Making teams work

I find it somewhat bizarre that management consultants make lots of money out of helping businesses to make their teams work. I grew up (as did most of those consultants' clients) in a culture which strongly encouraged me to play team sports throughout my adolescence. What's bizarre is how many of my peers seem to have failed to learn, in the course of such an upbringing, how teams work. I am not entirely surprised, for all that I find it bizarre: I did notice that my peers learned all the wrong lessons while they were teen-agers.

Adolescent foot-ball

Naturally, my memory of my teens is not to be relied upon too closely; I have seen how others have mythologized that part of their lives and assume I must have done some of the same. All the same, what I remember of that era can serve as a source of useful lessons.

Between the ages of about 13 and 18, I was obliged to play a certain number of hours of sport each week; and only certain approved sports counted. In autumn-to-winter we played soccer; in winter-to-spring we played rugby mixed up with some athletics; in spring-to-summer we actually had a choice, between rowing and cricket (I initially chose rowing, because the people who chose teams for cricket obviously didn't like me; the following year, I realized I had it all wrong and chose cricket for the same reason, so was never picked and thus could spend blissful afternoons playing tennis – another accepted sport – against my fellow out-cast, Mammoon el Tayeb, who was more or less exactly my equal at that game; but I digress).

The school was divided into a dozen or so houses; the pupil remained in one house for the duration, but moved up through successive years of the school. Each house had roughly as many foot-ball teams as years in the school (more for bigger houses, less for smaller) and one was expected to move up one team each year, 'though one might be ahead of or behind the standard schedule, by about one year, according as one was liked or not by the jocks who picked teams. The jocks didn't like me so, despite being a reasonably able centre-back / sweeper, I was behind. There came a season where the jocks had realized that, despite not being someone they liked, I was actually quite good, so they tried using me in the next team up, expecting me to be delighted with sporadic promotion. In fact, I got to see how badly they functioned as a team and decided that I did not wish to play in that team.

The jocks, when playing, were all about competitiveness, most especially among themselves; so they have a complex pecking order (the very one that I had the good fortune to have fallen off the end of) which was intimately tied to how well they (perceived one another to have) played. That almost might have been healthy, but every time anything went badly for their team, they were busy finding someone (anyone but self) to blame. What I instantly and utterly found I did not like was the resulting vicious back-biting: when one of them screwed up, his first response was to find something – anything – to blame on someone else to create some semblance of it not having been his fault. The resulting blame-storms were, of course, bad for morale.

The season after they let me play in their team, I flatly declined to be promoted to that team; I stayed with the team I'd been in. The nature of adolescent age-ism being what it is, and my thus being the oldest member of the team, meant I had to be captain, despite being centre-back (it is normal for a forward to be captain; or, perhaps more precisely, the captain gets to say who plays which positions and it is normal for players to want to be the centre-forward, so the captain usually puts himself there; I opted to by-pass the Peter principle). This meant I had authority ! I told my team one simple rule: only I was allowed to say anything negative about anyone's play (and my voice is amply loud enough that they'd hear it from the other end of the pitch, except that I seldom wanted to exercise my exclusive right). On the other hand, I encouraged them to acknowledge one another's successes. Saying well done doesn't hurt, when it's true. I think I also made it clear to them that, as far as I was concerned, we were there to have fun and get some exercise; if we happened to win, that would be a bonus, but it wasn't a pre-requisite of a good afternoon's sport.

I incidentally, though without articulating it as policy, acknowledged even our opponents' successes. This actually proved eminently constructive. When one of my team had been beaten by an opponent, the jocks would have slagged him off for that: I acknowledged that the other chap had, in fact, done well; and my chap knew that no-one was blaming him; he'd done as well as could be expected but been out-done, which is fair enough. Naturally, this also improved the general good-will on the field. (There was one exception; a team who knew they were better than us – and, I am inclined to believe, when considered as individual players, they were – but were so busy being jocks and ripping each other to pieces that their morale was abysmal while ours was merry; so we beat them both times we met them, both in the knock-out and in the league. They got really upset at my acknowledging their successes; I suspect they interpreted it as sarcasm, since they couldn't comprehend the notion of sincerity. The second time, their house-master (i.e., in practice, coach) was on the side-line setting the example they all lived by – finding someone to blame whenever anything went our way.)

