Communicator - Volume 3 No. 6 -  December 2002

Leadership Skills
How to Get People to Work Together

By Dick Mooney

Many amputee support groups--usually all except the very small ones--have more than one person in leadership positions. There is a head person who may hold the title leader, president, chair of the board, or the like; and there are others who may be called officers, board of directors, board of trustees, or something similar. These individuals divide the labor in some fashion, either formally or informally; they meet periodically; and they are responsible for the group's progress toward meeting its goals--and sometimes, unfortunately, for the lack of progress.

For those readers whose groups are configured this way, I ask the following rhetorical questions:

  •  Is your management group, regardless of what it's called, a team? Do they think of themselves as a team? Do they act like a team?
  •  Is everyone pulling in the same direction on the same rope? That's what real teams do, you know.
  •  When one member of the group succeeds, do all the members share in the glory?
  •  Do people rally to the assistance of those who are having trouble performing well? 
  •  What would you give to be able to answer, "yes" to the foregoing four questions?

The premise of this article is that 1), typically, the answers are not "yes," 2) things would be better for your groups if the answers were "yes," and 3) support group leaders need to think more in terms of teams than boards. My own experience is that many leadership groups tend not to be cohesive unless the leader takes affirmative action to employ team building techniques to change both the viewpoint and behavior of the group members. It's also my experience that team building can be difficult and time consuming, but the rewards can repay the effort many times over.

Teamwork can be defined as work done by a number of associates, each knowing enough about the parts played by the others so they can do their own parts effectively, subordinating personal prominence to the efficiency of the whole. It's kind of a long definition, but it tells us a lot. It has within it the keys to successful team relationships in everything we and our people undertake.

It tells us that good team players are content to do their parts. Implied in this statement is the fact that others are doing their parts concurrently, and that the parts must interact cooperatively to attain the common objective. It tells us that each member of the team must know what the others are doing, or cooperative interaction won't work. It tells us that personal prominence is subordinate to the team. Whether the job is blocking or carrying the ball, all must do the best they can without regard to personal heroics. It tells us that the objective of teamwork is the efficiency of the whole. At the same time it implies that the value of the whole produced by a smooth-working team is greater than the sum of the parts.

Probably the largest team in the world--and to my way of thinking, the most successful--is the symphony orchestra. On that team there are 80 to 100 members who, in the better orchestras at least, are all selected for their high level of competence. There is one leader (the conductor) and no one questions that person's authority to lead. Interestingly enough, the conductor plays the largest instrument in the world but is not allowed to control the instrument by touching it as can an organist, for example. The instrument is controlled not by touch, threat, persuasion, or intimidation but by everyone's devotion to a common goal--to make beautiful music. Each team member plays off the same music and the sole goal of the leader and each and every team member is to faithfully serve the interests of the music and their customers--the audience. Personal agendas are not allowed to interfere. The music and the performance are the only agenda items. Team members who cannot buy into the team's culture, those who do not perform well, those who are disruptive, or those who otherwise don't contribute to the team's common goal are soon replaced. And the team prospers.

I'll bet you never thought you would see a symphony orchestra proposed as a prototype for your support group's leadership, but read through the previous paragraph again and let me know if you aren't convinced that support group boards should be more like symphony orchestras.

Teamwork can cure a multitude of ills. Teamwork builds trust and confidence in the capabilities of the other team members. It eliminates uncertainty regarding the motives of the others. Empathy within the team often develops almost extrasensory ties between team members to the point that cooperative actions become automatic.

Meaningful work and worthy purposes bring teams together. Commonly understood goals give teams direction. When the work is important and the goals are urgent, they transcend personal animosity and petty bickering. Such irritants seem to disappear in the face of the team's concerted efforts.

If I've defined teamwork correctly, then my definition suggests a number of things we can do to help get our support group's leadership people to work more effectively together.

