I like working with others as much as the next guy. But when I think back to the days of group projects in school and to team-building sessions I’ve attended on the job, I want to gag. “Group” work makes me feel as if I’m being coerced into some kind of Soviet labor camp where my efforts are exploited and someone else takes the credit.
So what a pleasant surprise to come across Teamwork Is an Individual Skill, a new book (Berrett-Koehler Publications, www.bkconnection.com) by Dr. Christopher Avery, whose Austin, Texas- based Partnerwerks consults for companies that include 3M, Exxon and IBM. Dr. Avery is a kind of Ayn Rand of individualism among group experts.
“One of the myths of teams is that you have to subordinate your own self-interest for the team,” he says. While Avery doesn’t like to lapse into sports metaphors, he notes that the big leagues have successfully bridged the individual-team gap. On a pro basketball team, for instance, players are motivated to be winners individually (so they can sign multi-million-dollar contracts and earn product endorsement fees). But they’re also motivated to work as part of the whole, so the team can win more games and become a more valuable franchise, which enhances each player’s own fortune.
“The secret is in seeing how individual and group fates are linked,” says Avery, and the same holds true on the job. For teams to succeed, each worker must feel as if he or she is also advancing as an individual.
Avery likes to explode other team myths. One is that team building is complex and requires experts.
“The truth is, teamwork is an organic human process that we lose touch with between the ages of four and seven when authority enters the picture. People have inherent team skills; teamwork happens spontaneously all the time.”
Another myth is that teambuilding takes time and money, and that it takes away from real work.
“That’s not true at all,” says Avery. “By their nature, teams are temporary and informal. They come about around a clear goal or outcome, and they form out of collective interest, not by assignment.”
Must everyone on a team like each other in order for it to be effective? No. That’s a myth, too, says Avery, because the real bond that holds a team together is a shared sense of purpose. Without having a true purpose that all team members can agree on, teams can be a waste of time and a destroyer of morale.
“I’ve spent my life looking at the natural laws of teamwork and how work gets done,” Avery says, “and I think we’re still in the dark ages of understanding management in organizations.”
Yet he says we’ve come a long way from the days when managers viewed themselves as puppeteers. With organizations getting flatter and everyone working harder and faster to keep up, Avery believes more managers will come from those who assume responsibility rather than from those who wield carrots and sticks.
“Unless managers are respected by their teams, they won’t be able to accomplish a thing.”
(C) Copyright 2001 Evan Cooper. Syndicated by Paradigm News, Inc.