Look At Life: Team Spirit

20th October 2017

Smells Like Team Spirit

By Deborah Mulhearn

Ever since the words ‘has potential but no team spirit’ appeared on my school report, my relationship to teams has been vexed. It’s an accusation I’ve heard all my life. Why am I rubbish at team pursuits? Is the fact that I work alone as a self-employed writer more than circumstantial? I don’t know which came first. Was I always recalcitrant or did that teacher determine my life choices with a throwaway line?

Non-team people know what it’s like. On the sports field you stood slouching on the sidelines, arms folded, while the football or hockey or netball captains picked the best players. It happened to me over and over. I felt rejected, but I was also relieved: I hated sports. Sometimes it’s better to be on the sidelines, thought I, and duly stayed there.

Caring for an elderly aunt recently, I was chastised by my sisters for failing to respect the rota. You don’t work well in a team, they said. In families, in sport, in the workplace, we are all meant to pull together as a unit. Of course, we can’t operate in society without being in a team of some kind. No man is an island, and teams at their best produce great innovation and creativity, sublime music and scintillating sporting moments.

It’s not just semantics. The 2012 British Olympics squad weren’t named Team GB just because it sounded snappy. It was a clever marketing ploy to get the nation behind it. And it worked.

Advertising tells us ad nauseam that we’re better as a team – those who dance together round their workstations, play paintball after hours, sing together… they are successful. They bond. And if you aren’t in, you are a loser, with a capital L.

It’s nothing new. Back in the 1970s, when Japanese car companies started up in Britain, we mocked their corporate culture that foregrounded working as a team to almost cultish proportions – the morning mass exercise and the subsuming of the individual to company goals. But then that thinking started to seep into British culture.

Ironically, the most individualistic nation on the planet – America – loves teams. And teams mean competition. When my partner lived briefly in the United States as a teenager, he had a job as a busboy in a restaurant. The day started with an uplifting group talk where the boss gave his permission to take anyone who wasn’t pulling their weight outside to the car park and ‘kick their ass’.

This is just a cruder version of what is common in our work culture now. A high street café chain encourages their baristas to smile at customers – nothing wrong with that, but they are also exhorted to call out anyone they think isn’t smiling enough. It’s all good-natured, I’m sure. But that’s a team I’d never want to join.

It surely leads to the very opposite of teamwork – suspicion, anxiety and anti-social working practices, where people are pushed to succeed at great personal cost. In our insidious, ultra-competitive world you can even die of overwork. The Japanese have a word for it: karoshi.

Simply being on a team doesn’t give you team spirit. There is always a tension between the individual and the collective goals. The more dominant personalities take over while others sit back and let them, because they are shy or afraid of being ridiculed, or because they don’t care. The team may appear to be functioning, but the spirit is elusive.

Google spent five years researching its teams to try and find out what made some achieve better results than others. Data crunchers struggled to find patterns until they came across the notion of psychological safety – allowing people to feel that they can speak up without fear of being mocked or rejected. Listening and showing sensitivity to other members of the team were more important qualities than intelligence, leadership, personal charisma or other markers of success. (Did it really take them five years of research to work that one out?)

An incident with the ailing aunt found us in hospital. We watched as the ‘team’ came together around her, mostly young women and men in coloured scrubs that denoted their levels of expertise, on the challenging frontline of a busy Thursday night in A&E. They worked busily from cubicles and corridors, all individuals but indubitably part of a team that rallied and reassured my frail and bewildered aunt. They were cheerful, kind and caring. They slotted into one another’s professional spheres and dovetailed their judgements and decisions. It felt like team spirit. A messy, raggedy, seemingly unstructured but genuinely collective effort. No team talk required.

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