What Does the Overused Term “Teamwork” Really Mean?

(From the project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other Things by Julian Moody and Brandy Walker)

BRANDY W: Terms such as “teamwork” and “being a team player” are used so much and in so many different contexts, the meaning has become vague. The term “teamwork”  needs to be more clearly defined.

JULIAN M: You’re quite right. The word “teamwork” has just become another one of those words that everybody uses. They’ll say, “Yeah, I’m a team-player,” or a lot of people will put that on their resumes and they don’t even understand what it means.

BW: Teamwork is often framed in terms of roles and positions. Having a role, being clear on what the role is, and fulfilling that role or position. Is teamwork possible without clearly defined roles?

JM: Having roles helps although not always necessary. In the most simple way teamwork is usually defined is in terms of a role or position you play. If you take a look at say a football team, every person on the team has a particular role or job to do. They can not all be halfbacks, they can’t all be linesmen. If a member of the team wants to be the halfback and the coach has somebody else in as a halfback, and that person we’ll say is a lineman, then we’ll have conflict. So in the good football team, if you want to call it “good,” every position is well-defined and if each of the twelve men on the football team is doing their particular responsibility, their role well, and doing it so they’re helping their buddies on the team, you’ve got teamwork. But that’s just one level or dimension to it. If you were to take, we’ll say, the members of the football team or a basketball team and put them into just normal living, you might find that they’re not team players at all and have no real sense of teamwork. So what I’m saying is that it’s essential to describe real teamwork versus role playing teamwork. So when I used the word “teamwork” in my work, I’m not focusing on roles. I’m really focusing on people’s attitudes, values, beliefs. Let me think for a minute... In other words, no matter what shifts take place, if they move someplace, or their job changes, regardless of where they are or whom they’re with, they’re basically team-oriented, they very quickly build relationships with people and have a sense of cooperation with others towards common goals—that’s teamwork. Teamwork is more rooted in attitudes and beliefs than it is in roles.

BW: You’re saying the most important thing is how you relate to other people, what your attitude is as opposed to what role you play. There can be a role you play and you have to know what that role is, but that’s not the most important thing.

JM: Yup... It’s a matter of whether you believe in teamwork. Or whether you’re the kind of person who wants everything for yourself. So teamwork is essentially a belief in the value of teamwork. That one values working for the benefit of the whole or for everyone’s good. Now what’s interesting in a war, teamwork happens, you could say, automatically. The way the army system is set up, where you go down the line from a general all the way to a private—at the lower ends of the whole military organization, you have small groups of people, some of them are called squads—and there might be five people, seven people in a squad. And a squad could be the radiomen. Another squad could be the surveyors. Another squad might be the guys in charge of getting ammunition. They had definite work they had to do and roles they played. And there was a camaraderie that developed during the war that you’re not really conscious of. Nobody talks about it. And that camaraderie is teamwork. You just work together because you believe it’s essential for everybody to work together to survive. So it is an attitude and a belief. And when I was part of the forward observation squad, that was eight people plus the sergeant. No matter what happened, if one of the men was wounded, all of us took care of him. We didn’t just sit around waiting for the medics. If one of them was lost, the rest of the men went searching. Nobody had to tell them that.

BW: So real teamwork is about a genuine desire  to help others, as opposed to being self-serving. Someone can be a “team player” in terms of the role they play, but they may be selfish and have an agenda.

JM: Yeah. That’s well-put. As compared with those who are self-serving. In a peacetime situation, say in business, maybe there isn’t the same life-or-death urgency as in a war, but it is still essential to survive as a business. So the differences, divisions that you typically see in a company can seem very petty when viewed in that light. Frequently the different departments are in opposition to each other, sometimes due to ignorance and misunderstanding, but also just for strange, petty, personal reasons. Personality conflicts and differences—one fellow just doesn’t like another fellow, that sort of thing. Or people just can’t let things go, and they have to retaliate. And what makes it even more difficult and complicated is that our educational system, as we discussed in another topic, typically conditions us to want to be a star more than a team player. The emphasis is on individual achievement and outdoing others rather than working together towards a common goal.

BW: Teamwork presupposes a sense of social equality. Some people claim you can’t reconcile that tension and conflict between individual achievement, self interest, and working for the good of the group. I’ve heard someone say excellence is inherently undemocratic.

JM: It may seem that way or appear that way and maybe that is true in some situations and cases. But I believe you can reconcile the two. I’m thinking of the example I gave in the topic on ego—if I study something because I want to be an outstanding consultant, be better than everyone, that’s my ego and self-interest at work, but if I study something because I want to help my clients, in other words, if I want to become better to better help people, then that’s more a sense of service. Easier said than done, obviously. As we get better at something, we tend to become prideful. So the challenge for all of us, given our varying gifts, talents, etc. is to develop those things but hopefully never lose our humility and sense of service toward others. Because teamwork means using your particular skills, your talent, your roles, your responsibilities in such a way that they blend with other people’s for something better than a sum of the parts. Again, easier said than done, obviously. We slip so easily into personal agendas. And much of what we are talking about runs contrary to our individualistic and competitive culture.

BW: There seems to be a lot of confusion, misunderstanding, and ambivalence over what it means to be a team player because of that. Some people confuse being a team player with being a yes-man or a people-pleaser, someone who is nice and accommodating all the time—a doormat essentially.

JM: It’s definitely not about being a yes-man or a doormat or a brown-noser or a people pleaser. It’s not about doing something just because someone asks you to do it or tells you to do it. That’s not what it’s about. It’s not about being nice all of the time. It’s not that simple.

BW: Saying yes all the time when you actually mean no.

JM: Right, which besides being dishonest, builds a lot of resentment. And people will often twist the word “teamwork” to suit their own ends. If you don’t act the way I want you to act—for example, hang out and gossip about someone with me—then you’re not a “team player.” So you’re quite right. It’s a word that’s misunderstood and misused all of the time. It’s commonplace to use sports analogies to try to explain teamwork, but sports doesn’t really reflect the complex reality of the business world and life in general. So teamwork needs description and clarification. But there’s no formula for it. Every situation is different. Real life is complicated and messy. So teamwork is more a spirit, attitude, and belief. And you need wisdom and discernment to apply that in each situation.

BW: So in our culture, since there is such an emphasis on the individual, this is a quandary. Our culture seems to reward the opposite of teamwork.

JM: Yes, that’s true and I don’t have an easy answer for that. But I can point out something which may help transcend all the controversies associated with individual interest versus the group. I would say that teamwork is connected or related to a deep need for community. We talked about camaraderie and the desire for community in the topic “A Few Things Learned in World War II”. Camaraderie is that all for one, one for all spirit. In the war, we were able to psychologically survive because of it. I have a good example from the other day. Right now, I am working with a business team—a couple, a man and wife. They’ve built an enterprise of their own and at this point, it’s very successful. They started about two years ago, but when I met with them last week, they were feeling pretty discouraged because their business was down. Probably because of the economic situation right now. And as I was talking with them, they were talking about how confused and frightened they were. And I said, “Well, don’t forget that we’re a team.” And right away, they lit up and said, “That’s right.” Their whole energy changed and brightened. In other words, the three of us always work together like a team. We’re gonna help each other. So as they were dealing with problems they thought were theirs, fundamentally, I was dealing with them too. So right away, they were reassured and relieved by that. Just on their own, they felt overwhelmed. But with a sense of help from a team, essentially a community, they were able to renew strength and confidence. They had a pool of experience and resources to draw from. So maybe you can say teamwork is having a spirit and attitude of community. Because the truth is, none of us can exist or work in isolation indefinitely. No matter how independent we may believe we are, we need others to thrive.