Teamwork, constructive challenge and common purpose


 From the bitter genius of singers Simon and Garfunkel bickering through their partnership that produced some of folk rock’s most iconic music, to friends Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway putting their own dreams of glory on hold to pace Roger Bannister to his four-minute mile in 1954, teamwork – in many forms – works. Teamwork can produce the truly amazing.

As Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel can attest, working closely with other people often creates hard-core emotional tension. But is tension a bad thing? After all, look at what Simon and Garfunkel achieved despite their differences, or maybe because of their differences.

In his book The Happiness Advantage, author Shawn Achor tells us how the military taps into emotional tension – it uses the inherent stress of war to create teams of people that know they can 100% rely on each other. No person left behind, if you will.

No-one Left Behind

Service personnel are trained to work together. If one person can’t get over an obstacle, they all go back to help, encourage and support. Over time, the company becomes a band of brothers and sisters in a family of siblings far more likely to back each other than most.

“Organizations like the military derive their culture from the pride of being able to overcome challenges together,” explains Achor.

It is this constructive challenge Arena – this safe place where people are able speak honestly and ask difficult questions without fear of reproach – that sees teams move from merely a collection of individuals to a high-performing entity .

In business, though, we haven’t trained for combat together, and our emotions tend to be far closer to the surface. Something stands in the way of our willingness to fail, our willingness to share opinions and concerns. The honesty necessary to drive successful innovation hasn’t made it into many corporate teams yet. But it needs to. 

Tension Is a Team Sport

As writer Will Yakowitz explains “Stress is a team sport — if you all work together, you’ll spread out the work and get things done efficiently.”

Research by Achor and director Peter Berg found that the more tension people felt in an organisation, the more they felt bonded and invested in that organisation.

So, how does this affect team work in the business world? Well, yes, you could don your camo and head off into the woods for a bonding week, but it’s what happens back at the office that really needs to change.

Achor bravely recommends we “tear down the idea of the individual overcoming stress alone and instead build up the idea that if we face stressful situations together, we can overcome them and use them to meet our greatest potential.”

So how do we create that constructive challenge on a day-to-day basis?

We need to come at tension from a different angle. Instead of reacting emotionally, we need to apply our pragmatic, rational brain and realize that challenge is not a personal slight, it is the essence of productive conversation, a critical step to something amazing. After all, without differences of opinion, there can be no debate and no movement forward.

As chewing-gun man William Wrigley Jr. said say, ‘If two people in business always agree, one of them is unnecessary,’”

Strategist Jeanne Liedtka at the University of Virginia Darden School points out that “The value of the team and its ability lives in the diversity of each person’s perspectives.”[5]

Forward-thinking management consultant Katzenbach said “People think you put teams together because they are compatible, well you sure don’t want that on an innovation team! You certainly want team members to learn to work together, but you don’t want compatibility because you want their ideas to challenge each other.”

How to Build Your Team

If you want a successful team, you need to create a complex community of people with different values, motivations, and aspirations, so that group members challenge each other’s assumptions and hypotheses in the hope of arriving at a better answer.

Of course, when such a mixture of characters and behaviors come together, there’s always a potential for miscommunication, disagreement, and conflict. “If such tensions are not tackled right away, they can disable and ultimately ruin a team,” says CBS MoneyWatch. 

MoneyWatch goes on to say: “A well-functioning team will make use of the different personalities that comprise it. It will build the most desirable behaviours into the terms of engagement. However, no matter how well-prepared a team is, there are no guarantees that it will be free of tensions.” 

Sheryl Sandberg, COO at Facebook says “People constantly back away from honesty to protect themselves and others. This reticence causes and perpetuates all kinds of problems: uncomfortable issues that never get addressed, resentment that builds, unfit managers who get promoted rather than fired and on and on. Often these situations don’t improve because no one tells anyone what is really happening. We are so rarely brave enough to tell the truth.”

Keep it Real

Every individual, and the team as a whole, needs to leverage his/her skills and find the courage to tell the truth and have the difficult conversations that take their team on to great things. If the conversation is fluid and everyone understands that input is not personal but working towards a common success, there is no need for negative tension. Mutual respect and the ability to listen also rate feature highly in the most successful teams.

CBS’s 2007 article Dealing with Tension in a Team summarizes effective team work:

“A healthy team relies on uninhibited, open communication that does not focus on personalities but on the best ways to reach its goals. Encouraging a culture of instant constructive feedback helps to minimize tensions and prevent misunderstandings from building. By developing such an environment, you will help ideas to flow freely, avoid potential minefields, enhance efficiency, and address tensions before they become problems.”

Or, as the Guardian editorial put it in its assessment of British cyclist Mark Cavendish’s world championship victory in 2011 when a star-studded team of cyclists rode together to selflessly deliver Cavendish to glory “It’s about the lost art of finding a common purpose.”


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