams are built to include members with balanced and complimentary skills…

  • Pete Venkman: charismatic, risk-taking, funny, outgoing
  • Egon Spangler: genius, logical, scientific, cautious
  • Ray Stantz: practical, optimistic, playful, flexible
  • Winston Zeddemore: questioning, loyal, quiet, supportive

ghostbusters-2020Structure is the right marriage of individuals with task. If the task is elimination of ghosts…Venkman brings in business, Egon knows the enemy, Ray builds the equipment, Winston questions everything and drives the car.

If the task is elimination of ghosts…Dusty Bottoms, Lucky Day, and Ned Nederlander are not who you’re gonna call.

Supportive context…having a framework that provides incentives, information & access, training, and resources can eliminate a lot of dysfunction…less dysfunction means more productivity and efficiency.

Leo Beebe tried to impede Caroll Shelby and Ken Miles by withholding information, access, and incentives creating dangerous dysfunction within the Ford motor company…

Ford vs. Ferrari

and this particular clip further demonstrates how a compromised ‘supportive context’ can lead to teamwork being used as a weapon rather than a tool.

“Men work together,” I told him from the heart,

“Whether they work together or apart.”

~Robert Frost

Shared mindset...according to Haas and Mortensen’s research “distance and diversity…as well as digital communication and changing [team] membership…” lead to “us versus them” thinking…as the COVID-19 marketing clips above prove, the pandemic imperative that allows us to maintain “social distancing” and practice good hand-washing hygiene is that we all think of ourselves as “us” – one huge, human team (birds of a feather) – and the virus as “them.”

In APA article “What makes teams work?,” Kirsten Weir differentiates between ‘taskwork’ and ‘teamwork’ by describing teamwork as “the interrelated thoughts, feelings and behaviors of team members— […] that enable them to work effectively together.” …obvs why this one is a biggie, amIright?

We’ve all sat at this table a time or two, amIright? When it seems like thoughts and feelings aren’t so interrelated…

Despite the ease with which we ‘talk team’ (and I’m sure we’ll talk more soon), true teamwork may be the stuff of dreams. But we are driven to dream and team…at home, at school, at work…at home-school and work-from-home and schoolwork and homework…there is a team for you, a team for me, a team on which each and every one of us belongs, where we can scream-sing in unison…

We’re #1, 2nd to none

and mean it…even the “right-field girls”…

Did someone say Dairy Queen?

Holler Back Ya'll

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