Effective Teamwork

Why competitive individualism needs to be replaced by teamwork

By J. Allyn Bradford

In todayís workplace project leaders need to solve intricate problems and to take ideas from an initial stage through a series of complex processes to a successful completion. This kind of work cannot be done alone. There are just too many demands, task requirements and varied sources of information required to do it without the support of others.

The following incident illustrates the limitations of competitive individualism and how it can be replaced by teamwork:

Jeannie was a highly efficient, aggressive, competitive Vice President. But her project team was in disarray. Though he had an MBA from a prestigious university on the East Coast, she knew nothing about teamwork. Her attitude was that she was the boss and others were expected others to comply. They didnít.

One Monday morning she was called into the CEOís office. "Get them to work together or youíre fired!" was what Jeannie heard. Upon hearing this, Jeannie was bright enough to find ways to completely re-orient herself and her team. The results were astonishing.

She and her team learned how to listen with empathy, build ideas together and support each other in achieving individual goals. She made an 180 degree turn from the old, command and control model to one which was interactive, supportive and cooperative. As a result, her team became number one in the company.

Though it has a happy ending, this brief account of an actual experience indicates how an obsolete model of leadership can alienate the best resource we have: the people who work cooperatively with us.

"In our present time, we must begin to celebrate collective entrepreneurship", says Robert Reich, the economist, in an article describing how the team, not the individual, is the hero. To make our corporate systems work, he says, we need "endeavors in which the whole of the effort is greater than the sum of individual contributions. We need to honor our teams more, our aggressive leaders and maverick geniuses less." (Reich 77-78)

According to Reich, the "myth of individualism" came into our culture through the popular stories of Horatio Alger in the last century. Ragged Dick, the hero of these stories, rose from a lowly station in life by dint of individual effort to earn a respectable job and the promise of a better life. The heroic individual became our cultural ideal.

The dominant corporate culture still promotes the tradition of heroic individualism in which the boss gets credit for what others have done. The strong focus we have on individual achievement in our culture discounts other people and how we need them to accomplish our goals. No wonder so many people feel depressed in the workplace today! They are, as Reich indicates, overburdened by the weight of an outworn cultural myth.

In her insightful book about contemporary organizations Margaret Wheatley says that: "Loneliness has pervaded not only our science, but whole cultures. In America we have raised individualism to its highest expression, each of us protecting our boundaries, asserting our rights, creating a culture that ëleaves the individual suspended in glorious, but terrifying isolation.í" (Wheatley 30)

We have all learned at home at school and on the job to compete as individuals for awards, attention and prizes. But the reality is that, more often than not, it is through teamwork that we get things done.

Though the myth of individualism proclaimed that the key to the great "American Dream" was to be found through individual competition, it is really not so. To be a lone individual without support, surrounded by adversaries, in the corporate culture is more like an American Nightmare.

Working Together

Team skills are quite different from those of competing individuals. They involve cooperation, mutual support and accountability to the team. These skills are needed in families for members to support and encourage each other. They are also needed at school for students to learn together. And they are needed on the job in managing projects, making informed decisions and solving intricate problems.

These skills can expand limited resources, develop new ideas and to build viable relationships An individual alone has but a limited perception of the range of possibilities in a situation. A team taps into a variety of perceptions and so widens the scope of available information, options and ideas. When various heads come together in teamwork--which means listening, developing ideas and building on each otherís insights--not only are more ideas generated but also a mutual acceptance and trust builds among the participants through the interaction.

The quality and effectiveness of individual strategies is also greatly enhanced when team members constructively question each othersí thought process. A team can help clarify hidden factors, such as the nature of the resistance or the level of trust in a particular situation. The interaction that comes from working and thinking together in a team also helps an individual avoid making assumptions that are not reality based. Team members do this by asking questions such as: "Is the data sufficient?" "Is it accurate?" or "What is the source?"

For example, a Customer Education department I worked with in a Midwestern corporation assumed quite naturally that their teaching was up to date. That was until one member of their education team happened to overhear some customers questioning whether they were getting the right information on how to run the expensive, new equipment they had just bought. At this point questions, like those indicated above, were raised. When they checked it out, they were shocked to find that their instructions were out of date.

Consequently, with the help of upper management, they set up an interdepartmental team to keep them current in their presentations about company products consisting of representatives from engineering, marketing and production. If any of their educational materials were inaccurate or out of date, it would show up at these meetings, not in presentations to customers.

Team Learning

Of course not all teams are well organized. Nor do all team members understand the real meaning of teamwork. A poorly organized team probably functions worse than a collection of competing individuals.

Teams need to learn certain skills as a team to function effectively. Peter Senge coined the phrase "team learning" to show how teams go through the steps in the learning process together, not just as individuals. That means they are willing to experiment and learn from their results by sharing insights, reflecting on outcomes and really listening to each other.

According to A. J. Chopra, an expert in innovative team process, "If you use peopleís heads in a good way, theyíll let you borrow their hearts." You do this, Chopra says, by really listening for what is of value in what they say. "New ideas rarely come to mind fully formed, so they are vulnerable to attack. To voice such ideas is to risk being ridiculed or thought impractical or even irresponsible. If people feel that they can take such risks with you in a way that is not only safe but productive, then working with you becomes a positive experience." (Chopra 10-12)

Teams learn to function effectively when they provide much needed guidance and support to individual members. Teams can fill the gap left by the downsizing of middle managers. As teams fill this gap, they give individuals a place to belong in the organizational system.

