Contrary to popular belief, teamwork is not just a group process — it’s a personal responsibility and skill. Today all work is teamwork, and the challenge is to get something done with others over whom you have no authority. Here are nine keys for working responsibly with others, excerpted from the new book “Teamwork is an Individual Skill.”
“Members worked together above and beyond their individual job descriptions.” That’s how participants of the high-level, cross-functional team with which I was working accounted for the team’s extraordinary success. Their individual and collective efforts not only saved a $60 million account from threat of being “desourced,” the customer committed to an additional $250 million worth of business annually!
This example shows how contrary to popular belief, teamwork is not just a group process. It’s a personal responsibility and skill-especially in this new and “flatter” work world of teaming, partnering, and collaborating. Today all work is teamwork, and the challenge is to perform when sharing responsibility to get something done with others over whom you have no authority.
Here are nine keys for working responsibly with others no matter who reports to whom:
Develop your ability to respond
It’s helpful to make a distinction between accountability and responsibility. Accountability is an agreement to be held to account for some result. Responsibility is a feeling of ownership. You can assign accountability between yourself and others, but responsibility can only be self-generated.
Responsibility means to completely own–rather than deny, blame, or rationalize–your situation. Think of the cause-effect equation. Instead of seeing yourself as the effect and something else as the cause, responsibility means seeing yourself as both cause and effect for your situation. Accept that your past choices place you in your current situation. Also accept that you are in complete charge of your learning, improving and growing in order to produce the results you want.
Several years ago, the Eagles had a hit called “Get Over It” in which they railed against blaming others for one’s misfortune. The only true way out of the fix is to “get over it” and develop your ability to respond-your response-ability.
Commit to exercise your responsibility every day. That may sound odd, however as with any competency, responsibility can be developed. The personal and professional rewards for doing so are substantial. Affirm to yourself, “I choose to be 100% responsible for every aspect of my life and work.”
Retain your personal power
Individuals make huge differences in the dynamics of a team, however most of them don’t accept their power to make or break a collaborative relationship. In fact, the most frequent excuse I hear for poor performance from otherwise highly skilled professionals and executives is “I got put on a bad team.” I say, “How do you know the team was bad before you got there?”
Retain your personal power by treating every action and decision that affects you as one to which you consent. No action or decision can stand unless you allow it. Ghandi said that what people most fear is not their lack of power but rather their abundance of it. Speak up when you disagree with your team’s purpose and direction. Understand that “going along” without passion or commitment takes your team where no member wants to go. Worse, complaining about someone behind their back or tearing them down to others is treasonous to that relationship and will earn you little respect or trust. When you have an issue with a teammate, the most productive response is to state your concern directly to him or her so the two of you can resolve it.
To build your personal power, make only agreements you fully intend to keep, no matter how small. Then consistently improve your ability to do so. When you fail to honor any agreement, acknowledge the mistake–and your humanness in making it–and clean it up with the other person at the first opportunity by acknowledging that you didn’t keep the agreement, apologizing for not coming through as promised, asking how you can make amends, and recommitting to the relationship.
Increase your provocability
When the project leader walked into the meeting at eight minutes after the hour and asked if everyone was ready to get started, Ned said “no.” Then in a compassionate and even tone of voice Ned said, “There’s something I need to check. We all agreed to start and end team meetings on time. Everyone else was ready to start the meeting on the hour. Do we need a new or different agreement with you about this?” Ned was obviously provoked. The team leader recognized that Ned had good reason to be. He also saw that instead of attacking him, Ned had simply called “foul” and given him an opportunity to account for his behavior. The leader realized that the responsible thing to do was to own his mistake and apologize to Ned and the team for not keeping his agreement. He then recommitted to begin and end meetings on time and did so thereafter.
Ned acted on-rather than denied or vented-his frustration with a teammate’s behavior. Had Ned allowed the broken agreement-and his frustration-slide by without comment, it’s likely that team meetings would have started later and later. Ned and the group could have built up much resentment and cynicism, and team performance could have suffered.
To apply this key for personal responsibility, first practice on yourself by becoming increasingly intolerant of the difference between what you say and what you do. Then, expect collaborators to act only in your collective best interest and to honor all agreements you’ve made with one another. Call “foul” at the earliest sign that agreements aren’t being honored, and do it with equal or lesser force than the force of the foul. The secret to successful confrontation is to confront without inviting escalation or shaming the recipient. This leaves room for them to respond. Where greater force leads to escalation of the conflict, compassionate intolerance allows for reparation and correction.
