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What Makes Your Team Fail? Three Strategies to Avoid Disaster

I was catching up on Project Runway last week, and the episode I was watching featured a dreaded team challenge. If you don’t know what Project Runway is, I will resist the urge to tell you we can’t be friends and provide a polite explanation instead. The show consists of a number of fashion designers who compete against each other weekly to create the winning apparel design. Occasionally, one contestant is paired with another for a challenge, and sometimes the whole group is split into two equal teams. Either of these scenarios is when the cringing starts. And, when things get interesting for those of us who are nerdy about interpersonal dynamics.

First, I couldn’t get over how drastically different the emotions were between these participants and those football players I talked about in my last post. The designers were worried, annoyed, and resistant about working together; the players were excited, optimistic, and confident. Hmmm…After processing this initial observation, I settled in to watch the chaos unfold. What happened next was both surprising and thought provoking. One team, despite their initial hesitation, came together. They conceptualized together, they constructed together, they presented together. No one person owned one design. It was energizing to watch them describe with pride their joint creations. And, in the end, they were the clear winner. The other team never got past their mental roadblocks. They argued, they floundered, they completely melted down. Not one person stepped up to try to pull the team back together. Instead, each one complacently accepted defeat with the assurance that someone other than herself would take the fall. It was a gruesome defeat.

It was so obvious while watching that failure to collaborate was their ruin. But, one important point to remember is that, on this show, there is one winner and one loser. It can be difficult for those who want to assert their personal capabilities and express their signature styles to absorb into a team. (Your employees probably feel very much this way, too.) But, in the end, the only way one can be a winning individual is to be on the winning team. A-ha!

With this in mind, how can you help your team, who may feel more like contestants than comrades, reap the benefits of teamwork—and maybe actually come to embrace it rather than loathe it?

  1. Assign collective goals, but individual tasks. I have to admit that, more than once, my manager has announced a new project, looked at me and my coworkers, and directly told us that she expects us to work togetherNot to go back to our separate cubicles and figure out our parts on our own. Oh. Sometimes it’s just a matter of communicating what you want from your team. And, by giving them each their own responsibility, but making them all accountable to the final result, there’s a lot of room for cooperation, but not much for any one person to fall short.
  2. Empower your team to feel mutual respect. One of the keys to achieving teamwork is encouraging everyone to recognize each others’ strengths—and realize that they aren’t a threat, but an asset. Like the runway designers, one may be good at fine detail, another at ideation, another at time management. Without any one of those, the entire creation might not come to life. Implementing a peer recognition program is an excellent way for your team to acknowledge others’ capabilities and the ways each contributes to overall success.  
  3. Celebrate winning as a whole. In football, the team wins (unless you’re the Detroit Lions, dang it). In Project Runway, there’s a winning team, but ultimately one designer earns the prize and designation. I hate to criticize one of my favorite indulgences, but this is B.S. As a manager, you can discourage any feelings of personal entitlement on a team project by rewarding and recognizing everyone who participated equally. It could be a lunch, a happy hour, an appreciation gift, or a special company-wide shout out.  

The next time you’re facing a team project, remember these tactics. And, because it’s worth repeating (especially the second line), this quote from Andrew Carnegie:  

“Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.”

Allison is currently living out the elaborate fantasy she described to her now-former staff and colleagues in early 2001. With a hearty dose of courage and absolutely no plan of action, she abruptly left her middle-management job to become a writer—and today she is doing just that in her role as Baudville’s Senior Content Writer. She’s here to tell you everything she’s learned in her 20-years+ professional life, plus a lot more. She’s wordy like that!