Teamwork according to preschoolers

The other day, I overheard my older son say to his little brother, “Hey, Heath – let’s do teamwork!” – and then witnessed him deviously delegate a chore to him. This same kid likes to grumble, when I tell him to clean up his room, “I like it better when we do it as a team” (i.e., when I spearhead the endeavor and provide most of the elbow grease). I realized while listening to my five-year-old, that while adults like to think we “do” teamwork differently (rather more like teamwork), the reality often still looks a lot like a preschooler “doing teamwork.”

So I got to thinking – what is teamwork, really, what does it mean to have a good team orientation? What do people need to do differently to be more effective team members? There have been countless scholarly studies and highly popular books published on the subject of what promotes team effectiveness (one of our favorites being The Five Dysfunctions of a Team). But in this blog I really like to try to distill things a few notches further, so that as we are walking around the rest of our day, we can have a few bullets knocking around our heads to try out.

As I thought about potential roadblocks to being a good team player or barriers to team effectiveness, I came to the conclusion that of course, it depends. Everyone brings something different to the table, so the first step in this analysis is what it always is – self-awareness. You need to observe yourself across time and situations. In group situations, what does your internal dialog sound like? What are your contributions and body language suggesting about yourself? Are you tuning out while the rest of the group hashing it out? Are you busily cutting a swath through everyone else’s contributions in order to look like an intellectual ninja?

Ultimately, people need to focus on three things in order for teamwork to work, and most of us have a tendency to over-focus on one of these: ourselves, others, and the outcome.

  • Too much focus on ourselves can look a couple of different ways – maybe you are afraid of how others will perceive you, so you don’t contribute sufficiently to discussions. Maybe you are too focused on actively managing impressions and spend the bulk of your time hogging the stage. In both of these situations, you actually risk damaging your reputation (or cultivating one as a slacker or sledgehammer), but the real downside is that without attending to your team members, how can you build off what they are contributing? Without your eyes on the outcome, what results can you really achieve?
  • Too much focus on others is associated with fear of conflict or being overly consensus-oriented. You may care too much offending others or making them uncomfortable. But again, overly focusing on one leg of the stool is going to make the stool wobbly. When team members tiptoe around each other, no one is holding each other accountable for doing the good, but sometimes dirty work that has to happen for teams to really become more than the sum of their parts. Team members need to be willing to trust each other enough to push each other and to hold each other accountable. Again, in this scenario you will either short-change yourself and risk being seen or treated as a pushover, or you will short-change the outcome.
  • Too much focus on outcomes at the expense of the people making the decisions and plans is tricky – because that is why we are here, right, to achieve results? But there are results and there are Results, and the latter must take a long-term view. Sure, on this project if you bulldoze your way through your team, or sacrifice yourself, you may achieve results, but long-term Results might include damaged relationships and reputations or burnout and overload.

We need to be like pro athletes when it comes to team work. With time and practice, they become expert at gauging the distance between and qualities of themselves, their team members, and the goal. Eventually the practice of moving attention between each of these focal points becomes almost instantaneous and effortless, so that instead of perceiving three separate points, they perceive and act within the gestalt – and that is the synergy people are trying to achieve through teamwork.

So as you go through your day today, consider thinking about how you behave in team situations (or any social context, really) – where are you putting most of your attention: on yourself, on others, or on the outcome? Do you need to find a better balance between these to be more effective? Can you take your team contributions up a notch and guide others to balance their focus more effectively across these three focal points?


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