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What Makes a Team a Team?

We hear a lot about the importance of teams and teamwork in the workplace.  But what is a team, really? How can you tell the difference between a group of people who happen to work in the same place, and an actual functioning team?

Here are 5 attributes of team that help it rise above “just a group of people:”

Shared Objective

Even a group of highly talented performers will lose to a team of somewhat-talent players who are unified behind a plan.  If I’m pulling the sled to the west with world-record strength, and you’re pulling it to the east with the same effort, we’ll get nowhere.  If you’re pulling south, instead, we’ll be moving fast, but neither of us will end up remotely close to our goal. It’s a simple example, but it works the same for any kind of goal – if the team has alignment about where we’re headed, we are at our most powerful.  

Think about one of the teams you’re on right now.  Do you know the long-term mission of that team? Are you confident that each member of the team has clarity, and shares the same idea of what the long-term mission is?  If yes, you’re off to a good start.  Next, does your team as a whole, and do each of the members, take the long-term mission into consideration when setting shorter-term goals?  This is a common mistake in middle-performing teams.  They have a clear, long term goal up on the wall, but when they set their priorities for the quarter, the week, or the day, they don’t consider whether those priorities are the best path to reaching the long-term goal.  Chances are, your team suffers from this at least a little, especially if you don’t exercise the next attribute.

Courageous Communication

It’s easy to tell people what they want to hear, or to just keep quiet when things are going wrong.  Challenging the status quo takes something extra.  When team members start to encounter the inevitable friction that results from interacting with other humans (people who have rich, multifaceted, inner lives just like you), it can be tempting to keep the peace by keeping it to yourself. When it gets to be too much, the frustration leaks (or bursts) out in the form of venting to your closest ally on the team.  But if you have an ally on the team, it means you have an enemy on the team, which means you don’t have a team.  Most violent conflicts, from fist fights to world wars, stem from misunderstandings.  Misunderstandings stem from a lack of courageous communication.

It takes brave energy to enter into a conversation that is likely to be unsettling or contentious.  Disagreeing with someone, especially when there’s limited trust in the relationship, feels risky and uncomfortable.  But interpersonal disagreements don’t go away on their own.  Unless they are addressed, they fester.  They are the tiny pebble in your shoe at Mile 1 of the marathon.  “It’s not worth all the trouble of stopping to address this little problem,” you might think. But when it’s a broken blister at Mile 10, the same problem takes profoundly more work to fix (now you need bandages, etc), and if you wait long enough, it may become too big to solve, and you have to drop out of the race altogether.  Step 1 of courageous communication is not procrastinating on crucial conversations.

Step 2 is being willing to be vulnerable.  Showing vulnerability takes courage, which is how we know that showing vulnerability is actually a sign of strength.  Our culture tends to revere superficial strength and shy away from engaging with vulnerability – we see it as weakness and fear it.  We don’t want to share our own weaknesses with others, because we fear they will exploit them.  We don’t want to know about the weaknesses of others on our team, because we fear they will bring us down somehow.  The irony is that a willingness to show vulnerability creates strength, especially in teams.  It builds the bond of trust that carries the team through tough times and victory.  To be strong, we must be willing to hear feedback.  When we hear constructive feedback, instead of defending ourselves, we can thank the person for helping us improve.  If we’re a team we trust that their motivations are good – that they want the best for us and the team.  We can ask clarifying questions, seek to better understand what brought about this feedback and how to use it to improve.  This is the path to a stronger self and a stronger team.  If you fear that your teammates will hold your weaknesses against you, that’s not a team, it’s a group of competitors.  The difference is mostly one of perspective – why not choose to see friends instead of foes? You can help bring about the reality you want in your team by having the courage to lead by example.  Trust begets trust – sharing vulnerability builds trust.  Someone has to start – why shouldn’t it be you?

Step 3 is having a plan.  Discretion is the better part of valor, after all.  When you have a disagreement with a team member (or the team’s direction, etc), you’ll be most effective with a clear plan.  First, calm your emotions.  Conflict that’s in response to immediate anger, hurt, frustration, etc, is rarely productive conflict.  Use your tools to calm your body and mind so you can think clearly.  Then focus.  What’s my real concern, the most important aspect?  How does my concern relate to the overall success of the team (how does it affect the long-term mission?)  What am I trying to accomplish for the team with my message?  Regulated emotions and clarity of purpose are the cornerstones of a productive conversation with your team.  

It’s important to note that the goal of communication is clarity and unity.  A contentious conversation with a team member should, as the outcome, include a closer relationship, with deeper trust and greater mutual understanding.  It’s not an opportunity to unload and make someone feel your pain.  Focused planning allows for a successful conversation.

Courageous communication allows us to be accountable as a team and as individuals.  Are you confused about how the big project for Q3 supports the long-term mission of the team?  Be brave and ask.  If the answer isn’t good enough, keep pushing.  It’s a win-win.  Either you gain clarity that leads you to buy-in, and you can better support the team, or the team realizes it’s been heading in the wrong direction, is willing to face that setback, and changes direction in a way everyone can celebrate.  Respectful, clear, compassionate, and brave communication is necessary for real accountability in any team.  Successful teams use courageous communication consistently – that means every team member can and will communicate clearly and courageously with every other team member.  Which leads us to the next attribute of a successful team.

