Life Health & Wellbeing

Saturday 19 January 2019

Team spirit: Teamwork is more than a buzzword


Photo posed
Photo posed
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

Anyone who works in an office environment will know that there are dozens of business buzzwords that have lost all meaning.

'Synergy', 'leverage', 'disruptive', 'circle back' and 'going forwards'. The list of overused corporate lingo stretches far and wide.

Most of us understand that these words are pretentious at best and confusing at worst, yet we barely give a moment's thought to the buzzwords that punctuate our resumes.

Take 'teamwork'. We're all 'great team players' according to our CVs, but do we actually know what that means?

Sure, we all have experience of working on teams, but do we really know what it is to coordinate, collaborate and work collectively?

It's not teamwork just because you work alongside a group of people. It's not teamwork if you aren't willing to have your ideas cross-examined and critiqued. It's not teamwork if you only delegate the easy stuff.

True teamwork requires openness, honesty and vulnerability - which doesn't always come naturally in a competitive office environment.

Many corporations rely on team-building events to foster teamwork, which is a little like using a sledgehammer to crack open a nut.

Indeed, those who have reluctantly negotiated obstacle courses or participated in trust exercises with their colleagues invariably come to the conclusion that they can't trust their employer not to put them into another awkward situation...

Team-building is a process - not an event. And it's a process that can only take place in a culture that recognises that there is a difference between group work and team work.

Nonetheless, a lot of companies try to cultivate team spirit while perpetuating a competitive, individualistic culture.

Our CVs may tell prospective employers that we can 'work independently or as part of a team', but the truth is that most of us haven't got to grips with the collective mindset.

"Our culture does not typically invite us to pay close and admiring attention to successful collaborative efforts, nor to immerse ourselves in learning the lessons from painful, failed joint ventures," explains The Book of Life on work (you can find the entire compendium at

"We are - without being much aware of it - guided by a strong Romantic prejudice in favour of lone creators. This is where we focus our attention and derive our models of work from. The largest stories we tell ourselves about creating things concern artists, isolated actors who operate without relying on anyone other than themselves."

This bias can lead us to undermine the power of true teamwork. We recognise that we should be cooperative and collegiate, and we understand that we should just grin and bear it when management organises a paintball teambuilding event. We're team players to a point but, crucially, we believe that the buck stops with us.

True teamwork requires a paradigm shift (if you'll forgive the corporate buzzword) from the individualist to the collectivist mindset. More than that, it requires respect for the teamwork process. After all, the collective mind is smarter than the individual mind - as long as we're willing to open up the space for meaningful collaboration.

We tend to confuse cooperation with collaboration, but it's important to remember that there is a difference between sharing information and sharing ideas.

Collaboration only happens when we let the guard down and allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We drop the ego and share ideas so that they can be challenged and then finessed.

"Many ideas grow better when transplanted into another mind than the one where they sprang up", wrote the late Oliver Wendell Holmes.

This is the spirit in which we collaborate: our ideas don't get validated; they get refined and perfected.

True teamwork also requires generosity. Strong team members share resources and knowledge. Likewise, they don't tally up each other's contributions and workloads because they trust that these things tend to balance themselves out.

Granted, some people don't pull their weight, but it's always better to give them the benefit of the doubt in the beginning. A 'quid pro quo' teamwork culture only restrains the free-flow of ideas, encourages cliques and makes team members feel like they are being monitored rather than supported.

Support is another cornerstone of strong teamwork. Teams have each other's backs, even when management tries to pit them against one other with rebukes about 'letting the team down'. A strong team is careful not to jeopardise its 'united we stand, divided we fall' ethos, thus, they support one another through thick and thin.

Strong team members are also open to learning from one another. They don't claim to have all the answers and they are able to admit when they made a mistake. Brainstorming often goes hand in hand with team-building, but a true team shares knowledge too.

"It is the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) that those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed," wrote Charles Darwin.

This is the magic of true teamwork. When it clicks, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts - and contrived team-building events suddenly become easier to bear.

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