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The Myth of Teamwork: Why Successful Leaders Engage the “I” in TEAM to Succeed!

“Teamwork” is a platitude that organizational leaders throw around that is killing teamwork in those very same organizations.

Think about. How often have you heard someone in your organization harp on teamwork and working together?

In my experience, probably too often.

If that’s the case and so much focus is on teamwork wouldn’t you think it would eventually get better?

The reason it doesn’t is because the focus is in the wrong place. The focus is on teamwork and that is misguided, because…

  • Teamwork doesn’t exist.
  • Teamwork is a myth.

Teamwork only occurs in the very split second, in the moment when something is successfully handed off or coordinated between one or more individuals.

We’ve all seen great examples of this “teamwork” in athletics, such as:

  • the double-play transaction between a 2nd Baseman and Shortstop at second base.
  • the quarterback handoff to the running back in football
  • the alley-oop play in basketball where pass floats up to the basket and the big man slams it through.

But, those moments are not successfully completed unless, and until, each individual team member fulfills their specific responsibility to be in the position to allow that ‘teamwork’ transaction to take place. And, additionally, while that transaction is taking place each team member effectively performs their role as required.

What that means, then, is that teamwork is not so much based on people working together as a team, as it is individuals effectively performing their unique individual roles so that teamwork can take place.

And, subsequently, what that means, is that leaders need to focus more on an individual team member consistently performing their unique responsibility to the best of their ability so that teamwork can manifest.

How a leader does this is by effectively communicating the big picture and how that individual’s contribution makes a difference in helping the team achieve its ultimate objective.

Last week I was facilitating a ‘teamwork’ and collaboration workshop for a client, a regional credit union, and before I made this point to everyone I asked participants to write down their definition of ‘teamwork.’ One woman got it right, saying, “teamwork is a group of individual interdependent successful efforts.”

And, remember, “teamwork never fails, individuals fail teamwork!”

What do you think?

In your experience how does teamwork usually breakdown?

I look forward to the discussion. Make it a great week!

skip weisman, helping leaders motivate employees to improve organizational performance

There are 20 comments. Add yours.

  1. AmpusamSymonette

    Skip, good morning you are absolutely right. In order to have successful team work each person does their specific work well so the team work does and can occur. If the supplier does not bring the flour and ingredients, the cook cannot bake, if the electrician does not fix the oven….. the cake for the wedding cannot be baked if the Matre D does not have the servers the wedding reception cannot take place.Thusthe understanding how each ones role impact the other is an important concept for the achieving the goal the once the vision is united, the mission will be successful.Working together so that each person can carry out their mission for the total success.

    • Ampusam,
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Glad you understand the “myth of teamwork.” The key, which I haven’t written about yet to keep the blog post a reasonable length, is getting the team members to understand the concept. They have to understand how, as you mention, each person relies on the other so they can all be successful.

  2. Whilst I accept that “teamwork is a group of individual interdependent successful efforts.” For the team to work you need a leader,motivation and for the team to want to go the extra mile.

    • John,
      I’m pleased you liked my topic in this post and were motivated to leave a comment. You are absolutely correct in stating teams need leaders who inspire motivation for individual team members to not just go the extra mile, but just to perform their expected role to the best of their ability. I’ll be writing more about that next week in a follow up to this post. So, stay tuned. Thanks, again for being part of the conversation.

  3. Aaron Biebert

    Skip, I like the fact that you are talking about individuals. I agree that it is key.

    However, I would strongly urge you to expand your definition of teamwork to include the idea that it is a culture, a mindset, a way of working and winning together, not just as individuals

    • Aaron,
      I appreciate your comments, and without a doubt agree. Thanks for your contribution. What I’ve learned is that in order to create that culture the leader has to offer an inspiring vision that motivates people to want to work and win together. The leader must connect with each individual team member and identify the WII-FM (What’s In It For Me) that every team member is asking themselves. It’s that connection to the individual’s aspirations that will allow them to buy-into the team concept. Again, coming back to focus on an individual connection.

      Thanks for contributing and pushing me to clarify and add to the definition.
      Skip

  4. Thought provoking piece. It goes to the heart of why “We have to work together as a team” so often fails – people internalize it as “if we are a team, I can do a little less, the team will catch it and save me from failing” and miss the value of the individual contribution.

    • Iain,
      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment, I’m pleased you found my post thought provoking as that was the intent. I think we need to shake leaders up a little bit and get them thinking differently about what they expect from their team members and how they approach getting their people to work together.
      Thanks, again!
      Skip

  5. Eswari Lawson

    Wonderful piece of article Skip. Teamwork is a group of dedicated individuals working interdependently towards a common goal. Here in Malaysia where I live and work the concept seems to be lost in the many different misguided translations of what teamwork is supposed to and not supposed to be.

    • Eswari,
      Thanks for your insights into how teamwork is perceived in the Malaysian culture. It is interesting how different cultures evolve, especially when it comes to business strategy, tactics and workforce issues. I’m wondering if would could elaborate on the challenges you experience there with regard to teamwork and the ‘many different misguided translations’ you mention. I think it would be helpful for those that visit here.
      Than

  6. Love this post Skip as it gets to the heart of the matter.

    John’s comment, “For the team to work you need a leader,motivation and for the team to want to go the extra mile,” is exactly why teamwork fails in most organizations. Here’s why I believe this is so.

