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Team Building
by Martien Eerhart


"If you want to win, you've got be a team player," those were the words of my high school coach. I can still hear those words vividly every day.

Team building is about Synergy. This means the end result is more than the sum of the individual elements.

There is a story about a contest in Canada for the strongest ox. The  winning ox could pull 8,000 pounds  and the runner-up pulled just a little less than that. The owners of the oxen wanted to know how much the two oxen could pull together. Most observers placed a bet around 16,000 pounds. Some bet a little more, some a little less. When they actually put the two oxen in front of the weights, they pulled over 26,000  pounds!

That is true synergy: the sum is more than the components together. That is why team playing is so much more effective.

What does it take to become a team player? A recent research study might provide a key answer. Two groups of professionals provided customer service. Researchers scored the satisfaction level of the clients before and after training of the employees.

The training program was fairly simple. There were four rules for the employees:

1. Play your position

2. Take action (Don't blame or complain)

3. Backup others while playing down yourself

4. Know your opponent.

There were two groups. The first one received the training, the other one didn't. After the training, the supervisor in the first (training) group continued to provide feedback on these four rules. For the second group, they never knew they were part of the research project.

The results were drastic. The clients of the employees in the first group showed a significant increase in satisfaction reports (48%). The clients in the second group scored the same on both occasions.

A second set of results was even more remarkable. Employee satisfaction improved as well (62%). The staff had more positive interaction among their team mates and had more constructive communications with other departments. This positive team approach hit on two fronts: within-team improvement and performance growth.

1. Play your position

Imagine a football team with only one superstar. If they are all quarterbacks, who is there to catch the ball once it is thrown? Who will protect the quarterback before the ball is launched in the air? Or imagine that baseball team where everyone wanted to play first base, without a pitcher or catcher.

The first idea is that you have to zoom in to what people are good at. If someone is a good pitcher, then let him or her pitch. If someone is a left handed catcher, don't try to convert him/her into a right handed player. In other words, you capitalize on the strength of the player.

The first step to take is to find out, "What does that staff member like?" And "What are they good at?" As a supervisor we are foremost managing people.

The second step is to use their strength. Imagine a school class with an eagle, a fish and a rabbit. The teacher is trying to teach the eagle how to become a swimmer, the fish to run and the rabbit to fly. You might have guessed that the teacher would have been far more successful by using the strengths that the animals already possessed instead of trying 
to teach them something outside their interest area.

The third step is for the supervisors, where they delegate responsibilities to the staff, and trust that they get completed satisfactorily. Most supervisors will tell you "It is easier to do it myself, cause then I know it gets done right." These supervisors are absolutely right . . . in the short run. Long term, they invest far more energy and headaches into trying to do it them self. If they had trained their staff properly, they could have avoided a situation where they had to do a certain chore 10 times themselves. It is the expectancy that is another crucial element. We are dealing here with self-fulfilling prophecies. If we expect that the staff won't achieve the deadline, the attitude becomes one that suggests that it is not a high priority activity.

"Management is doing things right, leadership is doing the right things."

2. Take action (Don't blame or complain)

The supervisors made it very clear that they didn't want to hear complaints, or people blaming others for chores not being done. The only way the supervisors would listen was if the staff member provided a practical solution to the problem.

The target was to have simple action plans in place to deal with potential problems. A checklist was developed to remind staff on a daily basis what routines needed to be done. Have the staff sign off the items that they completed during their shift.

"The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain." - Dolly Parton

3. Backup others while playing down yourself

The number one obstacle in achieving a team, is a team of individualists who are all on their own. A true team has players who build each other up. They give each other compliments, they are not afraid of saying something nice, or doing something nice for their colleagues. The key is that the other person does it without expecting anything in return.

Years ago there was a group of brilliant young men at the University of Wisconsin, who seemed to have amazing creative literary talent. They were would-be poets, novelists, and essayists. They were extraordinary in their ability to put the English language to its best use. These promising young men met regularly to read and critique each other's work. And critique it they did! These men were merciless with one another. They dissected the most minute literary expression into a hundred pieces. They were heartless, tough, even mean in their criticism. The sessions became such arenas of literary criticism that the members of this exclusive club called themselves the "Stranglers." 

Not to be outdone, the women of literary talent in the university were determined to start a club of their own, one comparable to the Stranglers. They called themselves the "Wranglers." They, too, read their works to one another. But there was one great difference. The criticism was much softer, more positive, more encouraging. Sometimes, there was almost no criticism at all. Every effort, even the most feeble one, was encouraged. 

Twenty years later an alumnus of the university was doing an exhaustive study of his classmates' careers when he noticed a vast difference in the literary accomplishments of the Stranglers as opposed to the Wranglers. Of all the bright young men in the Stranglers, not one had made a significant literary accomplishment of any kind. From the Wranglers had come six or more successful writers, some nationally renown such as Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who wrote The Yearling. Talent between the two? Probably the same. Level of education? Not much difference. But the Stranglers strangled, while the Wranglers were determined to give each other a lift. The Stranglers promoted an atmosphere of contention and self doubt. The Wranglers highlighted the best, not the worst. (source: Liraz Publishing Co., 1997)

What team would you rather be on? Those who achieve greatness or those who attempt to be mediocre at best.

"Paul's Law: You can't fall off the floor ..."

4. Know your opponent.

When you are an employee ask yourself, "Who is your target opponent?" Where do you focus your energy? Is it to give the customer the best service possible, so you create sales. Or is your opponent the person on the next shift who is always late, or the person on the previous shift who always leaves a mess. Do you spend you time comparing yourself with other players, or do you maintain a focus on your end result leaving the office quarrels behind you.

"You worry too much about your job.  Stop it.  You are not paid enough to worry ..."


The Author


Teaching Success Strategies: Contact Martien Eerhart at

Many more articles in High Performance Teams in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 1999 by Martien Eerhart. All rights reserved.

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