Teamwork As The Competitive Advantage

 2013 Millstone Fellows; courtesy
2013 Millstone Fellows; courtesy

by Marci Mayer Eisen

It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage,
both because it is so powerful and so rare
Patrick Lencioni, “The FIVE Dysfunctions of a TEAM

Several times in the last few weeks I heard someone with influence state that our organizations need to do a much better job hiring the “best and the brightest.” This statement always gives me a knot in my stomach. It feels judgmental and even inaccurate. We all know of a “star” who was hired and then quickly appeared as a bad fit as well as those with limited backgrounds who emerged as dynamic and integral members of the staff. These are the human resource challenges that drive the work of CEOs and HR Directors.

What is meant when “best and the brightest” is frequently repeated by those in leadership positions? Does it mean academic credentials? Is it intellect? Might seeking out the best be more about motivation and desire to have an impact? Or, can we objectively review the skills that are needed for success in the workplace including empathy, humility, curiosity, creativity, work ethic, passion and the ability to work in a team?

Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton write in “Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense: Benefitting from Evidence Based Management” (2006) that many success stories – in medicine, sports, politics – point not to a leader or genius, but the power of the team. Pfeffer and Sutton explain that talent is not completely fixed or predetermined. Talent depends on a person’s motivation and experience. Talent depends on how a person is managed or led. Talent depends more on effort and having access to the right information and support, rather than natural ability. They state, “Natural talent is overrated.” It’s not about the best; it’s about the team.

I am curious why, when our organizations are struggling, we are quick to identify employees’ weaknesses rather than first analyze our own work cultures and systems. Many of us were fortunate to find, especially early in our careers, the right team and supportive atmosphere to make significant contributions. Experience with a successful team nurtures our self-confidence, strengthens our skills and deepens our own commitments. Organizational behavior studies are filled with unlimited examples of success based more on “relational competence”, in other words, team work rather than individual strengths. In “The Southwest Airlines Way”, Jody Hoffer Gittell (2005) highlights the power of relationships and training for effective coordination to achieve high performance. Southwest Airlines identifies this relationship model as “shared goals, shared knowledge and mutual respect.”

If you enjoy music, it’s inspiring to visualize a full orchestra, or even a quartet, in which the sound of the whole supersedes any one musician. Perhaps you’re a sports fan and appreciate teams without star players that went on to win stunning victories. As a St. Louisan, I was intrigued to read just this week Joe Posnanski’s story on about Albert Puljols’ struggles. Once seen as “the best,” he is struggling to get his groove back with the Angels.

As Pfeffer and Sutton describe, well-designed systems, filled with ordinary, but well-trained people, can consistently achieve stunning performance levels. Patrick Lencioni concludes “The FIVE Dysfunction of a TEAM” with, “Ironically, teams succeed because they are exceedingly human. By acknowledging the imperfections of their humanity, members of functional teams overcome the natural tendencies that make trust, conflict, commitment, accountability, and a focus on results so elusive.”

The best groups always outperform the best individuals (Pfeffer & Sutton). Rather than having a hiring process that focuses on the “best and brightest” individuals, perhaps we should concentrate on potential employees who have the self-awareness, knowledge and desire to contribute to teams and work environments that bring out that best in each other. The type of place (Pfeffer & Sutton) where people can be successful, innovative, creative and productive. In the end, everyone benefits.

Marci Mayer Eisen is Director of the Millstone Institute for Jewish Leadership, a community-wide endeavor of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. She enjoys aligning decades of social group work theories with current organizational behavior business research.