The truth about teamwork

Jul 18 2005 by Robert Heller Print This Article

'A group of people working together'. That's a bare definition of 'team' from the dictionary, and it doesn't tell you enough. You don't know how big or small the group has to be before it ceases to be a team. More important, it doesn't say what 'together' means.

If real teamwork is achieved, the magic is real enough. The joy of working together is meant to cement the collective power of a group of people - a power which, so psychologists aver, is greater than that of a single brain, however brilliant.

The closer any set of persons works together, surely, the better that work must be. Irrespective of the results, moreover, 'team' has good, powerful, emotional connotations.

A good team virtually defines good leadership. The team is well-led towards precise objectives, decision and action alike are effective, communication is top-class, and every member works towards meeting those clear targets - for the group and for themselves.

All that being so, how come good teamwork so difficult to achieve? One explanation is that sometime demon, human nature.

The new person's failure may be more welcome to competitive colleagues than his and the team's success
In theory, the existing members should welcome fresh talent with open arms. The better the new recruit performs, the better the team will performs - and, again in theory, team success should be everyone's primary concern. In practice, though, that demonic human nature will rear its ugly head.

Established team managers can feel threatened. In a bizarre twist, the new person's failure may be more welcome to the competitive colleagues than his and the team's success.

But benign human nature, economic trends, key management principles and technological change all point to the need for more and better teams.

Man is a gregarious animal to whom group loyalties are very powerful - take the devotion in all social and economic classes to football clubs with which the fan may have no link other than his loyalty and whose teams are largely made up of multinational mercenaries who have no loyalties themselves.

Harness the loyalty drive of its members to any team in a business, and you maximise the benefit from their collective power. You need that power to exploit the new opportunities which must be taken at a time when core activities are being commoditised, outsourced, pooled, and so on.

In any company, the likely best approach is to build units around a discrete activity and then divide the overall project into the most efficiently manageable sub-units, teams in their own rights and themselves managed on the same principles of delegation and autonomy.

Team purpose should be quite precise and germane to the business: and the bigger the objective the better. Think small, and you're likely to end small. Think big, and you might well be most agreeably surprised: self-fulfilling prophecies are the best forecasts of all.

The leader, of course, is the chief custodian of the purpose and is responsible for seeing that the team members, and the team as a whole, achieve the desired results. Do not forget: teams exist to produce better outcomes.

In getting good results team leaders turn into conductor rather than driver, enabling others to play the right music, not by hands-on domination of all decisions and execution, but by providing inspiration, invigilation and stimulus.

The leader plays a multitude of parts, but only in part, because the rest is delegation. That's what gives teams their real strength and their pole position in today's races for success.

That demon, human nature, has many facets, good as well as bad. The well-led team of well-chosen, well-deployed people negates the bad and emphasises the good - and everybody wins.

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About The Author

Robert Heller
Robert Heller

Robert Heller, who died aged 80 in August 2012, was Britain's most renowned and best-selling author on business management. Author of more than 50 books, he was the founding editor of Management Today and the Global Future Forum. About his latest title, The Fusion Manager, Sir John Harvey-Jones wrote: "The future lies with the thinking manager, and the thinking manager must read this book".