My team picked up on my good example and, likewise, treated our opponents with respect. That made it easier for us to accept defeat, when it happened, with good grace – we'd done our best, our opponents had done better, three cheers to them, no grief on our side. That, in turn, meant that my team didn't feel bad about losing a game and didn't feel bad about parts of a game going poorly – which meant that they played as well as they could, even when things were going against us, without letting bad morale undermine their ability. It also meant that, when we were ahead of the game, we felt good about it: we're not winning because it was inevitable, oh no, our opponents are good, but still we're beating them – yay ! we're playing well today. That's good for morale; which helped us play better.

The Real World

I trust, gentle reader, that you can see that the above has lessons for other contexts than the sports field. I dimly remember that The Roman Army had some quite stern rules about treating the enemy with respect: in particular, not bad-mouthing them (most especially when it comes to bragging that they're going to be a walk-over); when you go into battle, you'd better believe that you'll only win if you work hard to do so. If you do not respect your enemy, you'll underestimate what you're up against, and get a nasty shock. While it is good to believe in yourselves and be confident that you can win, you still need to understand that you're up against someone else with just as much confidence and determination to win. Joking about how useless your enemy is makes for a great way to ensure that you get yourself killed when he turns out to be better than your self-fed propaganda told you. (Mussolini ordered his propaganda people to lie about how excellent his air-force was; and was caught wrong-footed when he relied on his excellent air-force being as good as the lies he'd commissioned; because, in fact, most of it was mock-ups without working engines, let alone pilots.)

In the Dilbert universe, there are middle managers who devote most of their energy to ensuring that, if anything goes wrong, they'll be able to avoid being blamed. I've been there. I've seen that. I've written the weekly reports – for a manager two layers further up the hierarchy than anyone who understood what I do – in which I detailed how my project was going (he assumed we'd tell comforting lies which he could subsequently use to justify it not being his fault we fell behind the schedule he assumed we'd be claiming to have kept up with) and dutifully documented that I was falling behind the originally projected time-line to exactly the extent of the time it took me to research and write those reports; my immediate bosses (who did understand what I do for a living) loved me, because I was turning the idiot's ass-covering exercise (which was wasting close to 20% of the resources at their disposal) into a kick me sign.

When someone is afraid of being blamed, I'm not surprised that they respond by trying to arrange that the blame can't land on them. However, if their efforts to do that revolve around arranging for someone else to be the scapegoat (rather than, for example, working to minimise the risk of there being any blame to have to dodge), they are mostly undermining the morale of their team: and, as a result, increasing the likelihood that something shall go horribly wrong. This, furthermore, involves the person in charge being, genuinely, the one who deserves the blame.

Frightened people behave bizarrely. They don't look at the big picture and work out what really needs to be done: they focus in on the things they're afraid of and address those, without careful thought to the rest. If you're in charge of other people, you'll get far better results out of them when they're confident that you respect that they're doing their best and, even when it is their fault, their failures are just part of the normal reality of things not always going your way. If you can protect them from a climate of fear, you can get better results out of them – and what you are responsible for is more likely to go well so you are less likely to be blamed for things going wrong.

People want respect. Some try to get it by deception; shun them. Most try to get it by earning it; but live in fear that they aren't getting it. Let folk know when they have earned your respect: it's great for their self-confidence and that helps them to be better at what they do. You don't have to be their boss for that to work: indeed, it's your peers that you can benefit the most by it.

Valid CSSValid HTML 4.01 Written by Eddy.