Monday Mornings with Madison

Just How Important is Teamwork in Business? Part 4

Word Count: 1,665
Estimated Read Time: 6 ½ min.

Getting a diverse group of people to work collectively, collaboratively and cooperatively together toward one common goal is the ultimate goal of any organization.   That’s because, among other things, collaboration allows an organization to capture and utilize the fund of collective intelligence and talents.   As Yale University professor Halford E. Luccock said, “no one can whistle a symphony.  It takes a whole orchestra to play it.”  A unified “we” is much smarter and stronger than any “I”.  But it requires unity and cohesion.  Many instruments playing independently produce noise.  But many instruments playing in perfect harmony produce great music.  That requires teamwork.

Conditions Needed for Teamwork

So what does it take for individuals to work as a team?  There are four conditions needed to create a climate conducive to teamwork.  Last week, we looked at the first one:

1. A Clear, Challenging and Compelling Direction

A team must all be heading in the same direction.  They must all be heading for the same destination in order to gain momentum.  That direction must be communicated to the team as its goal or goals, and those goals need to be clear, challenging and consequential.  In the case of a symphony, the clear and compelling direction is called the sheet music.  Even the most difficult of symphonies in the standard repertoire can be performed if the right conditions exist.

For example, Gustav Mahler’s Symphony Number 2, called a heart-shattering work of genius, is considered one of the most difficult symphonies to perform.  Most orchestras and conductors refuse to perform it because of its complexity.  But, in 1981, Gilbert Kaplan, a businessman / amateur conductor, wanted to perform it and spent $75 million of his own money to do so.  He began being coached in conducting by Charles Zachary Bornstein and rented Avery Fisher Hall in New York for his public conducting debut in 1982, leading the American Symphony and the Westminster Symphonic Choir.  Originally, the orchestra had requested that no reviews be published fearing they would be scathingly critical.  But, Leighton Kerner of The Village Voice breached this requested embargo with a positive review of their performance.  Subsequently, Kaplan conducted over 100 live performances of Mahler’s Symphony No 2 over the remainder of his life.  After personal research, he even recorded Mahler’s Second Symphony twice, first with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1987 and then with the Vienna Philharmonic in 2002.  Mahler’s Second Symphony was the only complete work Kaplan ever conducted in public.  Following Mahler’s clear, challenging and consequential direction communicated through his music, Kaplan and multiple orchestras were able to perform a piece of music that few had previously been willing to attempt.

There are three additional conditions needed to create an environment that helps teamwork flourish.  For teams to be effective, they also need a healthy mix of people, well-designed tasks and processes, and a company culture that frowns on damaging actions and promotes positive interactions and relationships.  In order for the team to be effective, team members need a healthy dose of both technical and social skills.

2. A Strong Structure

A strong structure starts with a healthy mix of people.  As in any orchestra or sports team or company, the various players must have both technical abilities as well as an ability to play well with others.  And, in the best teams, there is a lot of diversity in the team… demographically and culturally as well as technically.  Teams that are too homogenous tend to fall into groupthink, yes-people and creative wastelands.  Diversity is not just about being politically correct.  It’s about tapping into the power that comes from diverging points of view and talents.  Just as most orchestras have male and female musicians of a wide mix of races and ethnicities, so too do they have a mix of technical skills.  Bowed Strings.  Percussion.  Woodwinds.  Brass.  Keyboard.  Guitars.  And within each of those categories, specific expertise.  In the Strings section alone, there are those who play the violin, viola, cello, double bass and harp.  There is always a huge mix of instruments in any orchestra in order to generate the richness of any symphony.   The same is true for business.  The most successful businesses have a strong mix of people of diverse age, gender, race, language, and ethnicity, as well as knowledge, skills, views and perspectives.   Businesses with abundant diversity are more innovative.  That may explain why the U.S. – a nation with a population that is more of a cultural and ethnic salad bowl than melting pot — has produced many of the most successful companies of the last 200 years.

But that very diversity also creates the opportunity for issues within a team.  That is because people tend to behave in destructive ways toward others on the team as a play for power/control.  These kinds of behaviors include withholding information, interrupting while a team member is speaking, excluding certain team members from meetings, casting blame, avoiding responsibility, pressuring people to conform or be cast out, gossiping, saying disparaging things about coworkers, etc.  In order for a team to succeed, a strong structure of cooperation and support must be established.  The team must establish norms for what is and is not okay, and then hold EVERYONE to those standards.

3.  A Supportive Context

A team must also have the right support to be effective and efficient.  That is not just structuring a reward system for good performance, but also providing the resources and information needed to get the work done.  That could include software, training, access to data, access to leaders, and funding for projects and budgets.  Of course, this is not a carte blanche / blank check of support.  In every company, there are limits to what resources a business can provide.  However, team leaders must be trusted to implement solutions and try new things.  The company must provide a reasonable amount of resources for that to happen.  If team members are not given the resources needed, then teamwork breaks down and results dwindle.  It is like asking members of the symphony to play an instrument with one hand tied behind their backs.  Or perform in a symphony playing a harmonica.

4.  A Shared Mindset

Last but not least, teamwork flourishes most when there is a shared mindset.  This is the glue that holds a team together – preventing friction and splintering — during adversity, crisis and change.  It is especially important in today’s fast-paced, ever-changing world.

There are many factors that can cause a team to have friction and ultimately splinter including remote work, clashes due to diversity insensitivity or cultural aggression, digital communication, and turnover.  These make teams vulnerable to subdivide into groups that are “in” versus those that are “out”.  It becomes us vs. them.  Sub-teams undermine cohesiveness in achieving one shared goal.  A shared mindset is the solution for team splintering and friction.  With a shared mindset, members of the team have a common identity and a common understanding about who, what and why the company is doing.

A good example of a company that had to adopt a shared mindset in order to save an iconic but languishing brand was Mattel’s Barbie doll line.  Sales had been declining for years as the brand fell more and more “out of touch”.  On the eve of the 60th anniversary of the Barbie brand, Mattel announced that it would be changing the Barbie brand to bring it into the 21st century.   It was responding to a series of dislikes expressed by parents and girls which included image, ethnicity and the narratives that Barbie toldSo Mattel used Barbie’s birthday as an opportunity to change the brand and establish a new shared mindset.

First, Mattel offered new versions of Barbie, adding more diversity to the line to make sure the brand was reflective of the world around them.  Mattel built on the inherent strengths of the brand while overturning the nuts and bolts of its identity, including an overhaul of Barbie. They also added fashion and jewelry accessories available for Barbie, the career options and choices for Barbie, and the messaging behind the Barbie brand.

As part of the Barbie rebrand, they celebrated real women as role models through a new line of Shero (She-Hero) Dolls and created a series of additional products that help young girls become inspired by the brand. They also added dolls of historic figures including Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks, Florence Nightingale and Sally Ride.

By creating the shared mindset, Mattel was able to not only launch the rebrand and kicked up sales exponentially, they were also able to help reshape their own team’s sense of identity and understanding of the brand.  This was needed especially after one of Mattel’s employees, Carter Bryant, left the company to create and launch the Bratz line of dolls in 2001.  This caused the team to splinter and resulted in Mattel suing Bryant for rights.  With the updated brand, Mattel employees had a clearer understanding about who, what and why they did what they did.   It offered members of the Barbie team a common identity and a common understanding of the brand.

No “I” in Team

Having a group of individuals working at a company does not equal a team.   As the saying goes, there is no “I” in team.  Teamwork is not just a bunch of individuals working for the same company, possibly in the same space.  Like rowing a boat or playing a symphony, teamwork in a business involves collaboration, cooperation and connection between members of team.  A team is one that has: a clear, challenging direction; a healthy mix of people; well-designed tasks and processes and sufficient resources; and a company culture with a common identity and policies that frown on damaging actions and promotes positive interactions and relationships.  And that increases engagement, performance, creativity, efficiency and effectiveness, which results in 41% lower absenteeism, 24% lower turnover, 17% higher productivity and 21% higher profitability.  And these criteria alone are reasons enough to want to increase teamwork.  Go team!

Quote of the Week

“To build a strong team, you must see someone else’s strength as a complement to your weakness and not a threat to your position or authority.” Christine Caine


© 2021, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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