    Many leaders are tossed into management with little more than a prayer. They aren’t given the opportunity to develop as leaders. Instead, they are awarded the title and expected to perform at a level that can only come with experience.

    In my book, Suddenly in Charge: Managing Up, Managing Down, Succeeding All Around, I talk about ways to engage employees. If your people are fully engaged, they will move forward regardless of whether or not a particular person is leading. Of course in order to have a fully engaged workforce, you need to have strong leaders in place. A catch-22.

    Roberta Matuson
    President of Human Resource Solutions and author of Suddenly in Charge.

    • Roberta,
      Thank you for stopping by and commenting. I’m pleased you like my approach to teamwork.
      I also have to give you kudos as I’m really enjoying your book “Suddenly In Charge.” It’s well written, easy to read and offers extremely practical ideas that new and experienced leaders can find useful for most any situation they find themselves in. Nice work and best wishes for much success with it!
      Skip

  7. While the tasks to execute might be individual, I’ve found that determining objectives in the first place is best done by a team. Once the TEAM decides and accepts the company’s objectives, only then can departmental, and yes…individual goals be established. Prioritization as a team is also critical, so alignment and expectations are clear. That allows individuals to know what to do, and when.

    It is up to the leader to establish an environment where collaboration is encouraged and effectively fostered.

    Once that culture is established, then each person can do their INDIVIDUAL task without looking over their shoulder, fear of sabotage or jealousy from co-workers, to get support from others, but WITH the peer pressure of that individual task being done so the TEAM performs well (i.e. achieves its company objectives).

    Jay Steinfeld
    CEO/Founder – Blinds.com

    • Jay,
      Thanks for stopping by and outlining a powerful process to ensure that teamwork actually works. What you describe is a great approach for ensuring expectations for team participation by individuals are set and all individuals on the contribute and collaborate to identify and agree on priorities.

      That’s an outstanding approach as it then sets up a process whereby team members can be held accountable to fulfilling and following through on their agreed upon contribution to the agreed upon priority objectives.

      Thank you for adding value to the discussion.
      Skip

    • Skip Weisman, Workplace Communication Expert

      Jay,
      Thanks for contributing here. Your process you outline for creating a great team is exactly what I’m talking about. It seems few team leaders invest the energy in developing the team as you suggest. When they do, then individual performance to the team’s objectives can be easily managed and individual accountability measured. Without those clear performance expectations its tough to manage performance and that’s where I see “teamwork” breaking down.
      Skip

  8. Great point! I can remember being a part of a team in my MSM program and feeling animosity towards two particular members because they weren’t doing as much work. They had extreme “personal issues” going on at the time, and myself and another member picked up the slack. It was a trying time for me.

    Leaders must choose team members carefully. Make sure people know and understand what being part of a team means. Stuff happens in life but the project must be completed. My philosophy is if you can’t fully participate, remove yourself from the team.

    • Skip Weisman, Workplace Communication Expert

      Rebecca,
      Thank you for stopping by and adding to the conversation. The situation you describe is pretty typical. And, what I find is that most teammates are pretty supportive and understanding if people are open and honest about their situation. The challenge is too many people do not have the self-esteem to admit they can’t maintain their original commitment so they “fake it” and it drags everyone down. I think everyone has made a commitment at one time or another with the best of intentions and then life circumstances change. It’s important for team members to step up, apologize and move on without playing games.

      On the other side of the coin, leaders need to step up and address the issue directly when team members fail to live up to their commitments to the team and their teammates, or they will end up losing the respect they need to lead. And, again, it usually comes down to a lack of self-esteem and self-confidence that prevents team leaders from addressing issues like this promptly, directly and respectfully. And, when that happens, everyone loses.

  9. Hi Skip – you are spot-on with this post. There is an “I” in team whether people want to admit it or not. I posted on this same topic a while back and thought you might be interested: http://bit.ly/34CR5

    • Skip Weisman, Workplace Communication Expert

      Mike, I guess “great minds think alike, huh?” I remember your article on that subject and I believe I even left a comment for you back then, too.
      Glad you stopped by and reinforced my thoughts and offered your resource, too. I recommend anyone reading this should click over to Mike’s article with other thoughts on the “I” in TEAM! Thanks, for stopping by, Mike, I trust all is well with you in 2012!

  10. Skip – so on the button! And some great comments from the other contributors. 🙂

    IMHO if people are spending a lot of time talking about something then it is a big bet that they’re not actually doing it at all…

    From a Talent Dynamics perspective we teach people that they can’t get into flow on their own, they can only help somebody else get into flow. When each individual in the team understands that then they truly start to collaborate like they never have before.

    Of course it’s a lot easier when people understand each other’s strengths and associated strategies too… Then they all know how to add more value as individuals (with less effort!) and effectively leverage that within their team.

    As I always say “Business IS Personal”! 🙂

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