  1.  Pay particular attention to what the group is called - What's in a name? Sometimes the name helps shape the group's self-concept. Why not abandon board or trustees? Why not call it the management team or the leadership team? Inclusion of the word team will be symbolic, if nothing else, of the way you would like them to see themselves and to behave.
  2.  Stress team goals when assigning work - When assigning group work (e.g., meeting hosting, financial management, peer visitation management, newsletter production, etc.) call the group together and stress what the group, as a whole, needs to get done. In these discussions, always stress the support group's overall mission. If a formal mission statement doesn't exist, start there to work with the team to develop and agree on a mission statement. The critical challenge is to gain common understanding of the goal. Write the goal down. Draw pictures. Use the blackboard. Encourage the group to ask questions and reflect their understanding of what is to be done. Use every means at your command to make sure everyone really understands Finish by discussing ways members of the group can help each other and stressing the need for cooperation.
  3. Make goal setting a joint effort - Step 2 becomes even more powerful if we involve the group in setting its own goals. Sometimes we think we know best what is to be done and we give goals to our people. This is a big mistake. Most motivated groups are capable of working out clearly-defined goals for themselves that capitalize on their own strengths. This can also be true with inexperienced groups if they're guided and instructed by a patient leader. The joint goal setting process cannot only result in perfectly acceptable goals, but it gives everyone an opportunity to buy into the goals and builds a tremendously strong commitment toward achieving them.
  4. Let the group know that how well they work together is important to you - Don't ever forget the power of expectations that are voiced clearly and assertively. Remind the group that cooperation is an important part of what you expect from them.
  5. Seize every opportunity to have the group meet and work together - Teamwork isn't just a concept; it's people actually working together. As with any skill, it improves with practice. We should provide ample opportunity for our people to practice. Our team should have regular meetings and the meetings should be managed well to reduce the investment of time and increase the beneficial results. If the group is having a problem, get the group together on an ad hoc basis to work out a solution. If a member of the group has left and a replacement is needed, get the group together to help decide on what qualifications the new person should have and help select that person. Let the group participate in interviewing candidates and in choosing which one should be selected.
  6. Make it easy for people to talk to each other - Our leadership team can't meet daily as can teams in the commercial world but they can be encouraged to stay in contact between meetings through email and telephone. To help with this, you should publish and distribute a list of all team members together with their contact information and stress that you would like them to continue to work together so that goals can be reached more quickly. Then, since the essence of leadership is personal example, (You can't convince someone else that a certain thing is good for them if you show by example that it is not good for you.) you should use email and the telephone to help the group to keep moving between meetings.
  7. Make sure all group members know how their jobs are important to the group's success
  8. Make sure group members are cross-trained in each other's work - These are two different, but related ideas. Make sure all group members know that the role they play is indispensable to the group's success. Make them feel like links in a chain that can't pull its weight unless each link is strong. People want to belong and be part of the action. We can help by reinforcing this point.
    By learning each other's jobs, people gain an appreciation for the problems faced by the others and better understand the value of the other members of the group. This also helps improve the performance and flexibility of the group by enabling it to continue to function well when members are absent or incapacitated, and encourages group members to help out each other when the workload is heavy. There is no reason that the leader's job can't move around among the team members. The same is true for other jobs, such as the treasurer's and the job of arranging and hosting programs. 
  9. Treat people like important members of the team - I added this idea to remind you of the notion of self-fulfilling prophesy--the Pygmalion Effect. If you treat people like important members of the team, they're more likely to become important members of the team.
  10. When the team succeeds, reward the team - If the group did the work, all members of the group should receive equal recognition. The quickest way to kill a group feeling is for the leader to take credit or for the leader to reward members differentially. It's normal for some team members to do more than others, or to slack off from time to time and do less. If this becomes a problem it should be addressed directly and separately--not through the way the team is rewarded. Of course, we can't reward the team with money or promotions as is done in the commercial world, but we can reward them, and it is possible to do so lavishly, with praise; face to face, in the newsletter, and at members' meetings.

I should point out that it's possible to do all the things I'm suggesting here to build team spirit and to get people working together effectively, and some teams may still not learn to work as a unit. This is often because the behavior of one or more of the members is chronically dysfunctional, they refuse to subordinate their personal agendas to the group's, or their behavior otherwise so disrupts the group feeling that the team simply cannot function. This is a specialized problem and deserves specialized solutions.

Be careful about trying to boot disruptive people off the team. That may cause more problems than it solves in terms of stress and ill feelings among those who remain. Instead, I suggest that you enlist the help of an experienced organizational research and development specialist (some call these people "group facilitators") who can work with your team, help diagnose its problems, and provide advice on what to do. Some will actually work with the group themselves in a series of team building exercises. These folks can be expensive, but since your support group serves a worthy purpose without profit, you may be able to obtain competent donated services.

Finally, I'd like to give you a little checklist you can use to tell when good team spirit exists in your leadership group. The group is, indeed, united by its work when:

  •  people bring important information to you, and you, in turn, openly share information,
  •  people consult each other to solve mutual problems,
  •  people talk about their work on their own time--outside regular meeting hours through email and telephone,
  •  people quickly and voluntarily rally to your assistance in an emergency,
  •  people put pressure on other team members who interfere with or impede the work flow,
  •  people express annoyance at procedures or structures that interfere with the purpose of their work,
  •  people tap your expertise to add refinements to an idea or process to make it even more usable--knowing that you'll willingly provide such assistance,
  •  people freely share ideas for work improvement with each other,
  •  people respond to your requests for volunteers for special assignments, and
  •  people are generous about sharing credit for the group's accomplishments.
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Send address changes and membership requests to the Amputee Coalition, 900 East Hill Avenue, Suite 205, Knoxville, TN 37915-2566. This publication is partially supported by Grant No. US59/CCU41-4287-03 from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). Its contents do not necessarily represent the official views of the CDC. ©2000 by Amputee Coalition; all rights reserved. Articles may be reprinted with proper acknowledgements unless otherwise specified by author.