Walking the Teamwork Tightrope

It was Mr. Castaldi, football coach and 11th-grade history teacher, who first introduced me to the teeth-gnashing angst of teamwork. "I've divided you into groups of five," he announced. "Research Romania and make a presentation. Everyone on your team will get the same grade."

Everyone gets the same grade? Even Mickey Lombard, football star and noted slacker, who nonetheless imagined himself captain of my team? Yes. Even Renee Green, whose reading level had not progressed beyond Cherry Ames: Student Nurse? Yes. Even me, overachieving me, who would now be faced with the choice between carrying these wide loads or sinking to their level? Apparently, yes.

And I'll bet you've had to make the same choice yourself.

Welcome to the one-for-all, shared credit, good of the group, split the bonuses, and pool the tips world of the work team. It's been a favored management model since the end of World War II—whether as overt policy or unstated nudging. For sure, it's a value system that affects you at your workplace if you have a Mickey Lombard or a Renee Green on your team. And the thing is, we all do.

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First, a necessary nod in the direction of all the brilliant contributions to American business that have been made by the culture of the team. After all, what is the assembly line but the team, formalized and writ large? Every management consulting system since is basically a refinement of the connective tissue of the team—getting different parts of the company to communicate, coordinate, and cross-pollinate.

A review of nearly 20 million papers published in the last 50 years and more than 2 million patents show that from the hard sciences to the humanities, teams increasingly dominate high-quality "knowledge creation." Yay, team.

Whether the scale is grand (think moon landing) or minute (the potluck bridal shower for the boss' assistant), success stems from the group pulling together as one. Who cares if you do all the organizing and some people just show up to eat the cake? It's all about the quality of the result in the end, right?

Well, from the point of view of your company, what matters is that end result. But from your individual perspective, you may have the very same dilemma that I had in the 11th grade. Yes, you want your team to win, but you want your individual efforts to be recognized, too. If it's good for the group—but not particularly to your credit or precisely your responsibility—how much extra time and effort should you expend?

After all, though we talk teamwork, we live in a highly individualistic society. Promotions are doled out to individuals, and we are hired at new companies based on what we have to show for ourselves, not our team. At the same time, we're part of a group, and we often have to decide where to draw the line between self and all else.

Of course, there is no one answer, and you have been deciding this on a case-by-case basis since the 11th grade yourself. Part of your answer will be determined by your personality. Some of us are just too compulsive or controlling to resist improving on the efforts of others; other people are too indifferent to excellence and don't exert themselves beyond the barest minimum. Neither of these is you, of course. You are in the muddled middle.

In this middle, some guidelines would be useful. Naturally, sometimes you will exert yourself for the good of the group, and sometimes you will pretend not to see someone else's weakness so you don't have to be the one to step in and make repairs. But when to do which?

Consider four factors when you decide whether to pitch in or take a pass on a partner's less than stellar work product.

Is it reciprocal? Say you are asked to make phone calls that will help a sales colleague close some deals. Would he do the same for you another day? Might someone else on the sales force help you out? A supportive spirit that improves everyone's numbers in the long run is something you want to be part of. Support that is always a one-way street is something to be more cautious about.

Is it occasional? We all need to watch each other's backs. If your fellow teacher can't transfer the new standardized test data to the computer, and you're good at it, of course you'll help her out. You might help her again in the spring, too. After that, you'll want to prod her toward mastery. Occasional support is reasonable. Regular assistance resembles doing her job for her.

Is it significant? Quality is desirable, but not central to every single aspect of your job. There are some instances, though, where someone else's excellence is essential to your success. If the new product launch is your baby, and the marketing manager is too overwhelmed to focus on crucial details, jump out of your box and into his. When we are all getting the same grade, recognize that, like it or not, we are in this together. Special credit for success can be sorted out later.

Is it advantageous? When you consider picking up someone else's slack, it's reasonable to ask what's in it for you. Self-interest is, after all, why we're at work in the first place. Just don't ask the person who needs your help. (It's gauche and ugly and you knew that, right?) And don't ask your boss (clumsier, uglier, and totally blows your image as a team player).

But do look for a way to make your extra contribution work for you—perhaps by identifying your strength at your next review ("The group asks me to edit everyone's written work, and I've always been happy to do that") or by requesting more visibility ("Since I worked up those numbers, I think I could do a good job of presenting them").

Unless you are simply the patsy who can never say no or the control freak who needs to correct the seasoning in everyone else's stew, these four guidelines should help you walk that tricky tightrope of team spirit.

Remember—sometimes the best way to look out for yourself is to take one for the team.

Building Esprit de Corps

You need to be a team player, if only because the person in it solely for herself is scorned in all but the most viciously competitive work environments. Here's how to walk the line:

  • Do not complain. If you caught Joe's math mistakes, don't be the one who rats to the boss about Joe's poor quantitative skills. Nobody likes a tattletale.
  • Make constructive suggestions. You might mention that Joe's strength is graphics and the team would benefit if he handled that part of the presentation next time.
  • See that you shine. Don't forgo an opportunity to be recognized. "I have so much time in on this project. I'd love to be there when you present it to your manager. I think I could help."
  • Don't keep score. A generous spirit and a deep commitment to quality are signatures of a leader. Isn't that who you want to be?

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