There’s a lot of nonsense talked about teamwork and building effective teams, as if you can do this in the same way as colouring in by the numbers. If you watch artists at work, there’s no magic formula. They have to look and judge constantly to get the colours and shades just the way they want them, and they have to constantly learn from what doesn’t work to create new skills and techniques.
That’s also the way team-building plays out. It is a constant process of judgement and adjustment to take into consideration the character and circumstances of your team members.
The work task may come first, and outcomes do have to be pursued, but you are all dealing with flesh and blood people who aren’t just worker robots. Some people may be having a bad day, or a bad week. I’ve had entire years that have been bad. We shouldn’t be too quick to jump to the conclusion, as I have in the past, that failure to perform as expected makes a person less worthy.
First, we ought to consider CPR: circumstance, personality, and remedy.
We can never know everything that makes up our team-mates’ moods for the day, even if they tell us about their home lives and preoccupations. But we can be aware that our expectations of how they should feel and behave should not be as simple as assuming a fixed and known quality.
Think about where you are: is it bad weather that might make old broken bones ache, cause hay fever or other allergies? Is the workplace noisy and distracting? Are there other environmental factors?
Think about what you’re doing: are people being pushed way outside their comfort zones? Are they afraid to admit that they are struggling with tasks they may not know how to execute?
Is it possible that an apparently bad mood or lack of focus on tasks is caused by personal circumstances they may not want to talk about? Can you help anyway, by not responding harshly, or by offering to help out with a task and the workload?
People are infinitely varied and different, because we all have different experiences, and different ways of seeing and learning from similar experiences. To understand how that might influence outlook and workplace behaviours, many HR professionals today use the Myers Briggs personality typing inventory (MBTI).
This method of discovering 16 main personality types was pioneered by Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers in the 1920s to the 1960s. It is based on psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s work and attempts to simplify the infinite variability of human personalities into major categories of traits and preferences. That system of personality typing and testing continues to be adapted and expanded to this day.
It is not an absolute set of rules or a rigid ideology: it is useful only if it creates insights and awareness. It becomes harmful if it is thought of as the basis for demanding conformity with it, or as a means of manipulating people, and demanding certain types of behaviour.
So what should we do with MBTI?
Just observe and see whether it can help you understand your own behaviours better; self-awareness is not as common as you might think. We all behave in ways that make sense to us, but could annoy, mystify, or even horrify others without us being aware of those effects.
An awareness of MBTI can help us gain a greater insight into why others do not behave like we do, and why they do not reach the same conclusions we do from shared events. It can help us to better understand why we need to pause, sometimes, to explain ourselves more clearly, and to listen to others to better understand not just what they are saying, but why they are saying it.
Have you done your Myers Briggs personality typing exercise? If not, go to https://www.16personalities.com/free-personality-test. Answer quickly, without trying to think too much. Figure 1 below illustrates the major personality types for easy reference. If you’re interested, much more detailed information is available on the website mentioned above and many other online resources.
One of the most important uses of MBTI in contemporary organisations is to help HR professionals work at enabling effective teams. I say enabling because you cannot really create teams. You can bring people together and demand they cooperate with each other, but that isn’t teamwork.
The most creative, effective teams have dynamics that cannot be replicated like a recipe or formula. However, some common features are that there is a level of trust and reciprocity: we trust each other to be honest about our frustrations and delights. We hope we get at least as much goodwill as we extend.
Another feature of effective teams is that open discussion does occur, but it doesn’t become bogged down in ceaseless idle chatter or conflict. It’s nice to talk about our private hobbies and experiences, but such discussions should not undermine the tasks at hand, or the concentration of others. Teamwork depends on making sure conflict doesn’t derail cooperative relationships. That means recognising everyone may have different perspectives on the same issue without anyone being right … or wrong.
We live in a world in which people often position issues as polar – two sides, and two sides only. In reality there may be many sides, or only one worth the effort of pursuing.
Remedy: creative friction and dialectical synthesis
In recent decades it has also been recognised that ‘creative friction’ can be useful to team efforts: a competition of ideas that leads those who feel strongly to articulate the best possible case for their positions, offering strong options to the team.
The task then becomes one of dialectical synthesis: you take a thesis or position, its antithesis or counter position, and you synthesise them, or create a new position incorporating and extending the strongest elements of both. This process is illustrated in Figure 2 below, and as a group effort in Figure 3 below Figure 2, to show that synthesis is not a compromise, but a selection of the best ideas even when more than two positions come into play.
It’s important to let everyone in the team know that disagreement is not personal, and won’t be allowed to get nasty. That’s the job of leaders, and all higher-functioning team members, when they become aware that a disagreement is spilling over into personal animus.
People who work together don’t have to be friends or even like each other. But they must be able to work together productively without anger or frustrations getting in the way.
Think about these issues if ever you get angry at your team-mates. Take time out. Get up from your desk and walk around a little to clear your mind. Consider your own emotional attachment to your anger, and try to see it as if from a third and neutral perspective. Even if you think someone else is being unreasonable, is it really necessary or productive to respond in kind?
There are no absolutes
Remember that there are never absolute or perfect answers. MBTI is not a formula. It’s just a guide. Dealing with people is not a science. It requires constant observations and judgements. You can’t do it effectively in teams if you make up your mind just once about someone or some issue, and then never re-evaluate as circumstances and situations change.
Professional performance is all about the ability to analyse situations and make judgements. All the time.
You may have experiences of workplaces and supervisors who do not live up to these principles. That doesn’t make them right.
The largest organisations in the world are looking at ways to create more effective teams. That tells us it isn’t easy, and such teams are pretty rare even when a lot of money is being spent to try and get team dynamics right (see, for example, the New York Times article on Google’s efforts to create high-performing team cultures).
Think about the sort of workplace you would like to be part of. What is it about your ideal vision for such a workplace that you can turn into reality? Remember that you have no choice but to work with the people who are there. Hardly anyone gets to pick a ‘dream team’. The challenge is always to get the best out of yourself, and then out of the others around you.
This isn’t easy, but it’s part of what makes us human, and it can be tremendously satisfying in itself. Maybe more importantly, effective teamworking skills are also highly prized by forward-looking organisations looking to build healthy and sustainable workplace cultures.
That’s why at least an awareness of what makes up good teamwork should be part of your professional toolkit regardless of what job you’re working at.
[This is a little primer on teamwork I wrote for three small teams of volunteers from widely varying backgrounds working in a non-profit project environment.]