Team bonding
“We” is stronger than “me”

“We” trumps “me”

To transform from just-a-talented-group to a thriving team, each team member must internalize the mentality that the-sum-is-greater-than-the-parts.  Well-aligned, high-functioning teams always out-perform compared to an otherwise equally-talented group.  And while we have a hard time resisting the urge to celebrate the stars on a team, the best teams are actually focused on their weakest-performing members.  We’ve all heard the phrase, the chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  The ruthless part of our culture wants us to believe that the best response to that phrase is to eliminate the weakest link.  This is a short-sighted and self-destructive approach.  Here’s just one reason why: the moment you eliminate the weakest link, you now have a new weakest link.  If it was the right choice the first time, it’s still the right choice, so go ahead and eliminate that one, too.  Once again, you now have another new weakest link, and so on and so on until you are standing alone and weak.

So, what’s the high-functioning team supposed to do with their weakest link?  Raise them up.  Focus on them.  Support them, train them, mentor them, coach them.  There was a girl on my daughter’s basketball team who lacked confidence, so over a dozen games, she never took a shot.  One game, the team huddled together and made a plan to give her the ball every chance they could, and to encourage her to shoot.  Buoyed by her teammates’ trust and enthusiasm, this girl took a shot and scored her first points, ever.  The cheers from the team revealed a key secret of great teamwork: one of the greatest satisfactions comes from raising up your struggling members.  And the benefit was long-lasting.  In subsequent games, she began to consistently shoot, and score.  Instead of writing her off, or criticizing her for being dead weight, they helped her reach the next level.  As a result, the entire team’s results improved, and their morale went through the roof.  Because…

Teams all win or lose together

If the team loses, it doesn’t matter that the supposed star player scored a record number of points.  The true star player would have shifted focus to having a record number of assists.  No matter how talented, hard-working, or dedicated a single team member is, they cannot come close to matching the results of a well-functioning team.  If you haven’t watched Hoosiers, find the time.  The star player is cut from the team early on because the new coach realizes that he is only holding the team back.  Prima Donna star players make the other players lazy, and slowly erode the faith that the team matters.  They become the “easy button,” the go-to person to send all the work and problems.  Teams that win use their more-talented players to support the less-talented players, with a greater end result.  The best teams realize that the apparently less-talented players often simply have different talents.  Courageous communication and a focus on the whole team can reveal these talents, sometimes with incredible results for the team.  Tom Brady was the 199th draft pick.  Gasoline was originally seen as a waste product of petroleum production.  The weak link often turns out to be a diamond in the rough.  This mentality allows teams to engage in the most powerful behavior possible:

Nurture apparent weaknesses into strengths

Every team faces adversity and weaknesses.  These can be external variables like market competition or regulations, and they can be internal like a lack of resources or under-developed talent.  Teams that win and thrive look these apparent weaknesses in the face and use them to engage and innovate in productive ways.  Lack of capital can actually be a huge boon to creativity – just compare low budget vs high budget Joss Weadon production, or watch an episode of Next Level Chef for examples.  Being apparently unable to compete with big players in the marketplace makes room for a new perspective.  Scrappy teams can get creative in a way the big players can’t, and find surprising and new ways to win.  Examples range from the Continental Army that won the American Revolution, to the Mighty Ducks and ride share pioneers like Lyft.

Think about your team right now.  There’s at least one person on that team who seems like an under-performer to you.  Part of the reason is that you’re probably unconsciously comparing them against your own strengths rather than your own shortcomings.  The difference might be more than just a matter of perspective – they may not be contributing yet in a way that best helps the team hit the team’s goals.  There are two approaches you and the team can take toward this person, and the best part is that you can do both!

First, focus on their improvement.  It doesn’t matter if you’re not their supervisor, if “trainer” is not in your title.  Team Member is your most important role, and team members raise one another up.  You may have knowledge or skills you can teach them, mentorship to offer, doors you can open.  Or, your role and skills may be different enough that that isn’t practical.  You can still give them encouragement, celebrate their wins, create trust by sharing your vulnerabilities (and show compassion and support if they share theirs), and generally be their personal cheerleader.  This might feel unnatural, or even disingenuous at first.  If showing trust and encouragement for a struggling team member goes against your grain, congratulations – you just discovered an opportunity for developing a skill you need to grow if you want to be truly successful.  And the best way to get better at any skill is to practice, again and again, until it feels natural.

The other great way the team can support this person is by learning more about them.  Find their hidden talents, and get creative about how to use them to support the team’s goals.  You might be surprised to find out that you have more to learn from them than vice versa.

If your team isn’t winning consistently, if you only feel connected to a part of your team, if your team seems to be keeping score on each other instead of working together for team wins, chances are there’s room to work on one or more of these five attributes.  Which one do you struggle with the most?  There’s only one person whose behavior you can control – your own.  How can you help take your team to the next level by doubling down on being the best team player you can be?

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