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Why your team isn’t working (And how you can fix that)

There used to be (and possible still are) a ginormous pile of cliched motivational posters strewn across our offices and desktops, back in the day when we believed that simply repeating a positive-sounding message would bring about the outcome we wanted.

“There’s no ‘I’ in team!” was one such cliché.

And yet, here we are, decades later, still trying to figure out how to get everyone to work together.

What, exactly is a team? Why do we care about this in the first place? Shouldn't we just show up, do the work and leave?

We know this — when teams work well, they do more (synergy) than the individuals themselves could achieve. Which is why we still idealize the team, rightly so.

I always like to go back to the root meaning of words, and “team” seems to at least partly come from the idea of animals, such as horses, being yoked together to complete a task.

The mental image is striking — individuals bound together (in the case of the horses, quite literally) and pushed to move forward with some speed towards a destination, acting as one body in the pursuit of this goal.

Keep this mental image, and now think about your team at work.

Do they seem connected to one another? Are they all pulling in the same direction?

The metaphor is striking. Even a single horse not moving at pace or in alignment with the others and the cart can get wobbly, or even derailed entirely.

There is of course a counter point. Why can’t we be free horses, roaming our own ways, with our own individuality? Doesn’t someone have to give in to the other’s demands or ideas in order to “maintain harmony”?

And this is certainly valid, to a point. As a group of people mature, gain experience and even success, we want to go about things our way and perhaps even want to be the one in charge.

This doesn’t have to result in misalignment, though.

The first element of a successful team is that we all want the same thing, want to go in the same direction. If we agree that each horse must pull the cart north, then that’s a starting point.

The second element is we agree on pace. We can’t move smoothly if timelines are off or we can’t agree upon a cadence. This is why teams set up check-in’s, deadlines and schedule meetings with agendas. Deciding upon a speed and rhythm, knowing the quality of the road in advance to be able to move ahead with minimum disruptions.

The third element is a culture. We have to all share the same principles and values, most of all respect. Each one get’s their place in the pack and their role to play. But most of all, this is a willing choice, not an obligation. That said, a promise made should be kept as much as possible.

Now, we commit. Each one takes their position as agreed upon and starts to move. There’s going to be disagreements or different perspectives, for sure, and yet the idea isn’t to pull away and upset the apple cart (so to speak) but rather to stay engaged enough that movement isn’t disrupted but we can ‘call an audible’ and agree as a team to steer left or right.

And it’s when this team spirit —(“ we’re all in this together”) — gets created, that the culture of a team really takes over, and the many move as one, with minimum compulsion or control needed.

And that’s when a team really, can run free, together.


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