Last week, Anne, the leader of a key division, suddenly became disabled with a serious illness. She was too ill to even think about what was happening at work as she lay in the hospital. As she improved, she began to worry about the deadline that had now passed for completing crucial work on a product rollout. She flashed a text message to one of her team members to ask the status. What she got back was from Frank, one of her colleagues in another division: “Got you covered. All is completed and in order. Peter and I jumped in. Get some rest. We’ll stay on top of it.”
Anne couldn’t believe what she saw. She knew that Frank and Peter were both swamped with work of their own, working on impossible deadlines and stressed to the max. And they knew little about her division’s product rollout. She imagined the time it must have taken for them to get up to speed and be able to direct the work needed.
When she texted Frank to thank him for the enormous task he’d taken on and suggesting that they could have worked around missing the deadline, Frank texted back, “If team members don’t support each other, then we really do need to change our culture.”
What this experience highlights is that teamwork isn’t a temporary coming together to get things done. It’s not a convenience; it’s a way of life. As Frank suggested, it needs to be embedded in the culture of an organization. In a culture of teamwork, what are the hallmarks?
- Boundaries are fluid. As Anne’s example suggests, Frank and Peter didn’t hesitate to step over the threshold into Anne’s domain, and Anne’s staff weren’t hesitant to take direction from them. There was an assumption that division boundaries took far distant second place to getting the work done.
- There is deep trust and respect. Frank couldn’t have done what he did if he didn’t know that Anne respected and trusted him as a colleague, and would trust his judgment in picking up her work. Peter wouldn’t have helped out if he didn’t trust both Frank and Anne, and know his efforts would be viewed as contributions, not interferences.
- The organization’s goals are clear – and paramount. Yes, the world would not have ended if Anne’s team had missed the deadline, but Frank looked beyond that to how that missed deadline might impact an overall organizational goal. That’s all he needed to know he must jump in. The organization’s goals were clear to not just those involved in the product effort, but to everyone in the organization. Moreover, people in the organization talk to each other about their goals. Thinking out loud with others is common, dispersing knowledge that allows others to understand each other’s goals enough to help when needed.
- Leadership is dispersed rather than concentrated. One team we worked with described their organization’s culture this way: “Everyone assumes leadership – we’re clearly a team; we grow others – in servant leadership terms, it’s about ‘how we are for each other’”. There are two important ideas in that description:
- The culture is about how they behave for each other. They operate in a way that everyone wins, and everyone is assumed to have been part of the success. Leadership is not about titles, but about each person assuming leadership. Something stuck in the pipeline? In this team, that is not elevated up the ranks, nor does it become a complaint about a team’s failure. Rather, it is worked through with each other to resolve the logjam.
- The culture is about growing each other. Without everyone being able to assume leadership, they can’t accomplish the innovative work needed in their organization. So rather than leaving behind the people who may not be completely up to speed, everyone pitches in to educate the others, with a goal of mutual success.
- Teamwork is embedded in company lore. The stories told about great successes and important company milestones is rife with examples of how teams worked together to succeed.
- Teamwork is rewarded. Strong team players are the ones who are promoted. Successes are attributed to entire teams, not just their leaders. Individual contributions to team success are recognized. Lone rangers, even if strong contributors, are not rewarded as well as team players, and are given expectations to change. Collaboration is recognized heavily in the company’s performance management system.
- Asking for help is a norm. In many organizations, asking for help is deemed a sign of weakness or incompetence. Not so in strong teamwork cultures. There’s an understanding that asking for help is frequently necessary to achieve organizational goals, and that the help is reciprocated when requested.
Teamwork is a powerful engine for success in an organization when it is institutionalized into the culture. Ask yourself if these characteristics of teamwork are actively at work in your organization’s culture. If your teamwork culture could use some work, look to the hallmarks to provide some guidance on directions you want to pursue. If you see your organization when you read these hallmarks, congratulations! You have a priceless advantage in whatever market you’re in.
Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant
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