Getting Your Team to Play Together

Charles “Casey” Stengel, a first-class outfielder on several American baseball teams in the first half of the 20th century is probably best known for his career as a manager of the New York Yankees in the 1950s where he won 10 pennants in a dozen years, as well as five straight World Series.

Stengel once said that “getting good players is easy. Getting them to play together is the hard part.”

In the 1950s, there was a lot of talent available for baseball clubs, just as there was a lot of skilled people who were available to work thanks to the GI Bill following World War II.

 

Today, things are different.

Before the pandemic, the shortage of skilled labour was beginning to be felt acutely, and the problem is still there, though it’s been masked by the lockdowns and other working restrictions.

It won’t remain like that forever.

Typically, organizations (managers, actually) are fond of hiring people who exhibit a lot of talent. They put all of their stock in a person’s potential without stopping to consider if that’s the best approach.

That doesn’t mean that talent isn’t important, though there are those who argue that it’s overrated. Instead, it means that by itself, it guarantees nothing.

 

Calvin Coolidge, President of the United States from 1923-1929, said the same thing: “Nothing is more common than unsuccessful [people] with talent.”

And this is as true today as it was then. According to Casey Stengel the hard part is to get talented people to play together - to work as a team to a collective and cohesive end; not to cling to their individualism as great athletes.

 

Why is this a problem?

It’s because talented people often are self-starters, intrinsically motivated, who hold themselves to very high standards. That’s not to say that the lesser endowed do not; only that they may not be as inclined to compete with their fellow team members, nor feel threatened by their success. In other words, stars may be reluctant to sacrifice what they perceive as greater success for themselves on the altar of teamwork, and that’s because they’d rather look good personally, than to forfeit that image so that the team as a whole can do better.

 

All-Star Teams

All-star teams in any sport consist of the best players in the league, yet they consistently underperform when playing against teams without such stars. And that’s because they have to submit their egos to the greater good in order for their teams to win.

A well-known example comes from professional basketball, where in 2006 an elite team of NBA players lost to a Greek team without any such players in a world championship.

 

Think about it like this.

In baseball, two-thirds of the players earn $1 million or less. That may sound like a lot of money, but it’s paltry compared to the $30+ million the top players receive. People who earn that much literally are in a league of their own. They know it, and so does everyone else.

Money, however, isn’t the only differential.

 

Personal rivalries

On some all-star teams, the players hate each other. Egos aren’t the only thing that get in the way of teamwork. How they play, that they earn less than they think they’re worth compared to their rival also are factors.

In the workplace, the same rivalries can exist. Maybe you’ve experienced this yourself when you’ve been forced to work on a team with someone who is higher in the pecking order than you and who earns a lot more, but in your estimation doesn’t pull their weight.

Do you really want to help that other person look good so that the team is successful?

And where there’s rivalry between team members, invariably the others will choose sides. They may not do this deliberately, but they’ll feel a certain loyalty towards one or the other of those involved. That’s because it’s impossible to know who’ll “win”, and no one wants to be on the losing side. Not only that, but when there’s what seems to be a binary choice, it’s hard not to choose sides.

It takes humility and sportsmanship to celebrate when your rival does well. What is far more likely is that rivals will set out to make each other fail.

No team, whether in athletics or in your organization, can succeed with that going on.

 

Lack of trust and respect

In order for teams to succeed, all of the members have to trust one another and have respect for each other. When one member has a strong dislike for another, neither is possible. It’s not that you have to like them per se, but you must respect what they do, and how they do it. You can’t be lobbing criticism at their methods just because you’d do it some other way, nor can you denigrate their person. All of that is counterproductive.

 

Infighting

Where there are a lot of internal squabbles, it means that the members are only thinking of themselves as individuals, the opposite of what is necessary for an effective team.

Team members who play well together gel more quickly together. The thing that makes a team effective is its ability to function like a team, and when you bring a group of individuals together they have to work to act as a unit as soon as possible.

 

Lack of accountability

It’s impossible to hold one another accountable for a high standard of performance if team members fundamentally disagree with how others fulfill their roles or are worried that they won’t get proper credit for their contribution.

