Getting the team to play together

Gettin’ good players is easy. Gettin’ ’em to play together is the hard part.
– Casey Stengel, manager of 7 World Series winning teams

hands_unity.pngOur work group had gathered for a morning of team building: a role-playing game in which we’d need to work together to solve a series of puzzles. At precisely the appointed starting time, the facilitator burst in and announced that he’d locked the door from outside and the game would begin.

“But one of our people isn’t here,” someone said. (In fact, the missing member had been delayed by a work-related call and had let us know that she was about 5 minutes away.)

“It doesn’t matter,” the facilitator said dismissively. “The rules are clear. We begin on time.”

“No,” our manager replied. “We wait for her.”

No one else said a word. But it was clear that everyone in the room — except the badly outnumbered facilitator — stood in complete agreement.

If team building was what we’d come for, then mission accomplished.

The facilitator muttered something about deducting 5 minutes from the time of the game, which elicited a collective shrug, turned on his heel, and huffed out of the room.

Soon the last member arrived and the game proceeded. Each of us learned about our interaction styles and about how we function together. But for me the most meaningful team building occurred at the moment we all agreed, with no words passing between us, that we wouldn’t leave a member behind.

That shared experience affirmed what all of us, I think, already knew: we have a strong team. From long experience, I know that strong teams don’t just happen.

What can you, as a manager or as a team member, do to build strong teams?

Build trust

Part of building an atmosphere of trust lies in recruiting talented people (“gettin’ good players”). It’s easier to trust a teammate when you know they’re good at what they do. But there’s more. A good manager gives each team member opportunities so that everyone — manager, teammates, and the individual member — can see that they’re capable and trustworthy.

If you’re the manager:

  • Start by making sure you trust your people. When others see that you believe in someone, they’ll tend to follow suit. But if they sense a lack of trust, they’ll react to that too.
  • Assign small, yet visible, projects so that people can build a track record of success.

Build a culture of mutual support

Everyone needs help sometimes. When you need help, you should feel confident that a teammate will be there. It might mean incorporating review comments into a draft, to meet a deadline. It might mean doing a peer edit. It might might mean offering tips in Flare or oXygen or Word.

If you’re the manager:

  • Make sure everyone knows that this is part of their job.
  • Provide cross-training in tools and in general project knowledge, so that each member knows enough to fill in for other members when needed.

Build a safe space

While nothing in this world is completely safe, people work best when they know that their manager and their teammates have their back. That they can be creative, take risks, and express opinions without being batted down. That, if they have to do battle with someone from outside, they won’t do it alone.

If you’re the manager:

  • Make sure every team member, even the most timid, knows they have a voice. Don’t let one or two members dominate the conversation.
  • Offer help, then constructive criticism, when people make mistakes.
  • Let your people fight their battles, but know when it’s time to ride to their aid.

How strong is your team? What are you doing to make it stronger? Tell me in the comments.

4 thoughts on “Getting the team to play together

  1. studentscenario

    Great post. Manager break-outs are helpful. I would add metacommunication. Make sure your teams are taking time to talk about communication expectations.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks — that’s a good point. Every team has its own expectations – for example, whether they like to communicate by email, Skype, IM, or whatever. It’s good to cover the team’s preferred styles of communication during new-employee orientation. And it’s probably wise to bring it up occasionally in regular staff meetings as well.

  2. Christina Brunk

    Larry – this was nice to read. I hadn’t thought about the pre-meeting interaction and what it meant for the team. Thanks for sharing.


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