Implicit notions of teamwork

Below is a refrain one hears in institutions and organizations of all types and functions. Somehow, everyone seems to regard teamwork as the key to improved institutional and corporate performance. Of course, for good reasons. But, what exactly is “teamwork?” Better, what do people have in mind when they talk about teamwork? By extension, might not the notions of teamwork that group members carry in their hearts and heads determine the effectiveness or the success of their leaders?

What we need is some teamwork around here!

Teamwork means different things to different people

Many people will be surprised that teamwork means different things to different people. Conceivably, therefore, leadership effectiveness and success seem to depend not only on the personal qualifications of leaders.  These are knowledge, charisma, training, expertise, experience and professionalism. But, also, on the implicit notions of teamwork that institutional and organizational members hold.  Appleseed Associates of Glen Ellyn, Illinois, identified six different things that people frequently mean when they talk about teamwork.

1. The do-it-my-way notion of teamwork

is unquestioning obedience to orders from the boss or the leader. The underlying assumption is that the leader knows best. Of course, this may be the case in those very rare situations where the leader “knows everything” (or is believed to know everything). Where group members know nothing (or are believed to know little or nothing)!

2. Win-one-for-the-home-team notion of teamwork

is personal sacrifice and self-denial that verges on martyrdom. It is illustrated in those circumstances where group members are prepared to pay any price, go any length, bear any loss, risk anything (time, convenience, health, family life, etc.) for the success of their institution or organization.

3. You-do-your-job,- the I’ll-do-mine notion of teamwork

is individual excellence. The underlying assumption is that if everybody does his/her job well, all the pieces will fit together to produce the desired result. Individual group members tend to believe that if they discharge their individual responsibilities well, and the organization falls apart, they are not to blame. The tendency, therefore, is to concentrate on personal, sectional, departmental, or divisional excellence, bordering on rivalry; often, ignoring the overall institutional or corporate performance.

4. Play-like-a-team notion of teamwork

is a unitary vision and synergistic action. The underlying assumption is that everybody has a speciality and a responsibility, but each is required to coordinate his/her performance with others in order to produce the desired results. The closest analogy for this type of teamwork is sports, where individual players help each other out and coordinate their efforts for a better overall result.

5. Don’t-rock-the-boat notion of teamwork

is group cohesion and total submission to the group will. The underlying assumption is that the group is always right. For the most part, the individual deviation is neither expected nor encouraged. Rather, it is sanctioned. Assumptions go unchallenged, even where they are producing disastrous results. Collective will assume the aura of dogma.

6. Let’s-co-create-together notion of teamwork

is collective wisdom and collaboration. The team recognizes, encourages, and accepts individual differences. The underlying assumption is that the best results can only be achieved by pooling individuals’ unique perspectives and competencies.

The six notions of teamwork are regarded as social facts

Two observations emerge from the foregoing analysis: First, the six models of teamwork that are summarized here are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive. Considerable overlaps exist that are beyond the scope of this paper. Second, and by way of disclaimer, no comparison is intended. All six notions are regarded as social facts. They are for all practical purposes, “valid”. As valid as notions, assumptions, beliefs, customs and conventions can be.

The focus of this paper is on the implications for the leadership of cultural, contextual, and implicitly held notions of teamwork. The concern is particularly with alignment – the extent to which group members and their leaders share a common understanding of teamwork.

Misalignment between group members and leaders

Experience suggests that this is not always the case: By reason of their sociocultural upbringing, intellectual orientations, professional training, and so many other variables, group members and their leaders seldom share a common understanding of teamwork. And, to the extent that group members’ notions of teamwork are at variance with one another and/or with leader’s understanding of the construct, much of today’s “leadership crisis” stands explained. Stated simply, the much-lamented ineffectiveness and poor performance of many leaders today are not due to personal failings (incompetency, lack of knowledge, inadequate training/coaching, lack of charisma, gender, age, race, ethnicity, or any of the many convenient attributions). Plausibly, many leadership problems that institutions and organizations are facing might be rooted in misalignment or the conflicting notions of teamwork that are held by leaders and group members; often, without conscious awareness.

Successful leadership requires alignment

It is probably safe to conclude that successful leadership is not solely a function of personal “qualifications” but, also, of conceptual congruence and alignment. If today’s leaders are to effectively mobilize and engage group members in the vitally important task of transforming their institutions and organizations, it is essential that they: a) understand the ideas and models of teamwork that inform the actions (patterns and operational relationships) of group members; and b) try to harmonize the implicit and, almost inevitably, conflicting models of teamwork that group members hold.

Dr. Efiong Etuk is founding director of the Global Creativity Network,, a worldwide community of concerned individuals dedicated to the idea of a world in which everyone can be effective, creative, and successful. Proponent of a “Global Creativity-Consciousness,” “The Right to Be Creative,” “Mass Creativity,” and the “Global Creativity ‘Marshall Plan,’” Dr. Etuk speaks and writes extensively on strategies for nurturing and engaging everybody’s unique abilities in the Great Work of building a viable and sustainable global civilization that is worthy of our generation and an enduring legacy to future generations.