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Executive Excellence - Choose Teamwork

By Patrick Lencioni - September 2005

Teamwork is a choice. Too often we believe that the pursuit of team-work is mandatory. And when people see teamwork as a “must do” rather than as a “choose to,” they avoid the work of making teamwork a reality. All leaders espouse a belief in teamwork, but few actually achieve it because they either don’t understand or underestimate the work that teamwork requires. If they don’t do that work, they only create frustration and disillusionment by raising expectations that they can’t meet. What can we do about this? First, we can make a choice about teamwork. Rather than agree half-heartedly to a team-building effort, let’s accept the sacrifice and labor that goes into achieving real teamwork.

Once we “opt in” to be a real team, we can then build momentum by addressing the most common dysfunction of a team—lack of trust. The key to trust on a team is making members feel comfortable being vulnerable with one another. Vulnerability has everything to do with being honest and open about who we are—including our faults, weaknesses, mistakes, and limitations. How long does it take for team members to trust one another? Depending on the time, energy, effectiveness and courage of the leader, trust can be built in just days, not years. I see two keys to trust-building:

Key 1: The leader has to model vulnerable behavior. If a leader is uncomfortable being honest about his or her own issues, there is little chance that team members will do so.

Key 2: The leader needs to use simple but effective exercises to help team members get comfortable being vulnerable. Some exercises require no preparation and take just 15 minutes. Others may take a few hours, with a few minutes of preparation. None requires days.

You can jump-start building trust by using these two exercises:

Personal history. This exercise involves having team members reveal something about their past: where they grew up, how many siblings they have, a difficult challenge of their childhood. Executives come out of this 15-minute exercise amazed at what they didn’t know about the people they work with. They suddenly feel more comfortable talking about who they are.

Behavioral profiling. Profiling tools provide team members with an objective, reliable means for understanding and describing one another. Make sure the tool can be easily applied to work. Profiling gives team members a vocabulary and structure for giving and receiving feedback that feels objective and productive rather than personal and opinionated. This open, candid dialogue helps breed trust on a team. While these exercises can build trust, they must be accompanied by regular follow-up.

What are the critical success factors?

1. Proceed at a swift pace. Taking too long to do a lecture or exercise is a sure way to lose a team’s attention and provoke them to question your credibility.

2. Push team members harder than you feel comfortable. Every great team-building effort requires some risk, and your job is to bear part of that risk. Yes, that involves vulnerability, which makes it difficult for someone trying to prove their ability to add value.

3. Keep connecting the work to the results of the team. If team members question the team-building effort, anticipate their objections. Explain how the exercise helps get more done in less time. Once your team begins to build trust, you’ll have the time and energy to address the other four dysfunctions.