 

Not everyone sets out to be disruptive

Remember those kids when you were in school whose teachers on every end of term report indicated that they needed to learn to play well with others? Sometimes, it seemed as though they were determined to disrupt everything - as if they got a special joy in preventing everyone else from benefiting from the experience.

There probably were some who were like that and for a lot of reasons, but disruption often is down to perception. Not everyone who appears to be is. Simply preferring not to join in, for example, is a perfect example.

For instance, some kids (and adults) are introverts, and so playing with others (or cooperating on a team) just isn’t something they do. Their goal isn’t to make life more difficult for others. Instead, it’s to do their work on their own terms which, in so doing, is better than if they were forced to do it with everyone else.

Others who are exceedingly clever are easily bored, whether in a classroom or the workplace. (We already know how smart kids are treated by their peers.) When you’re bored at work, you lose focus. You try to occupy yourself with something else until you can change your environment and find something that’s more meaningful to do.

And, of course, there are those who simply don’t have anything in common with their classmates or workmates. Their interests are elsewhere. In a school situation, just think how much your popularity depends on keeping up with the latest fashions or pop music. A student who doesn’t care about those things may be seen as disruptive just because they’re different.

And, of course, you simply don’t know what domestic issues kids or adults have to contend with day-in and day-out. These alone can make it that much harder to concentrate, and that’s before you even consider their own mental health issues.

The point of this section is to understand that the obstacles to “playing well together” aren’t limited to personal rivalries or an unwillingness to conform because to do so would diminish their own image. Instead, it could be just because people are different - something that managers often overlook.

 

How to help your team play together

Your job as a manager is to help your team play together, whether you have the option of handpicking them or not.

How do you do that?

 

Leadership

The first thing you must do is exercise quality leadership.

What does that mean?

It means that instead of pretending to know everything, you recognize the expertise that others bring to the team. You respect them. You’re honest and transparent with them. And ultimately, you give them a good reason to follow you. A good reason isn’t that there are negative consequences if they don’t. Instead, it’s that in so doing that it will benefit them, not only monetarily, but also physically, psychologically, mentally, and emotionally.  No one should have to sacrifice anything because they follow you.

It also means that you provide a clear purpose for the team. This isn’t limited to the projects that it’s been brought together to achieve. It also refers to the reason for the team’s existence. It needs to be apparent to everyone on the team why this group of people have been brought together.

 

Inclusion

Everyone on your team should feel that they belong there.

Even if they’re there at your personal invitation, they need to feel that they belong to the group; not just to you. This is one reason why when new people are recruited an entire team participates in the decision to hire them or not. They want to make sure that that person is a natural fit.

Those who don’t feel that they’re a part of the team are likely to be less cooperative or even antagonistic, not because that was their original goal, but because they don’t feel that those around them value their contribution.

 

Accountability

You may remember from the old black and white Hollywood movies of swashbuckling adventure the expression, “All for one, and one for all”. It simply meant that each person supported everyone else in that group or team.

Support, however, isn’t limited to standing up for them when things aren’t going as well as you’d like them to. It also means holding one another to a standard for fulfilling their responsibilities. That could be something as simple as asking how you can help.

 

Appreciation

Just as everyone is accountable to everyone else on the team, they need to show appreciation for the work of their peers. They’ll learn to do this by your example. Give credit where credit is due. It doesn’t need to be a fanfare necessarily, but everyone wants to be recognized - even in a small way - for the good work that they do. A simple, but pointed “thank you” may be all that they want.

 

Rest

The best teams play well together, but they’re also afforded sufficient time to rest, to recharge their batteries, so to speak.

Make sure that they get it. That may mean banning work communication on the weekends, working excessively long hours, or even extra time off for the purpose of recreation.

You may feel that you’re the best judge of that, and you might be; but be sure that you include their opinions in any decision that you make.

 

Getting your team to play together is fraught with challenges, if only because each individual has their own way of doing things. It’s possible, too, that some or all of them are stars in their own right.

You must remember, however, that it’s your job to help everyone to set aside their personal differences for the overall benefit of the team, and to show mutual trust and respect for everyone.

 

Want to know more about how to get your team to play together? Contact me here.

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