There is always an “I” in team. It should not be a personal term, but it stands for incentives. Discussing teamwork without identifying its incentives is akin to debating effective diets while ignoring willpower: the most important ingredient may be missing.
Whether working in teams, groups or as individuals, people respond to incentives. They also respond to the absence of incentives. Plus, the incentives top management ignores can prove more revealing than the ones they celebrate.
Michael Schrage of Massachusetts Institute of Technology writes, “I recently attended the awards banquet of a global firm that publicly declares its corporate commitment to teamwork. The CEO personally handed out plaque after plaque — and a few checks — to individuals who set sales records, received patents, and led successful change initiatives. But something was missing. The top executive gave no plaques or discernible praise for any of his company’s top teams or groups. None.”
That seemed odd. Schrage asked a long-time senior executive at the table why. An eyebrow arched. “We prefer to acknowledge our most successful leaders and winners,” he said. Basically, he thought that those individuals “symbolised” their teams. Indeed.
Want to instantly transform how an awards events impacts teamwork conversation and culture? Recognise and reward the firm’s most dynamic duos and productive trios by name. Identify and celebrate the “fab fours” and creative quintets of innovation or efficiency. In other words, top management should seek out talented teams, not just gifted individuals.
Here’s a simple, actionable heuristic for shocking organisations into taking teamwork more seriously: insist on a 50/50 split in compensation, recognition, rewards, and bonuses between individuals and teams. That is, for every executive utterance praising a high-impact individual, there should be an equally emphatic expression of support for a high-achieving team.
For every “above and beyond” award given to a dedicated individual, there better be a comparable honor given to a team that delivered. Teams, not just individuals, should get their fair share of bonus pools. A perceived — or real — absence of fairness can cripple team culture.
Organisations that truly want their people to work better together must stop publicly discriminating against teams in favour of individuals. Top management and HR need to explicitly acknowledge and embrace the productive relationships that elevate the individuals who make them. What makes teams — and teamwork — work goes beyond the time and talents of committed individuals striving towards a desired outcome.
See: Handling Team Dysfunction
People need to feel that the benefits of being team players measurably outweigh the perceived and real costs of compromise and self-sacrifice. That’s the incentive for taking incentives more seriously.
Getting the incentives right and appropriately aligned requires embracing the 5 As:
A recent ESPN documentary celebrating Dean Smith, the late North Carolina basketball coach whose teams won two national championships and an Olympic gold medal, highlighted the simple but powerful techniques he used to cultivate team esprit. Players who scored were expected to explicitly point to the last player who passed them the ball. Some scorers took it upon themselves to point to the last two teammates who assisted.
Players on the bench were expected to stand up, applaud, and welcome teammates coming off the floor for rest or a time-out. These seemingly trivial gestures, according to Smith’s players, were central to reinforcing the culture that one’s teammates deserved to be acknowledged for their contributions. Don’t take people’s assists, assistance, and support for granted. Literally and figuratively point them out.
Where acknowledgement sends a signal, attribution assigns credit and responsibility. Nobel Prizes in the sciences aren’t just awarded to individuals, they’re also given to collaborators. It wasn’t Watson or Crick who identified DNA’s double helix; it was Watson and Crick. (Indeed, the challenge of how best to recognise and reward scientific research teams generates serious and worthy controversy.)
Organisations and enterprises that need teamwork to win don’t simply attribute success to stars, they build attribution cultures around collaboration, coordination, consultation, and communication. The rise of social media both inside the company firewall and outside of it make both attribution and acknowledgement easier to do and share.
When problems and opportunities arise, smart leaders and managers don’t just assign the best people to deal with them; they assign the best teams. Putting a bunch of people in a room and giving them a budget and deliverables doesn’t make a successful team any more than putting a bunch of cooks in a kitchen makes a Michelin restaurant.
How will individual skills and talent complement each other? Will the whole prove consistently greater than the sum of its parts? Will teammates consistently and productively acknowledge and attribute each other’s contributions? Whether self-managed, coached, or led by an individual, teammates recognise that accountability is a collective assignment, not the sum of individual measures. We see this sensibility articulated by Google’s software development teams and pair programming efforts.
Does enterprise culture and process recognise and reward teams and teamwork with the same energy, enthusiasm, and investment as for individuals? Award is both noun and verb that leaders must acknowledge, attribute, and assign to teams.
The trends and technologies around self-quantification are important and impressive. They must extend to team and teamwork quantification. Google’s Lazlo Bock details this in his book Work Rules! and many of the brightest minds in sports have declared cultivating “team chemistry” the great challenge for Moneyball-style analytics. The data-rich organisation lends itself to innovative ways of measuring how well people work together both as teams and as collections of individuals. The opportunities to see how technical improvements in acknowledgement and attribution lead to more productive team assignments are expanding. The data-driven desire to design awards and incentives promoting better collaboration and alignment can increasingly be fulfilled.
As the management cliché goes, “You can better manage what you better measure.” Better team and teamwork metrics and analytics will transform cultural and operational expectations around how people can create new value together.
The 5 As are the essential ingredients for facilitating a transformation in teamwork incentives. They can put the right “I” in your teams.
See also: 5 Proven Ways of Team-building You Should Try