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On the Making of Dream Teams

I’m not a team sports kind of person.

But the other day I got to understand how playing sports teaches teamwork.

It started with a game of pass-the-ball with my cousins who range in age from 15 to 9 years.

Pass-the-ball can be quite boring because – true to its name – all you do is pass the ball from one person to another, and since we were only four players, there’s a limited number of possibilities where the ball could go.

So to make things a little more interesting, I added a new rule to the game, “When I say, ‘switch’, we randomly switch positions.”

So as we kept on switching positions, I observed how the dynamics of the game in terms of pace and number of misses would change based on the formation of the team not just the inherent capabilities of the players (of course, any one who’s into sports would know that but as I said, I’m not into sports).

Plus, it became more fun.

Which brings us to a discussion I was in once where a company executive was talking about hiring A-players…

Yeah, about that….
Focusing on A-player traits only is not always the best strategy…

What makes me say that?

A talk by Margaret Hefferman that suggests maybe the corporate world is not really a dog-eat-dog world but a chicken-peck-chicken one. In it, she tells the story of a man who studied chickens and how his results were a bit counter-intuitive;

“He wanted to know what could make his chickens more productive, so he devised a beautiful experiment. Chickens live in groups, so first of all, he selected just an average flock, and he let it alone for six generations. But then he created a second group of the individually most productive chickens — you could call them superchickens — and he put them together in a superflock, and each generation, he selected only the most productive for breeding.After six generations had passed, what did he find?

Well, the first group, the average group, was doing just fine. They were all plump and fully feathered and egg production had increased dramatically. What about the second group? Well, all but three were dead. They’d pecked the rest to death. The individually productive chickens had only achieved their success by suppressing the productivity of the rest.”

After reading about the pecking order experiment, educators or business leaders might be inclined to mix A players with C players intentionally so the alpha’s don’t end up figuratively pecking each other.

But it takes more than that to build teams with positive synergy, with what constitutes ‘more’ alluded to in a New York Times piece by Charles Duhigg – which was also a chapter in his book, Smarter Faster Better.

As they struggled to figure out what made a team successful, Rozovsky and her colleagues kept coming across research by psychologists and sociologists that focused on what are known as ‘group norms.’ Norms are the traditions, behavioral standards and unwritten rules that govern how we function when we gather.

So however teams are formed, defining a constitution is the important part, and a few ideas that could be part of that are;

– Purpose over ego

Sometimes team members behave like they’ve forgotten what the real purpose of their team is. Everybody focuses on their own personal goals instead of the team’s goals. And it makes sense especially when you’re in a job for the money only and your personal goals are out of alignment with the team – and company’s – goals.

– Admit your mistakes and own up to them

Seeing this appear in a work environment is just sad because it’s a basic rule of adulting. But you see scenarios over and over again where people would rather throw others under the bus rather than admit their mistakes. Fear-filled environments where everybody is afraid to lose their jobs encourage this sort of behavior.

– Focus on fixing problems instead of pointing blame

When something goes wrong in your team, the most urgent questions to focus on are, “What happened?”

“How can we fix it?”

Later on, you can lead an inquiry to determine how it happened so you can avoid it in the future, but now is not the time.

– Keep your personal feelings out of professional meetings

I’m going to apologize for stereotyping here, but this is especially prevalent in teams that have a higher girl:boy ratio. When you lead such teams, you learn that emotional management is as big a part of your job as actual work management. This is not to say that male-only groups don’t experience this, but it appears less.

– Be human first

One of the most stressful experiences I’ve had to deal with this year was with a department whose job it was to help me ‘facilitate’ my leaving the UAE. It was obvious from their behavior that sticking to the rules and regulations was more important than considering the person they’re dealing with was an actual human being.

It may seem ironic to write this here considering this piece is about building a constitution – with a set of rules and regulations – but all those rules and regulations must not stand in the way of remembering a statement by Simon Sinek that says, “Businesses don’t do business with businesses but people do business with people.”

So be human first.

As a final note on this topic, I had a professor once who used to really dislike the fact that uni students were given the freedom to pick their own teams. His idea was that in the real world, you don’t always get to choose your team.

And he was right.

You don’t always get to choose your team, but you do get to choose how you work – or play – together.

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Published inLeadership