Being involved in endurance sports teaches you a lot about human behavior. For one, you tend to learn a lot about yourself, especially at mile 22 of a Marathon, or ten hours into an Ironman triathlon, or when the wind chill hits the single digits, it’s three in the morning, you haven’t slept in thirty-two hours, and your navigator has absolutely no idea where you are.
These types of situations also teach you a lot about other people.
It’s one thing to be pleasant, polite and considerate when things are going well. However, when you’re exhausted, hungry, parched, and/or in pain, playing well with others becomes a little bit of a challenge.
And for some people, it becomes completely impossible.
I was just reminded of this last Saturday morning, when I found myself in the middle of Greenville’s Marine Corps Mud Run surrounded by the other members of Team MudPuppies (Randy Hutchison, Amy Carter, and Rusty Hutchison – Team #25). Yes, that’s us up there. The fierce looking bunch with the black shirts.
Let me just say that team MudPuppies was outstanding. From start to finish, everyone had grins on their faces. We had a blast. Crawling through mud, wading through creeks, climbing walls, jumping off obstacles, swinging from ropes, running up slippery hills, we worked as a team. We clicked. We raced for one another… And we finished together.
Many of the other teams, some composed of fitter, perhaps more focused athletes, didn’t fare so well. Although this was only a four-mile course (hardly long enough to work up a good sweat), tempers flared. Teammates were left behind. Teammates were yelled at. The athletes who surged ahead of their slower teammates lost their tempers when they had to wait for them to catch up. They resented having to help them.
Interestingly enough, the teams that didn’t get along, the ones that didn’t click, the ones whose “leaders” acted like imaptient jerks… didn’t do so well. As soon as negativity poisoned team dynamics, the teams fell apart. Motivation evaporated and died. The performance of individual athletes suffered.
Instead of picking up the slack where they could (and should), they surged ahead and blamed their slower teammates when things didn’t go well. Instead of encouraging them, they yelled at them. Those teams all crashed and burned. It didn’t matter that they were composed of the fittest athletes in the race. It didn’t matter that they had the most experience with this type of race. They crashed and burned because over the course of just four miles, they simply weren’t capable of working together.
We passed quite a few teams on the course, and the ones that were not working together took twice as long to negotiate obstacles as the ones whose members clicked.
We all have to work in teams these days. Whether you’re a product specialist in a retail environment, a product manager in a corporate environment or a Marketing professional working with creatives, buyers, clients and copywriters, we all have to get along. We all have to find a way not only to play nice, but to help each other accomplish the task at hand. Witnessing first-hand the difference between teams that work together and teams that don’t or can’t or won’t – in an environment as devoid of artifice as a muddy trail on a cold fall morning – was a pretty good eye-opener.
Based on what I saw during the mud run, here are my new rules of effective teamwork:
1. Agree on a goal.
No, really. Agree on the goal. Don’t just nod in agreement with the boss. Come to an agreement as a team. (It shouldn’t be difficult, but it can be.)*
* If coming to an agreement when it comes to setting a team goal is too difficult, you may need to re-examine your team’s roster. Someone there just doesn’t know how to play well with others.
2. Your role isn’t just to do your part. It is mostly to help others do theirs.
If someone is having trouble with their portion of a project, help them. Pick up the slack as a team.
3. Out on an endurance course, a team is only as fast as its slowest member. In the corporate world, the same is true. Deal with it.
Pick your teammates well, and once they’re on your team, don’t outpace them. Don’t surge ahead. Don’t drop them and leave them to fend for themselves. Slow down the pace. There’s no sense in speeding up ahead when one of your teammates is lagging behind. Stay with them. Support them. Remember: You’re working with a team. It isn’t the “you” show. If the team doesn’t stick together, if it doesn’t work together, it isn’t a team. It’s a clusterf–k.
4. Don’t complain if something isn’t going well.
Don’t blame anyone. Just regroup, find out where the trouble is, and work out the problem together. All problems and obstacles are learning opportunities, so look at problems as opportunities rather than something negative. Embrace problems. (And plan for them in advance,or your project schedules will be torn to shreds pretty quickly.)
5. Have fun.
Smile. Laugh. Enjoy yourself. Make sure the rest of the team is having fun too. Sometimes, you have to get down to business and work hard, but every hard effort should be followed by some degree of enjoyment. This could be celebrating a milestone or having successfully negotiated an obstacle. It could be the completion of a portion of the project, or the start of a new phase. It could be a brainstorming session or a presentation. The point is: Make it fun, and keep it fun. If you aren’t having fun working on a project or working together, the quality of the work you put out will suffer.
5. There are no bad teams. Only bad leaders.
And in a team context, everyone has to be a leader from time to time. The balance of power shifts from one phase or one portion of a project to the next. When it’s your turn to lead or help or pick up the slack, do it. Don’t wait for others to step in. Volunteer. (And remember #5. This shouldn’t be a drag.)
6. If you want to look good, forget about yourself and make your teammates look good.
7. Make sure everyone on your team lives and breathes Rule #6.
8. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.
It doesn’t matter that you’re the accountant on the team. If your group is developing a new product, go hang out in the lab with the designers and quality engineers, and help them test the prototypes. Go out and do research. Broaden your horizons. Get involved with every facet of the project, not just your own.
9. Don’t be afraid to fall flat on your face.
That’s the beauty of being part of a great team. If you fall, your teammates will help you back up and get you going again. It’s okay to stumble when other people are there to pick you up… and maybe carry you a little while you recover. Enjoy it. Return the favor from time to time. Earn good karma points while you’re at it.
10. Be nice to other teams.
Spread your team’s positive attitude and success. Share what you’ve learned. Infect other project teams and departments with enthusiasm. Lead the way. Be an example. Spread the love. Encourage others. Energize your workplace. Invite others to participate in your team’s success and celebrate its milestones with you.