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Putting the I in Team

This sports cliche is a memorable phrase that reminds people that team success is more important than individual glory. In that sense it is wonderful and is as true for business teams as it is for sports teams. The phrase, however, overlooks the role of the individual in making the team stronger.

To encourage team development, organizations use teambuilding events. Many of these events are based on forced interaction in a fun metaphorical environment - the 'shared experience'. Some examples of this are rope courses, rowing, paintball, and Monte Carlo nights. While these events are fun and may have some benefit, they do not necessarily teach the individual skills that lead to stronger teams. These skills are confidence, trust, and control-sharing. When developed, these skills allow the free flow of ideas and effective interactions that are the foundation of a strong team. Rather than a simple shared experience, the key to a good teambuilding event is teaching members these three core skills.

The first personal skill to develop is confidence, or personal power. Personal power is essentially a person's ability to overcome problems and maximize their effectiveness. Personal power leads to confidence because once you feel empowered, you feel confident to take on challenges at work (and life, for that matter). This is important in a team sense because strong teams must be composed of strong individuals. The saying, 'a chain is only as strong as its weakest link,' holds true. In a teamwork sense, confidence's real importance is in how it supports and allows the next two skills to develop.

The second personal skill to develop is trust. Trust usually develops over time, but having the proper attitude of trust can help members bypass months and even years of 'getting to know each other.' The key to this attitude is opening up to others, not because you are confident in their abilities, but because you are confident in your own. This is where the first skill, confidence, becomes so important. The two main reasons I might not trust others are the fear of their doing something inadequate or unexpected, and the fear of their ignoring or criticizing my ideas. When I am confident in myself I know that no matter what surprises people throw at me I'll be able to handle them effectively. I will also not be bothered by other people's criticism. Therefore, my confidence allows me to take the chance to open up, contribute, and trust others.

Traditional team building events address the concept of trust, but usually do it in a way that does not translate well to a professional environment. Consider a rope course exercise where one member climbs high up while other members support and anchor the ropes. There are many people that I would trust to hold one end of a rope for me so that I did not fall to my death. I would not trust all of those people to listen to and respect ideas that I had in the office place. One form of trust does not imply another. To be effective, any trust exercise must relate to communication and respect in a similar environment to work.

Trust and confidence are vital to supporting the third core skill for effective teams, control-sharing. If the premise behind teamwork is synergy (the whole is greater than the sum of its parts) then control is at the heart of why some teams work well together while others flounder. Two people working alone will come up with two separate sets of ideas. Put them together, and some new ideas will emerge after one person hears something that the other person says. As a result, you get a third set of ideas that neither person would have come up with alone. The only way to find that third set of ideas is for each person to let go of his original ideas. If either person is unwilling to do this, then he will never explore them new ideas and discover that critical third set.

People like to be in control. Willingly relinquishing control is a scary thing, but a person must do this to let go of an idea - give up the control he has by virtue of the fact that it is his idea. This is where trust and confidence come into play. For me to give up control to you, I need to trust you to do something good with that control and I need to believe that I have the resources to contribute and follow along with the new ideas.
Look at a 'shared experience' teambuilding event where participants must work together to achieve a goal (build a pyramid, vote together, pass something down a line, etc). Even if the game is designed so that each member must contribute, one or two 'Alpha' personalities usually take charge and dictate how the task should be done. Everyone participates (kind of), has fun (sort of), and learns that they can work together (maybe). They do not, however, learn the personal skills that will allow them to maximize their teamwork back at work.

The beauty of the three skills I have addressed is that if a company has two groups, both filled with members who possess these skills, then members can switch teams without a large loss in the team feel. Because all three of these skills are personal and individual, a new team will not need to go through a shared experience to trust each other and work together. They will naturally do it out of the gate.

This article is not intended as an attack on traditional team building programs. Just keep in mind that, regardless of what the actual event is, if these three core skills are not being addressed, it is highly likely that the lessons taught at the event will have little impact in the workplace.

Avish Parashar is a professional speaker who runs seminars on creativity, teamwork, productivity, leadership, and communication using the principles of improvisational comedy.

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