Experience judgments fully, then let them go
Traditional wisdom admonishes us to “judge not.” That’s advice that most often results in denial and resentment. Why? Because not judging is nearly impossible. Perhaps a better way to state the traditional wisdom is “understand and clear your judgment before it gets in the way of your communication.”
Your resourcefulness is limited when you are stimulated from anger or right-wrong thinking. When you feel upset with someone, explore the judgment completely to discover exactly what it is and where it comes from. Here’s a hint: the source of your judgment isn’t them, it’s you! You might be mad at them, but you are the one who is choosing to be mad. When you completely understand where your judgment comes from, then and only then can it dissipate. Then you can release it. Let it go. Sometimes it helps to physically assist with the mental process of letting go. You might open your hands as if releasing a bird to fly away or attach the emotion to your breath and exhale as breathing is an excellent way to release stress and judgment.
Learn from every upset
High performers realize that an upset is an opportunity to learn. You can harvest value from an upset by asking yourself how your choices and actions landed you in this upsetting situation. Determine how you can change your behavior to strengthen the team. If you need to ask for new agreements with your teammates, do it.
The key is not to avoid, eliminate, or cover up mistakes and upsets, but to learn, correct, and improve each time.
Master your intentions
Psychologists say that we manifest whatever occupies our mind. Golfers know a dirty trick to play on the player at the tee box is to advise, “Watch out for the woods on the left.” Then, because the woods occupies her thoughts, that’s where the ball lands. A reporter once asked golfing great Jack Nicklaus how he could so confidently step up to a 40-foot putt. This master of intentions responded “Because in my minds eye, I’ve never missed one.”
Clear intentions are the secret behind extraordinary performers. The key skill is simple enough to explain: Know and picture your outcome. Hear the desired sounds. Feel the intended feelings. And specify the results you expect to achieve. Such clear intentions guide your behavior to deliver the desired results.
Use this awareness to develop integrity in your relationships. Make your collaborative intentions known to your teammates. Remember that intentions exist in both the conscious and unconscious mind. So next time you catch yourself taking words back by saying “I didn’t mean it,” reflect on how you really might have meant it at some level.
Live and work “on” purpose
If mastering your situational intentions provides power, consider the power of a clear and sustained purpose in your life. By working with the conscious intention that comes from determining and knowing your purpose in life, not only will all of your actions be integrated, you will also attract individuals who will help you achieve your purpose and who are served by it.
How do you discover a purpose? Consider two things. First ask yourself what is the best and most valuable use of your unique abilities. Second ask what you love to do that provides value to others. Start designing your life and work to combine these two elements and you’ll be on purpose. You’ll even appreciate learning from upsets and mistakes because you’ll be doing so “on purpose.”
Open a new relationship with a contribution
Heads of state always present gifts when calling on leaders of a foreign land. These gifts symbolize the diplomats’ willingness to invest in the relationship before expecting a payoff. Consider how this is different from the instructions given to many task force members by their superiors: “Listen politely, but don’t share or commit to a thing.” Even less responsible are those who approach a new relationship demanding an immediate answer to the question “What’s in it for me?”
Responsible collaborators start a new relationship by contributing intention, information, energy, access , or resources. They demonstrate the willingness to invest and they are willing to make a significant investment before demanding a pay-off.
A successful practice attributed years ago to DuPont’s partnering with new entrepreneurs is to distribute the risk of a venture not according to investment, but according to whom had the greater capacity to absorb it. This is a gift by the larger and more stable partner for the good of the partnership.
Be a “present hero” by serving yourself and your team simultaneously
When any one person could have moved the barrier that everyone stepped around, the hero is said to be missing. My friend John is an example. In ten years, I’ve seen him stoop to pick up a piece of trash on the sidewalk or running trail at least forty times when I ignored it. John doesn’t say anything about it or break stride in our conversation. He just carries the trash until tossing it in a bin. Each time I realize how responsible he chooses to feel for the space he shares with others. I’m a little embarrassed about my own apathy.
“Present heroes” are individuals like John who are mindful of the abundance they enjoy as members of their families, teams, and communities. They assume it’s in their own self-interest to invest a little personal energy to help the group. To put this key to work for you, choose one of the dozens of annoyances that you’ve been wishing “someone” on your team would take care of-from confronting a teammate’s difficult behavior to redesigning an inefficient work process-and take care of it yourself.
Christopher M. Avery, Ph.D., is the author of(Berrett-Koehler, $18.95) and is a popular speaker and consultant. He can be reached through .