The magic and madness of teams

Corporate America has gotten the message: teams are where it’s at! In fact, in the past twenty years, the amount of time people spend working collaboratively has increased by 50%. This is all good news, right?

Kind of?

When teams work well, they really do create that magic something. When multiple minds are brought to bear on a challenge, you can achieve a gestalt that no one person alone could have achieved. Split a group into two teams and ask them to solve a puzzle – you’ll see that the group that tries to “divide and conquer” under-performs relative to the group that works together. This is because while each one of us has strengths, we also each have blind spots, and sometimes those blind spots are actually those prized strengths. We get stuck in seeing and doing things our way and fail to think outside of those ruts (our own internal “box”). Working with other people allows us to “borrow” their perspective, and to meld them in unique and useful ways.

That’s the ideal anyway. The truth, as we all live it, is that getting this to happen can be really, really hard. Madness, even. Why?

Well, for starters, that breadth of styles and perspectives that affords so much shared potential can create a lot of interpersonal friction that inhibits effective teamwork. We like to sort people in our minds – like me, not like me. And we tend to like people who are like us. We can easily get irritated or shut out the input of people who are different from us. We can get in a twist over personal differences that have no impact on us at all. But of course, when we work with other people, their ideas and actions do impact us – and we have even stronger reactions when they run counter to our own. And there are so many dimensions along which we can differ from people – pace of decision making, degree of assertiveness, tendency to be tactful versus fact-full, preference for abstractions versus pragmatism. This can create conflict. And while conflict over ideas can be productive, conflict that is interpersonal in nature will pop the balloon of teamwork dreams sooner than you can say GOOOO TEAM!

On top of this is this fun fact of human nature: we’re naturally somewhat selfish. We want to do what we want to do, and we tend to be very confident in our decisions and opinions. In our culture especially, we value rugged individualism over the collective. The truth is that leaders often reach the positions they are in, not because they are quintessential team players but because they are ambitious, assertive, competitive, and achievement-oriented. These qualities don’t necessarily emphasize the hidden “i” in team so much as the more obvious ME. It can be really hard to relinquish our personal agenda in service of the greater good, even when intellectually we appreciate the value of doing so.

And then there’s the fact that teamwork is la mode du jour in business these days. We all want to get that SYNERGY, right? And at the speed of business today, we communicate and collaborate incessantly. To a degree that isn’t supportable. How many teams do you face or support? At high levels in the organization and in matrixed organizations especially, you can have your team of direct reports, your peer team, the team of functional folks you share, not to mention committees and special task forces you might serve. And all of these people want access to your mind and your inbox. And speaking of your inbox – hundreds of emails a day, but that’s not all – there’s phone and slack and skype and chats and the list goes on. The sheer volume of keeping up with communication – which truly is a foundational component of collaboration – prevents us from having the time to truly collaborate.

Finally, we have the sheer complexity of organizations today. Collaboration isn’t automatic even when we share the same goal; it is even harder when we might share the same goal but we also have other goals, which are quite possibly at odds with the team’s goal, or at odds with the goals of other people on the team. This is another kind of conflict entirely. How do we prioritize and subjugate these goals? How do we make sure we’re on the same page, so that there is less conflict and more trust, which we need to truly collaborate? Drum roll: it takes a lot of communication! See the point above.

Effective collaboration in today’s organizations is a tall order. It really is. Even when the wondrous foundational “stuff” is there: trust, respect, camaraderie, belief in the organization’s values and mission. It takes commitment and hard work to realize the benefits of teamwork. It can’t be achieved in a one-and-done kind of approach, but in an ongoing, iterative fashion, constantly monitoring and calibrating goal alignment, communication, and the health of interpersonal dynamics. But as anyone who has belonged to a successful team would attest, the sometimes-madness of teams is well worth the magic.