This is a story about two very different work teams I have been part of.
One of the teams was a UN team; the other was an emergency preparedness project team in Sweden. I leave it to you to guess which team was which one.
The Bad and The Ugly Team
This team was not actually a team. Its members worked side by side. The flow of information and number of interactions were kept to a minimum.
Some of the team members did not miss an opportunity to belittle other team members. It could be about rank, experience or anything else they could come up with. Many spent a lot of time and energy on dreading the next toxic email, or spiteful comment; and subsequently, strategies for how to handle them.
During meetings few, if any, expressed their honest opinions due to fear of repercussions. It was much talk about learning from mistakes, but you soon discovered it was just lip service.
If you asked for help, you occasionally received it, but just as often you were blamed for not knowing. When you got support, it was typically given with a hint of scorn.
The team leader very much contributed to the ugliness. He was good at blaming people for their mistakes; and especially junior staff members, who had not been told how they were supposed to carry out a task. What he was good at, was taking all the credit for any favourable results.
He showed little insight into the work we were doing; and had absolutely no understanding for the obstacles we were facing. I cannot remember he ever gave anyone any praise.
All of this resulted in an egregious reputation among external partners.
The Good Team
From day one the atmosphere in this team was a very relaxed and open one, despite few of us knowing each other beforehand. We tried as best as we could to contribute with our knowledge and insights, for the best of the project.
You were allowed to think out loudly, which generated some good laughs with no denigrating intentions. But then of course the team members were mature enough to laugh at their own crazy ideas. We laughed a lot.
Never once, were anyone blamed for any mistakes, or for being late with any delivery, if they had a reasonable explanation. You could ask “stupid” questions without being ridiculed.
During meetings you often heard “it is my mistake” or “I should have thought about that.” The other team members quickly moved on to “what to do about it”. During the project and afterwards the focus was entirely on learning, and on “what” we should learn, not “who” should learn.
I was always in a good mood after our meetings, and though we worked hard and faced several unforeseen challenges, it never exhausted me.
As always, the team leader was crucial to the team spirit. He was straightforward with no hidden agenda. The word “I” was part of his vocabulary when he referred to his own tasks and his own mistakes, otherwise it was always “we”.
The project was his main concern, giving us clear overall directions, while at the same time allowing us lots of freedom. On the other hand, when I asked for help or input he always gave them. Blame did not exist; his focus was entirely on solutions.
As a result, the project was, of course, a success. It generated much positive feedback from external participants, requesting similar projects.
Lessons We Can All Learn
The sad thing is that many have never been part of such a good team. You may have worked merely in bad and ugly teams, or teams you would consider ”okay”. That is not inevitable. And there is no reason why you should put up with inefficient toxicity.
At the same time, there are no excuses for why you should not strive to improve the situation and contribute to a better team spirit.
- Start by focusing on solutions and progress, as soon as anyone tries to blame others.
- Show in words and in writing that you (=your ego) is not important. The work you do, is.
- Share ideas and information, though you might risk others taking the credit.
- Admit mistakes and see what happens.
Other team members will likely start following your example, and it becomes easier to handle the true obstructers.
If the majority of your team members, including the team leader, consist of infantile egoists, you had better figure out an exit strategy. In such an environment it is impossible to come up with any good results, no matter how hard you try.
Most importantly, do not accept egocentric and immature behaviour as normal or even desirable and start mimicking it.
I do regret that I have not followed my own advice more often.