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There's no I in Team

August 9, 2019

This is from back when I still worked at Avvo as their Content Manager several years ago. I was a part of the product team, and we started a habit of all of us getting together for lunch around every 2 weeks. We would chat and talk about whatever seemed interesting at the time.

We watched TEDTalks (here is the one we all watched together), did a personality assessment, and we all read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

Five Dysfunctions is an interesting book on teamwork. It presents lessons on teamwork within the structure of a story, or fable. The story is about a promising startup that has a good product, plenty of talented people, but also one of the most toxic and political atmospheres. The CEO is asked to step down, and a new one is hired by the board. Under the new CEO, major teamwork issues are resolved, and the company begins to make major progress with its product.

The main problems that stop a team from being an honest-to-God real team are illustrated here:

five dysfunctions of a team pyramid
5 dysfunctions of a team pyramid

When someone on our product team first suggested that we all read the book, the first thing I did was groan and feel resentful. I was already busy as hell, so why did I have to go and read a book like it was homework on top of everything else?

My reaction to the book

Despite my grumbling however, I eventually buckled down and started reading it. Because of the way the book presents its lessons, it’s actually a pretty easy read and I ended up getting through it pretty quickly. I was also hooked, and it was because what I was reading really and truly resonated with me.

I could immediately see that many of the problems listed are very common, and were true for my own team. Even more, I also saw that I myself have been guilty of doing some of these exact things. What I didn’t realize earlier was how each of these little (or not so little) instances multiplied across a team can really snowball into something negative.

Even my reaction to hearing that we were going to read this book is a good example of what I’m talking about. The first thing I felt was annoyance. My thinking was along the lines that I’m already busy at work, which meant that I’d have to read this on my personal time--but I didn’t want to devote my personal time to something work-related. I was hugely irritated of yet more work chipping away at my personal at-home-not-working time.

The question is, why didn’t I speak up?

I think it's because I didn’t feel like I was in a position to object. I didn’t want to rock the boat, and it seemed like the other people on our team had no problem with reading a book, so I didn’t want to be the one who was different. (Hello, social cohesion?) That right there shows a lack of trust and a fear of conflict, which are the bottom two attributes in the pyramid above.

I love that the Five Dysfunctions book has gotten me to see and think differently. I think that it’s a good place to start, and from there I have my own take-aways.

The principles apply across all relationships, not just work

To me, many of the principles mentioned here are echoed in relationship/marriage advice. For example, you can’t be afraid to speak your mind if you want to keep a relationship moving forward.

Holding back will only cause more problems down the road, and often that delay means that the problems have had that much time to become more complex and unmanageable. We all know this. And yet, why do we act differently towards people at home versus people at work, when many of us physically spend more time at work than with our loved ones at home?

So why don’t we commit to building high quality relationships at work as well?

Trust is often glaringly absent in the workplace. We recognize the need to have trust in a significant other, but what about the people at work? We might trust our coworkers to be competent at what they do, but that’s usually where we draw the line.

In terms of a deeper trust, do you honestly trust the people at work to have your back and not throw you under the bus to the manager? To be able to take and receive an honest opinion even if it’s not very pretty?

For some of us, realizing some of these things may be a little bit harder than it is for others. My own background is that of a typical Asian from a Tiger parenting household. If you know anything about this sort of childhood, you’ll realize that instilling a team perspective isn’t really something that’s prioritized for parents like mine.

I was almost completely academically oriented while growing up, and sports in general were somewhat frowned upon by my parents. Despite growing up in the South, I had no idea what football really was (an attitude encouraged by my parents), and didn’t know of its excellent history with making players understand that they are part of a larger team, and that as the team rises or falls, so do they. I got my first inkling of this when I watched Friday Night Lights, which I highly recommend as a tv show.

Even the tv show Fresh Off the Boat highlights the competitive nature that's often instilled in Asian children, and a generally complete disregard for teamwork and working with other people.

So here's my bottom line, what I see as the main truth:

everyone is usually a part of something bigger, whether you want to be or not.

If you go work for someone else, you’re in the same "work-lifeboat" with all the other on your team or in your company. It was your choice to work there. If you're not going to quit, then why not stop the negativity and instead make the best of the situation?

My checklist on how committed I am to my work team

After thinking on all this for a while, I made a list of a handful of questions that I think I should always ask myself when considering my work family and whether I and the other people there are committed to having it be a healthy and happy place:

  • Are you able to accept feedback from other people? Are you able to give your own input or feedback?
  • Are you afraid to let other people know what you’re thinking? Do you trust the other people to respect your opinion and not dismiss it out of hand?
  • Do you like working with the other people?

And the biggest question of all:

At the end of the day when all is said and done (whether it’s good, bad, or just ugly), can you come back together and work together again? And do you even want to?

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