Teamwork: The Holy Grail

Teaming with Ideas vol. 1, #3

What do you mean when you use the word, “teamwork”? Teamwork means different things to different people in different circumstances. Because the word has so many meanings, and because collaboration is more important than ever, we have to be more precise about what we mean by teamwork. This is especially true if we want to foster it in our workplaces.

I came across this quote in the United Airlines seatback magazine a few years ago:

“It’s all about teamwork. To get you where you want to go safely and happily requires thousands of us working together with a shared purpose.”

Oscar Munoz, CEO, United Airlines

Can thousands of people really act as a team? I don’t think so. Then again, it all depends on what the speaker thinks teamwork means. Trouble is, if we as a listener aren’t sure what the speaker intends, how can we act on it appropriately? Think about all those job interviews where the interviewer makes a statement about how important teamwork is at their company. What do most candidates do? Eager to demonstrate that they get it, they respond by talking about how much they value and practice teamwork, about what a great team player they are. For all we know in this common scenario the interviewer and the candidate may mean very different things. Rarely do interviewees pause and ask, “What do you mean by teamwork?” I understand why; you don’t want to come across as stupid or insolent. The clarity would be useful, though. The vast United Airlines “team,” based on recent events and negative news stories, seems not to be clear about what teamwork means in their context.

The differences in how people understand teamwork might seem harmless but they aren’t. In businesses, we pay and reward people for doing what’s expected, or for exceeding those expectations. If our people aren’t clear what the expectations are we are setting them up for failure. Nobody wants that.

What are some of the varying meanings of teamwork? For many, teamwork describes an attitude of rolling up your sleeves and doing whatever is required. This form of teamwork ironically usually involves individual effort; the thing that needs doing is a one-person job. The good soul who steps up does it by themselves to the delight and relief of their teammates. It’s teamwork as helpfulness and it’s one of the more common understandings of the word. For others teamwork is about fitting in, going along to get along, even if that involves doing something the individual feels is not right. This is a darker interpretation of teamwork, but disappointingly common in organizations. In other cases, teamwork is a “you-know-it-when-you-see-it” phenomenon, an ambiguous good that can morph depending on who’s involved. There are many other interpretations of the word. It all depends on who you talk to.

Why this diversity of definitions? At the root of the confusion about teamwork are two issues. First is the lack of agreement about what a team is. Second, many treat teamwork like the Holy Grail of organization effectiveness; a sacred mystery we must strive for even if we don’t understand it or need it. The first problem, the definition of team, has been hotly debated over the years by academicians, consultants and their adherents. I have a solution: stop worrying about it. Let’s accept the fact that people use the word team in diverse ways. Let’s focus instead on what really matters: being clear about the tasks that require collaboration and getting the right people on the job. I call this process identifying “units of collaboration.” I work with teams, groups, committees and communities to determine their units of collaboration. They then focus their collaborative time and energy on those specific projects and tasks. This approach conveniently takes care of the “sacred mystery of teamwork” problem, too. Teamwork is no longer a vague quest, a fuzzy notion about overall employee togetherness that we expect everyone to strive for. It centers around a set of specific, well-understood pieces of work that clearly require collaboration. Groups that work this way also know where collaboration isn’t needed and allow individuals to do what they know how to do, unimpeded by phony teamwork.

If an organization and its leaders expect teamwork, they have an obligation to define in unambiguous behavioral terms what they mean by it. How many times has that job candidate I talked about been hired only to hear at their first performance review, “You’re doing fine, but, I dunno, I think you need to be more of a team player.” If that poor worker is unusually lucky they may get some clearer explanation of what their manager means, but don’t hold your breath. We can change that by defining precisely what we mean when we talk about teamwork - what it looks like, what’s expected and what’s not. We can clearly and consistently explain our collaborative expectations yielding a triple benefit: Our people can stop chasing the Holy Grail of teamwork; they can use collaboration where it’s appropriate and they can feel as good about their individual efforts as they do about the work they do with others.




Carlos Valdes-Dapena