It’s NBA Playoff season, which made me think of coach Phil Jackson.  I have written about Jackson’s brilliant team leadership before. Read about how he chose (not) to deal with a poor performer here.

I particularly love one of his quotes:

“The strength of the team is each member. The strength of each member is the team.”

As is standard with Jackson, the words are the simple and the ideas profound. Unfortunately, Jackson is describing an ideal that is elusive for most teams.  The problem is that creating the reciprocal benefit of individuals strengthening a team and a team strengthening the individuals takes a couple of important conditions, which are seldom met.

Diversity on the team must be harnessed

When I interview team members in advance of a team effectiveness process, I ask the simple question: “What at the strengths of your team?”  Without fail, the first answer is “the expertise, experience, and intelligence of the individual team members.”  Surprisingly, when I get to see teams in action, this great talent is usually squandered because of uneven participation, scant listening, and stubborn fighting.

Tips to make each member the strength of your team

  1. Solicit participation from everyone. Make a conscious effort to seek out dissenting opinions with questions like: “Who can see a different option?” [Notice how using “can” makes it desirable to be able to come up with an opposing point of view.]
  2. Specially draw on the past experiences of people who have worked outside your team. “How would you have approached this problem at ACME Inc.?” [Most teams waste this experience by discouraging people from talking about previous employers.]
  3. In particularly contentious discussions, ask each person to paraphrase the previous person before adding anything new. “What did you hear Monika say?” If the response doesn’t hit the mark, repeat the original statement and paraphrase until it does.
  4. Be attuned to the default styles of team members and call on people with strengths that often go untapped. “Jack, while we’re jumping to conclusions, you’re usually more disciplined, how would you approach this problem?”  [Strong process-minded people are often shut out by their action-oriented teammates.]

Invest in each other’s success

A second pre-condition for Jackson’s quote to be realized is that team members need to invest in each other’s success. Many teams I see are only loose groupings of individuals who work independently and then meet every so often.  In some cases, it goes as far as active competition between team members for resources, acclaim, or promotion.  The only way for your team to be a source of strength is for you to embrace the idea that the team is only as strong as its weakest member.

Tips to make the team the strength of each member

  1. Use the team as a kick start mechanism even for individual accountabilities. At the start of each project, use a 10 or 15 minute idea generation session with the team to foster creativity, identify avenues for exploration, and create buy-in.
  2. Schedule routine check-ins on projects where team members are expected to each bring three questions for the team to wrestle with. This normalizes input and reduces the stigma of asking for help.
  3. Use a facilitated process to help team members talk about their strengths and their natural gaps and pair team members with those who have complementary strengths. Each team member should know who they can use as a sounding board to identify blind spots.
  4. Rally around a team member who is struggling, particularly one who is struggling in silence. Ask broad questions to find ways to be helpful. “Where are you at on the assignment?” “What would make a difference?”  Create language around these moments to reinforce the decision to ask for help. [Being a child of the seventies, I’m partial to the phrase “Wonder twin powers, activate!”  Aha…another blog idea!]

Now go back and read the quote again.  Reflect on how your team is strengthened by the unique talents, expertise, and personalities of you and your teammates.  Think about how you are strengthened by having your team to rely on. If your team isn’t quite there yet, try some of the techniques above. Share your experiences in the comments. I’d really love to hear how they work for you.

Further Reading

Trust can’t Come at the Expense of Diversity

The Secret of Effective Teamwork

5 Practices that Bolster Trust on your Team

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