Pssst…wanna know the secret of teamwork? Sure you do…
Teams help individual humans overcome our many limitations. Our ability to work together in teams to reach a common goal evolved naturally to reward cooperation and collaboration. Teams — from amateur and professional sports teams to volunteer groups to project teams — serve to amplify our power and effectiveness and extend our reach.
I’ve been on a number of great teams, both large and small, from my Brown Schools’ Lariat dorm team to the Board of Directors of Austin Community Television (ACTV) producers to leadership teams of professional associations. As I became a trainer, I distilled my team experiences into a presentation we used every 2 weeks to close our New Employee Orientation. In time, this short set of exercises led to me being invited to present at several conferences and leadership retreats. It’s far better experienced in person, but I’ll describe the basic structure here— and share the secret of teamwork.
First, everyone pairs off. Each person interviews their partner, but with only one question: “What do you like about yourself?” After getting an initial response, they repeat the question — “What else do you like about yourself?” —in order discover several qualities the partner likes about themselves.
Here’s where teamwork starts — with each person on the team. Just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so it is with teams. The team depends on each person to know their strengths and bring them to bear on the task before the team.
How does it feel to say these things? It does feel a little awkward to say these things, as if you’re bragging. It seems to run counter to polite protocol. But hearing someone own their strengths by giving them voice gives us confidence in that person’s abilities.To build a strong team, start by knowing your own strengths you bring to the team, and learn to say good things about yourself. You owe it to the team.
#1: Be good to yourself.
For the second exercise, pairs combine into groups of 4. Here, the assignment is to introduce your partner to the others in GLOWING terms. You want the other pair to understand how lucky you are to have such a partner and how lucky the team is to have this awesome person.
See, it’s not enough to know our own strengths and bring those to the team, we need to see the strengths of others and say good things about them, too.
Again, it may feel a little awkward hearing someone brag on you in this exercise. Even if they feel somewhat guilty about it, though, most folks acknowledge enjoying it, at least a little — it feels good to hear our strengths acknowledged by others. And on the other hand, nearly everyone reports feeling good about saying good things about the other person. And there’s another simple key to building a great team.
#2: Be good to each other.
The third exercise involves a problem-solving game adopted from a “cooperative game” called “Knots.” Again, it would be easier to do than describe, but let’s just say you basically combine groups of 4 into teams of 8 and then entangle each team in a group “knot” of joined hands. Their task is to untangle the knot without releasing hands. It is both easier and more difficult than it sounds.
Upon the team’s success, I would elicit observations from everyone about what their team had to do to solve the problem, stressing several key points. Everyone had to cooperate. All it would take is one person refusing to help and the knot never gets untangled. They had to communicate — the task would be impossible without communicating with each other. And they had to demonstrate some flexibility — in this case, physical flexibility — a willingness to do things for the good of the team that make them uncomfortable personally. Most importantly: as long as the team keeps trying, there is no such thing as failure.
These exercises served to illustrate these simple steps to building teamwork:
1. Be good to yourself.
2. Be good to each other.
3. Solve problems with cooperation, communication, flexibility, and perseverance.
The secret to teamwork?
It’s right there in the last half of the word itself: “work.” Teams don’t magically appear out of nowhere. It takes work. It takes effort. It takes being good to yourself and being good to each other and working things together with flexibility, communication, and perseverance.