ONE of the reasons people enjoy watching team sports is the pleasure of seeing a group of people throw themselves body and soul behind a common goal.
I recently watched a fascinating documentary about the British and Irish Lions rugby team’s tour to South Africa in 1997. The team is put together every four years, made up of select players from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. All the players are ambitious, and many are team captains at home.
Their one shared goal is to beat the opponent; they all agree on this. However, there may also be other subconscious motivations. It is natural that players may want to outshine the others. It’s also natural for the players to form cliques.
People behave similarly in workplace teams. Everyone represents their own area of expertise, and while the goal of the team is to help the corporation, there are likely to be underlying territorial issues or personal conflicts.
Two things are hugely important in overcoming these issues: the way the team leader approaches team communication and the way each member of the team responds.
Watching how the Lions’ coach and managers pulled so many strong-willed men together was both instructive and inspiring.
First, their message of unity was constant. At every team meeting they underlined the theme of bringing pride to themselves by bringing pride to the team. Leaders need to be able to keep people focused on a higher purpose; team members benefit from following this guidance.
Second, they encouraged loyalty through empathy. They showed how well they understood what it was like to be under so much pressure, especially away from home. Even under challenging conditions, people can work quite happily when they know that their effort is recognised and respected.
Third, they underscored the value of good sportsmanship, making their expectations of the team’s behaviour crystal clear.
Fourth, while the managers always gave a speech building up the players’ confidence before each match, they left it to the players themselves to band together in a final circle of commitment before going out onto the field. The leader of this final push to pump up the team changed from match to match. Everyone took responsibility for team spirit. Only when this happens can any group really feel like a team.
This is a reminder that one of the hallmarks of high-performance teams is the desire of each member for every other member to succeed. There’s a huge difference between doing your best and helping your team members to be their best. It’s not just your expertise that makes you valuable to a team — your interpersonal skills play a huge role as well.
Sir Ian McGeechan, head coach of the British and Irish Lions in 1989, 1993, 1997 and 2009, put this very clearly in an interview on the BBC website’s Raise Your Game section. On the importance of attitude in teams, he said: “I think you’ve got to be the ultimate team player to be the best player you can be. If that comes out, then you often find that your own talent just shows, simply because of the players you’ve got around you and what you’re bringing out of them they’ll also bring out of you.”
Members of sports teams know that they must be flexible. Everyone wants to score a try, but if it looks like someone else is going to be able to, they give up the ball. You’ll be a valuable team player when you can give up control to benefit the group.
You will also be valuable when you can run with the ball that was passed to you rather than avoiding it. Everyone has experienced the frustration in a team where someone takes control and won’t give it up, but people who won’t take the initiative, preferring to make no commitments until absolutely necessary, are equally frustrating.
Passive behaviour is just as self-centred as aggressive behaviour, since neither style puts the group first and foremost.
We can all do a lot to improve our value to the teams we participate in. All members have equal responsibility for making this effort.
It is the role of the team leader to help passive members feel safe enough to participate fully and bring all they have to offer to the effort.
It is equally the leader’s role to make clear when efforts to dominate are and aren’t appropriate. The leader’s vision must be clear, the team members’ attitude must be positive, and they must listen.
No one complains about open, mutually supportive, result-oriented teamwork. Find a way to encourage the group bond and run lively meetings, and watch your team’s morale and effectiveness take the ball over the line.