Teamwork and Intention

The notion of teamwork has become a lot like willpower—an almost mystical quality that seems to be beyond our reach. Yet teamwork (like willpower) involves perspectives, skills, and habits that can be practiced and developed.

Instead of assuming a magical notion of teamwork will make our teams run smoothly and effectively, it is necessary to create shared intentions and practices. Building teamwork takes effort, including concrete steps to:

Photo credit:  Ambro via

Photo credit:  Ambro via

  • Promote clearly understood and shared expectations.
  • Identify and appreciate the different gifts and experiences each member brings.
  • Develop clear goals and processes for working together.
  • Practice effective communication, constructive conflict resolution, and mutual accountability.

Something that is often overlooked is being intentional about helping the team get off to a great start. Typically, people are brought into the same room (or video-conferencing platform) because of their job function or title, declared a team, and expected to start working together immediately and produce great results. They may or may not produce those results, but it’s also possible they will never actually mesh as a great team. Just as likely, starting to work together this way can lead to miscommunication, misunderstandings, and missed opportunities to benefit from each team member’s unique experience and skills.

A group of people do not become a truly effective team just by declaring them to be so. In a study by Bonner & Bolinger, summarized in Harvard Business Review (2014):

The teams in the control condition tended to defer to whoever seemed the most confident, and they had the worst performance. The best performance came from teams that had inventoried their members’ knowledge as a group. Those teams were more likely than the others to use their knowledge to devise strategies for solving the problems, perhaps because the process of collectively assembling knowledge increased members’ understanding of the task and what it meant to be expert at it.

So one technique for helping a team form intentionally is to have each member share the relevant knowledge they are bringing to the team’s work.

Photo illustration: (c) Bob Greene. Original photo:   zirconicusso at

Photo illustration: (c) Bob Greene. Original photo: zirconicusso at

I’ll return often in this blog with tips and ideas for building and facilitating teams (with hopes that you can avoid the eat your vegetables view of team participation). Here is an introductory exercise that focuses on creating shared expectations for working together. And even if the team has been around for a while, this can be a great team-(re)building activity.

  1. Think about a terrific team you’ve been on (it doesn’t have to be at work; perhaps it was with a volunteer group). What made the team great? It’s quite possible you will think of things like, “everyone cooperated,” or “communication.” Now consider what the team specifically did to foster that cooperation and communication or other excellent quality.
  2. At a full team gathering, ask each member of your current team to share their responses to these questions. It’s important that each team member participates—let each person speak without interruption (there will be plenty of time for discussion after everyone has shared). Listen for similarities and themes that emerge as each person shares.
  3. Working together, identify those practices from team members’ previous experiences that you all agree to carry forward with this team. Create a set of shared expectations that can become a team charter.