I believe that we’re fundamentally lacking in our thinking about the workplace and how we get things done.
We talk about teamwork in the context of what leaders should do – it is seen as the leader’s responsibility to create a great team. Books about creating high performing teams are written to leaders, not to teams.
This is because we have an individualistic culture. Western cultures like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the Netherlands and the US tend to be oriented around the self – individuals are more important than groups.
When it comes to development, we look at personal development and leadership development but not team development. For example coaching, career mentors, professional development courses are all geared towards individuals. Our focus on leaders through leadership coaching and leadership development courses is again an individual focus.
But it takes more than one person, even if they’re a great leader, to create great teamwork. Great teams are created when leaders and individuals work together to focus on building strong teamwork.
Do you know the name Tenzing Norgay? If you mention Edmund Hillary in Australia, the US or the UK, everyone knows what he is famous for. Few people realise that reaching the summit of Everest was a joint accomplishment – Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary reached the summit together.
John Maxwell, author, tells the story of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary. Not only was it a joint accomplishment, it was done by ten climbers. For the team to hope to get just two people from base camp to the summit, they brought ten high altitude climbers, including New Zealander Edmund Hillary. The chances of making the summit are so low that they had to stack their odds – none of those climbers knew who would reach the summit, but they all committed for the journey in order to make it possible for two of them to make it.
Not only that was the task accomplished by ten men, but supplies were carried by hundreds. The supplies they brought with them to make that final climb had been carried 180 miles on the backs of men and women over those Himalayan ridges – at least 200 people would’ve been required for the job.
Finally, for each level that the climbers reached, a higher degree of teamwork was required. Two man teams would work their way up the mountain, finding a path, cutting steps, securing ropes. Then they would be exhausted, completely spent on having made the next leg of the climb possible for the next team.
Before Edmund and Tenzing made their attempt, another pair had tried. When they failed, Tenzing and Edmund got their chance.
My point is not that we should know who Tenzing Norgay is, but that when we think of the name Edmund Hillary we rarely think “what an incredible team effort”, we think “what an incredible man”. That’s where we’re quite wrong.
The general lack of a specific focus on teamwork is a mistake that is increasingly out of step with the times. Work is undergoing a revolution that will require more and more people to work in teams and to quickly form strong working relationships.
Businesses will have to squeeze out productivity that they couldn’t before. To quote a local radio ad in Wellington, New Zealand: “Robots flip your burger, they probably made your car & soon they’ll be driving it.” With rapid change occurring in the workplace, people need to become very good at being productive. Even now, 75% of employers rate teamwork and collaboration as “very important”.
When it comes to performance, we assess individuals – we even think it’s unfair to assess the performance of the team as a whole. We provide individual bonuses, individual recognition or awards. Rarely do you see teams being awarded – that is not the norm. However some smart workplaces have worked out that it is a great incentive to productivity to have a team bonus, rather than individual ones.
Food for thought: how would work be different if we focused more on teamwork?