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Teamwork: the most efficient weapon

What is exactly teamwork? Why is it important? What does it mean to be a good team member? What is the effectiveness of a team and how can it be measured or built-up? What are those behaviours that challenge teamwork and what are those conditions that enable it? These are some of the questions that are the foundation of this article. I will try to answer them not from the point of view of an expert psychologist, which I am not, but from the point of view of an amateur psychology student who has spent many years asking himself the aforementioned questions and has been exercising his great curiosity on the matter, by observing situations, people, behaviours, working environments and activities that facilitate or slow down teamwork.

In an increasingly complicated and challenging world, military staffs are confronted with situations, missions and tasks which are becoming more complex, less time-bound, and global in scope and which cannot be tackled by individuals. The NRDC-ITA Headquarters, like every other staff, needs to implement successful teamwork, probably more than any other working procedure. This is at the same time the greatest challenge the staff face every day and the most fruitful attribute that would allow everybody to be well, while working less and more efficiently; this in turn will allow the Commander to know what he needs to know at the right time and with the right level of complexity. A team is a group of people that is much more than a so-called working group. In our daily routine, we tend to confuse the two things, but they are very different: a working group is a group of people that simply work together in the same office space, do not share a common goal and work in isolation from each other on individual problems and solutions; a team is a group of people who give up some of their personal aspirations, individual needs and inclinations, and modify or optimize the way they interact with their colleagues because they believe in the importance of a common goal that the team has and that only the team can achieve. Team members personally and strongly believe that what they can achieve alone cannot be compared with the more complex, challenging and inspiring goals that can only be set and achieved by a team. 

How can a group of people become a team? 

So, this is the question that naturally arises. It is a combination of individual behaviours and external conditions that have to happen to allow a group of people – not in a matter of days, weeks or even months – to become a team. It is a challenging and lengthy transition that, overall, needs the most important condition: everyone has to be aware that the output of work in a working environment is not the only thing that counts; it is far more important to deep dive and assess how people work together. My own personal observation of almost every staff I have belonged to is unfortunately that we overwhelmingly tend to talk about the actual work we have to do ¬– “what we have to do” – and we almost never or at least not as often as we should ask ourselves or discuss “how” we should work and how we could improve interaction among ourselves.

What conditions enable a group of people to work as a team and how can a team be more effective?

Over the years, I have observed that many people in the military think or are inclined to think that the effectiveness of a team and the creation of the team depends almost exclusively on the leadership. The leadership is definitely a factor that facilitates the work of a staff, but it certainly does not bear the entire burden of creating and implementing a team. The leadership is responsible for putting in place a series of conditions that, although they pave the way for making the jump in quality from a working group to a real team, do not constitute the entire spectrum of things that need to happen to have an effective team. You will never have a group of people working as a team if the leadership is not supported by individuals who are aware of the importance of how they interact with colleagues.

Over time, many scientists have studied teams and teamwork, trying to conceptualize how a team is born, and how it can improve its performance or avoid trouble. The first theory that is worth mentioning is probably the most famous: Tuckman’s theory. This was proposed by psychologist Bruce Tuckman in 1965 (Fig. 1).  

It stated that teams would go through 5 stages of development: forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning. These stages supposedly start when the group first meets and last until the project ends. Each of these rhyming stages plays a significant role in building a highly functioning business team. Tuckman’s theory gives a solid idea of what most teams go through. Building a team and even more a high-performing team takes time and effort, along a difficult and bumpy track. Team success and cohesion will always fluctuate, storming is unavoidable and finally, in the longer term, adjourning should be considered as the real objective of an organization working with teams: if they have reached the performing stage, then there could be a sense of mourning if they have grown close. This is the best thing that might happen within a staff. Patrick Lencioni, author of “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” (2002), created a team effectiveness model (Fig. 2) designed around the causes of team dysfunction and conflict. This model makes it easier to focus on areas in a team that need work, better focus and improvement. He divides these dysfunctions into five layers, which you can visually present in a pyramid structure. The bottom layer is the largest dysfunction, and the top layer, inattention to results, is the smallest.

Lencioni’s elements of a dysfunctional team are: absence of trust, which is when team members are afraid to ask for help; fear of conflict is when team members don’t feel comfortable speaking up; lack of commitment is when team members don’t know how to follow through; avoidance of accountability is when team members don’t set standards or don’t understand the standards that have been set; finally inattention to results is when team members don’t focus on their performance. Lencioni explains that these dysfunctions are what effective teams should avoid most. On the other hand, Lencioni thinks that effective teams practice the opposite of these dysfunctions, like trust, conflict resolution, commitment, accountability, and attention to results.

Five years ago, Google started to focus on building the perfect team. The company’s top executives long believed that building the best teams meant combining the best people. They embraced other bits of conventional wisdom as well, like ‘‘Teams are more effective when everyone is friends away from work.’’ In 2012, the company embarked on an initiative, code-named Project Aristotle, to study hundreds of Google’s teams and figure out why some of them were highly effective while others were not working properly. After looking at over a hundred groups for more than a year, Project Aristotle researchers concluded that understanding and influencing group norms were the keys to improving Google’s teams. Over two years, under the leadership of Julia Rozovsky, the lead researcher, the people operations department discovered that a team’s success didn’t depend on who was in it; it depended on how the employees felt as team members. “Psychological Safety” is a state of being. It’s the feeling (Fig. 3) team members have when they believe they can take risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed. They feel safe to be vulnerable in front of one another.

After having mentioned the three top tools for understanding teams and teamwork, let me give my personal view on the individual behaviours that need to be minimized to make it possible to achieve that jump in quality from a working group to a real team and start teamwork.  In my experience, there are essentially three individual behaviours that compromise the leadership effort and can be defined as “deviant” in relation to the focus on creating an effective working environment where teams and not working groups can operate. The first is that individual, at times unstoppable tendency we all have, to promote ourselves, leading to the hidden message of “I am the one that deserves more attention than others”. This unstoppable tendency probably comes from far away and dates to when, during childhood, we were constantly looking for attention and needed approval or recognition for our efforts as part of growing older and becoming more mature. The second is that behaviour that I like defining simply as “passivity”. Such conduct is typical of people that adopt a “passive” attitude towards work and their group of co-workers. Such “passivity” can express itself in several ways: I tend to think and continuously spread negative messages around me, like “everything is a mess here”, “why should we work hard to try to make the machine run?” Another way of expressing passivity is when someone simply abstracts themself from the workplace and tends to avoid any type of interaction. The last way of expressing passivity is when someone constantly spreads only positive messages like “everything is interesting and important”, all products are “wonderful and well done”, or everybody deserves recognition, even only for their normal business achievements. The third behaviour, which I have probably observed most often and which is the most challenging for teamwork, is the irrepressible tendency that many people have to desire and work hard to manipulate situations and colleagues. They want others to pave the way for their open or hidden success, whether in achieving recognition or avoiding unwanted burdens or complaints. This behaviour is pretty different from the first (self-promotion). In this case, the focus is not primarily on appearing, but on overtly or covertly convincing others to do what I want them to do. In conclusion, teamwork remains the key achievement that every staff should work for and in difficult times like those we are living in, this aspect becomes particularly crucial. All members of staff must be vigilant about avoiding negative behaviour and encouraging enabling conditions. 

Story by Lieutenant Colonel Gennaro BALZANO (ITA Army – NRDC-ITA)


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