How Teams Fill the Gap

According to the book, Wisdom of Teams "a real team autonomously develops it own common purpose, performance goals, working approach and methods for mutual accountability" In other words, they organize themselves. This stands in contrast to "pseudo teams" which call themselves teams but are really just competing individuals." (Katzenbach and Smith 61-64)

Team members can help each other by developing a system for supporting their individual goals. After setting their team performance goals a self-organizing team can set then cooperate in achieving their individual goals. If team members really do learn how to develop and train each other, their competence will improve and so will their morale and their performance as well.

Real teams provide the support individuals need to manage their way through the complex problems and issues that confront them. It is a lot easier to get recognition and help from the members of your team than it is to try to get the attention of a boss that is too busy to give you the time.

Becoming a "member" of a team is important to new people, in an organization too. New hires are keenly sensitive to signals that indicate how they will be treated by others. They carefully watch how others respond to what they say and do because they know that the way they get treated will largely determine their success in the organization

A well functioning team interacts directly with its members in an intermeshed set of relationships based on trust that constantly gives support and guidance to the individuals involved. When this happens, individual performance in the team exceeds what any one of them could do alone.


The role of people at work today has shifted from a passive one in which they followed orders, to an active one in which they take informed risks. Those once known as "Workers" in the old bureaucratic system, have become "Professionals" in todayís complex workplace. That calls for the use of initiative by well informed people who can make intelligent decisions. (Hammer 1-15)

These professionals need teams to manage complex processes, to network with a variety of resources and to do creative problem solving. Teams provide the means, as well as the practice and coaching required to achieve competence in doing these things, as noted before.

Teams do not replace the traditional organizational structure. Rather they work within it to offer individuals a more dynamic process and a creative energy flow throughout the organization.

For example, the administrative personnel of a mid-sized company I worked with on the East Cost created an innovative new process in their organization system: a problem solving support group. These administrators were people who work as secretaries and receptionists. They had never before met as team. But, in the midst of a training program, they used a little creative imagination to create a new entity. Now they meet once a week with their supervisor to help each other solve the problems they have with indifferent bosses, irate clients and unreliable suppliers. They fine tune their problem solving skills as they work together on their own real issues.


As noted above, synergy can multiply a teamís resources far beyond the limitations of the individual contributors. It happens when team members work cooperatively to share ideas, recognize the value of each member's contribution and jointly craft those ideas into viable options.

In a recent book on biology and social systems, Kevin Kelly points out how a single honey bee can do nothing by itself. But in the hive it becomes part of a highly productive operation to make honey. There occurs in this process, Kelly says, "a hive mind" consisting of many individual bees working together collectively. (Kelly 11).

Synergy multiplies the resources of team members through the interaction of a variety of contributors who see a problem from diverse perspectives. When this happens the collective brain, or what Kelly would call the "hive mind", of the team takes on an enriched and enlarged life of its own which is exciting to all involved and can produce highly innovative results.

"Our team is like a blueberry pancake" a member of a creative team on the West Coast once told me during a training session. He was speaking of how leadership operates in his team. "Itís flat", he said. "Weíre all equal. But there are the blueberries. They are the ones who get the action going." Taking initiative in setting a goal and making a commitment to bring about constructive results puts a person in a leadership role, like those "blueberries".

Peter Block, a prominent organizational consultant, describes this kind of leadership in terms of commitment to a personal vision: "The essence of political skill is building support", he says. "This takes place through dialogue and the most compelling dialogue we can have is about our vision. Leadership is keeping others focused on our vision and this means we have to get comfortable talking about it." (Block 121 )

A New Model for Leadership

A model invented and promoted by Synectics, Inc., a Cambridge consulting firm, works effectively for the kind of leadership Block describes.

The Synectics model actually requires dual leadership to make their process work: one person facilitates the process, the other is committed the to the pursuit of a vision or a goal. The team members work together to generate ideas to help the one with the goal create a viable achievement strategy to implement his or her vision.

In this model individuals readily set goals that are aligned with team and organizational objectives. Even though most new ideas are incomplete and easily destroyed, as noted previously, skillful facilitation can manage the process to create an environment that allows creativity to flourish.

This process works best if the facilitator rotates from one meeting to the next. That way fresh energy comes with each new process leader. Of course it can be quite a challenge for some team members to facilitate the process for the first time, but with help from the team they can readily acquire the needed skills, as in the previous example of the administrative personnel team.

A group of engineers in the Department of Public Works I worked with in a small town in Eastern Massachusetts exemplified how well this process can work by the way they embraced it. They were all union, with the traditional attitudes of that group. None of them had ever conducted a meeting before. But when they learned how to work this process, their productivity soared because they realized they could solve their problems by themselves better than management could do it for them.


With the support of management, and by working cooperatively, effective teams can readily help individuals adapt to new situations, solve intricate problems, multiply their resources and create constructive change in the workplace. Individuals are most effective when they do not work alone but with others on a team.

J. Allyn Bradford is a consultant, specializing in Team Effectiveness, who has worked with over 25 major corporations in the US and abroad. © Allyn Bradford


Block, P.: The Empowered Manager, Jossey-Bass, 1990

Chopra, A.J.: Managing the People Side of Innovation, Kumarian Press, 1999

Hammer, M.: Re-Engineering the Corporation, Harper Business, 1993

Katzenbach and Smith: The Wisdom of Teams, Harper Business,1993

Kelley, K: Out of Control, The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World, Addison-Wesley, l994

Reich, R. The Harvard Business Review, Entrepreneurship Reconsidered, The Team as Hero, May-June 1987

Nolan,V: The Innovatorís Handbook, Problem Solving, Communication and Teamwork, Penguin Books, 1989

Wheatley, M.: Leadership and the New Science, Berrett-Koehler, 1994