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Kettle Black Features


Turning Workplace Teamwork Into a Jam Session
by Craig Conley

In the workplace, teams can efficiently accomplish goals and tasks. However, the concept of teams presents some built-in drawbacks which must be kept in check. For example, when we feel that we belong in the same category as some and not as others, we may focus on the ways in which the groups are different. We may feel secure to be a part of a smaller group or societal designation. An “us versus them” mentality may arise, fueling competition, intolerance, and animosity. Managers of teams in businesses and sevice organizations often tend to draw on such competitive mentalities to muster up team spirit. The imagery of sports often comes into play. There are goals to reach, obstacles to overcome, and rivals to outmatch. But drawing on competitive mentalities is often detrimental to an organization’s performance since “winning” becomes the only goal.

We all use words to express what we are thinking. However, we can fall into habits of speech just as we fall into habits of action. For example, if you take the same route to and from work every day, you may find that you aren’t really aware of your drive. You are on a kind of “automatic pilot,” hardly noticing what is around you unless something jars your consciousness. The same kind of habits of speech can limit our thinking. They can cause us to take the same route to solving a problem, and keep us unaware of fresh new possibilities.

New ways of talking about teamwork can help lead to new ways of thinking about it. In America, we often use sports analagies to discuss teamwork. This is understandable, since most people are familiar with sports. Watching and playing sports is an experience that many people have in common. Therefore, sports imagery is a big part of our language, and probably will remain so. We refer to cooperation as “playing ball” and “being a team player.” We talk about “scoring points” and “moving into a whole new league.”

The language of sports can tell us something important about how we may not always be approaching teamwork in the most positve way, however. Sports is about competition. Although the members of a sports team are working together to achieve a goal, that goal is to win over another team. Sports imagery is what is called linear. That is, it deals with situations where someone wins and someone loses.

Sports teams have very clear and limited goals. However, can you see how talking in terms of being a “team player” might discourage someone on another kind of team from thinking of an original approach to a problem? The most effective teams find a way to allow creative thinking and maximize group effort at the same time.

Certain ways of talking can close off ideas for possible solutions before they even occur to us. Linear thinking, which is reinforced by some kinds of speech, is thinking which moves from point A to point B, with no detours. Like the drive home when we are only half aware, linear thinking doesn’t let us look to the sides and see what interesting ideas may be waiting to be explored there.

Any team can profit from experimenting with lateral thinking. Consider using a different kind of analagy for a time, consciously trying to break one’s habits of describing problems and solutions with the usual words and terms. One might consider using imagery from another group effort, such as music, for example. A symphony is made up of a team of players who may come from diverse backgrounds. They may be of any religion, race, gender, ethnicity, or age. They have studied different instruments and may prefer different styles of music. However, as a team they must work in exact harmony with each other. Any lack of cooperation shows up instantly as a sour note. Cooperative creativity makes beautiful music. In the course of the symphony, the conductor points to various individuals. Each may play a solo, however that solo is a beautiful part of the larger whole.

In an orchestra, just as on a football team, the players have different roles. They are masters of different instruments or different positions. The best team players celebrate the talents of their team members. They aren’t competitive with them, but rather are prepared to improvise to assist them. They know that the success of the enterprise depends upon each team member reaching his or her full potential.

Lateral thinking allows room for more creative solutions. It lets people find the place in the team effort which best suits their skills, experience, and personal style. Finding new terms for team building helps open our eyes to what each member has to offer. It makes us more aware of where we are going and keeps us from playing the same old tune.

Whatever the endeavor, the goal is to work together more effectively and productively. In order to change and broaden the way we think about cooperative work, it is important to become more aware of how we talk about it. Therefore, the following recommendations are offered for managers to better promote cooperation while de-emphasizing competition: