Does Teamwork Really Exist?

We don’t lose our humanity when we come to work. While we all have accountability to the “numbers,” we have an even greater responsibility to ensure those that trust us to have every opportunity to succeed. If people don’t feel safe at work, everyone suffers. If every mistake, risk, and failure is met with possible unemployment, our colleagues will never put forth their best ideas, effort, and loyalty.

It’s always a two-way street. Is guaranteed lifetime employment a possible goal? While I suspect it’s not, I see every reason to approach every hire as if that reality exists. Just as we wouldn’t fire our kids to save the BMW, maybe it’s time that we treated work like family and all shared in the sacrifice when times get tough.

The concept of teamwork makes logical sense on many levels, as the work potential of the masses should always outperform the potential of the view. The diversity of ideas, perspectives, and skill levels should have the extrinsic benefit of filling in any missing talent gaps for any given objective. Therefore, it runs counter to this logic that team-based projects fail 50 to 70 percent of the time.

If every person were a robot, pre-designed for a given task, then fitting together the puzzle of strengths and weaknesses would be straightforward. In fact, for most repetitive and labor-intensive duties in the manufacturing sector, the increased efficiency of using machines eliminates the human factor that can limit production. Even in the “white collar” world, if a process can be automated, it will be, as anyone that has tried to get a human being to answer the telephone in the last decade can attest to.

Milton Friedman’s concept of “shareholder” value made this end inevitable, as the only metric used by business in the last 40 years is increased profit and productivity. In the age of automation, companies can simultaneously reduce costs and eliminate employee expense. The American worker has never been as productive as they are now nor under such attack. This fear has downstream effects on all aspects of teamwork.

Working together interdependently to achieve a common goal is the critical piece in the evolution of the human species, and has deep-rooted implications on how we perceive threats around us. We have the same brain structure as we did thousands of years ago, and the only reason other apex predators didn’t wipe us out completely is we banded together.

We don’t like to eat alone at lunch today for the same insecurities that caused fear of loneliness on the Plains – it was a death sentence to be excluded from the tribe. It is no wonder that the dehumanization that takes place in today’s workplaces has made us sick, fat, and depressed.

In aggregate, personality, skill, roles, and self-concept form the team’s identity. The personal dynamics ultimately determine the overall effectiveness of the group. Overall group emotion is determined by a phenomenon like “emotional contagion” where other’s moods affect our own, and “behavioral entrainment” where we modify our behavior to synchronize with someone else’s.

Every member of the team can have a positive or detrimental effect on the behavior and emotion of every other member’s through biological processes, such as the release and exchange of oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine, and cortisol. So, the next time someone mentions that there is no place for “emotion” at work, remind them of these neurological processes that dictate every aspect of a team’s function, or dysfunction.


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