How to build a work team you can be proud of

‘You don’t win silver; you lose gold.’

Do you remember that controversial ad campaign from the 1996 Olympics summer games? (Before that, the phrase appeared in the 1988 rock ballad, Sweet Victory, by David Glen Eisley.)

The statement implies that there can be only one winner and everyone else is a loser. That’s a pretty destructive frame of mind and begs the question: How can you build a cooperative yet high-performing team culture in a sporty, competitive country?

First and foremost, you can have a clear and strong team purpose statement that explains how the team’s success contributes to the organisation and benefits its customers (whether those customers are internal or external). Your team purpose statement channels peoples’ attention and energies into activities that add maximum value.

Make sure everyone knows how the team as a whole, and how they individually, can measure success. Then support the team purpose with clear expectations about how people are to behave towards each other, their customers and suppliers.

Second, you can make sure that every team member knows how every other team member’s work contributes to the team’s success. This allows them to pass on helpful information and pitch in to help each other when necessary. You can cross-skill team members to facilitate this.

Linked to this, you can organise informal opportunities for team members get to know each other as people. This strengthens the bonds between them and builds empathy and shared values, helping them identify with the team and with each other.

Third, when you assign work, think about who is temperamentally suited to the work and interested in doing it or learning to do it. Give people variety in their work and as much control over how they do it as operations and technology allow and make sure they have access to the resources they need to do their jobs, including tools and equipment and enough time and information. Make sure the work systems smooth people’s progress and performance without providing unnecessary repetition, backtracking, waiting or effort. Train them when you need to and let them build their experience and confidence.

Finally, there is the all-important ‘You’ — the team leader-manager. Set high standards and hold high expectations of your team. When all of the above is in place, they won’t let you down.

Even an individual sport is a team event, with so many people helping, coaching and supporting the athlete. Even in teams where one or two individuals are more visible than the others because of the roles they perform, without the back-up of the entire team, they couldn’t succeed at their tasks. When one person wins gold, silver or bronze, lots of others win it with them.

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Are you at risk of losing your best team members?

Paul (let’s call him) works in the finance sector. Not so long ago, he was very disillusioned with his job. Not his actual work, which he enjoyed thoroughly, but with his new boss who, to put it bluntly, was a bully. Team morale crashed, cordial working relationships took a dive, job satisfaction plummeted.

We caught up the other day and I asked him how his work was going. ‘Great!’ he said. Seeing my surprise, he explained that he had a new boss. The bullying boss had been moved to another state where, he said, the number of internally advertised vacancies had soared.

‘It’s amazing’, he said, ‘how one person can spoil the enjoyment and job satisfaction for thousands. I could earn lots more money elsewhere. In fact, I nearly took another position when the poisonous boss was around but I held off because I genuinely care about the bank and my customers. Now I wouldn’t even consider moving. I enjoy the people I work with, I respect and like my new manager and I have the opportunity to develop and mentor others, which I find hugely satisfying.’

Over the years, I’ve had many people on training programs who have stated they’ve been offered more money to work for the competition but have turned down the opportunity for similar reasons. They enjoy their work and workmates. They respect their boss. They feel invested in their organisation.

Treating people with respect. Coaching them and providing them with development opportunities. Assigning work they enjoy and feel pride in doing well. Building a strong team people want to be part of and making sure people feel proud of their organisation. These basic people management activities become even more critical when you’re in an industry with high employee turnover and when you depend on the contributions of individuals for the whole team’s success.

Yet, basic as they are, those vital people management activities can all too easily be neglected when you’re under pressure, tangled in continual problems and crises, and have a ‘to do’ list as long as roll of toilet paper.

That’s what reminders on your calendar are for. Diarise the basics. Chat informally with every team member daily. Catch up weekly or fortnightly with everyone to chat about how their jobs are going. Talk about important organisational achievements and events. Share a coffee and share a laugh.

It’s the simple things that count the most. Do you do enough of the ‘simple things’?