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.