The Penguins and the Whale – 4 rules to build a successful and winning team

Teamwork is a term used so often today,  that it has become a narrative for every company.  Leaders,  employees HR’s,  coaches,  trainers, talk so much about teamwork and still 34% of the employees leaving companies(according to an HBR survey from 2018) share that the main reason to leave the company has been the lack of teamwork and team spirit. Companies and leadership teams invest so much effort and resources in “building successful teams” that if you count the number and amount of resources,  you can get a number equal to a small country  GDP.

An Inc.com,  published article back in 2019,  claimed that only in the UK there have been more than 1 200 000 hours and more than 125 million UK pounds invested in building successful teams, back in 2017.

But after so many investments, we still talk about how hard it is to build successful team,  how we are always on the search for the next bright talent,  ready to bring in some diversity and fresh thinking in the existing teams and ensure that people will be glued into a balanced mechanism,  working successfully through the changes in life and work. 

And all that,  just to see at the end of the year, after making the turnover analysis,  that there are still things to be done,  and people in the teams are not 100% happy with what they see, do and achieve together.

This article was inspired by a  short movie on  YOUTUBE, showing a group of penguins, staying on an ice block and dealing with a shark in the ocean, trying to eat them.  The short story goes like that: Penguins group has been positioned on an ice block swimming in the ocean.  A whale comes out from nowhere and tries to get one of the penguins and eat him.  But all of the penguins, working together beat the whale three different times.  In the end, all of the penguins survive the journey, while the whale disappears hungry and beaten. Penguins don’t show any specific emotions,  but while answering the whale signals they work together by communicating only with their eyes and facial expressions.

Teams work in a similar way has it’s specifics from team to team,  but still there are some basic rules that make it possible.  In my experience, these rules have all worked up to now and generated needed results. Here they  are:

Rule 1: Find people who  want to  work in a team
I mean it seriously.  There are different people out there.  Some of them like working with others, while others like to work alone.  When identifying people for teamwork focus on searching for the right ones.  These people are flexible, don’t know everything, are flexible, want to combine with others because they believe that combined efforts can produce higher results.  They don’t talk only about them, but for the group efforts and structure.  They use “we” and “my role in this was or is” instead of “I have done it”, “It was my responsibility”, “Don’t believe anyone else can do it, etc.

Rule 2: Establish a relationship, based on accountability and trust
Many teams fail because people admit how much they appreciate others and how working with them is the most valuable thing, just to show at the end of the day that they are not ready to cooperate, but seek opportunities to shoe themselves in the lights of the projectors. To build a sustainable internal relationship between team members,  you will need to set rules for accountability level.  As much as each team member builds on the work he or she is accountable to,  the higher the level of internal trust will become between team members. And with a higher accountability involvement and clearly established priorities for each member, the team starts to self-regulate and build internal trust.   

Rule 3: Build an informal  relationship
One of the hardest and much-discussed topics is the level of informality in the team.  I  have seen many teams, where people admit that “they are like a family”, “they care for each other”,  etc. , but when a challenge comes out at the end of the day, most of them just pack their stuff and drive home, while others sty till late to finish the work on challenge or task that has popped up. In these cases you will often hear phrases like: “I can’t stay because my family is waiting for me”, “I have an appointment with my friends”, “I have other plans for tonight”, etc. Well, guess what,  we all have other plans.  No one has planned to stay late all night for fun in the office.  These biases can be solved with the building of an informal relationship.  To build such type of relationship you must first get results with accountability.  Established accountability slowly builds trust between team members.  And as much as team members trust each other in the professional way they open themselves to other topics.  In a team where trust is built, you will start to see informal conversations about team members’ life outside work.  If you spot these types of conversations you have succeeded with building an informal relationship within the team.

Rule 4:  Continuously build on the informal  relationship 
While seeing the results of the informal relationship for the first time many team leaders stop worrying about team productivity and lose out of sight the team rhythm. But people change,  and together with that relationship s change.  If you miss the signs that there is a change going out in the team, you will miss the momentum of sustaining the informal relationship.

The great guy who has built a reputation of always helping and been there can turn into a denying person for everything.  The first reaction may be that he has become negative, unsupportive, demotivated, etc. But if you dig deeper,  you may find that the change has happened because he has to carry for a sick relative, or his small child is now sick,  or his wife has lost her job, etc. What looks like an easy spot on the surface may be a deeper challenge then you think.

That is why you will need to promote and sustain a flexible approach between team members and continuously build on informal relationships.  They will support not only the teamwork but will sustain team healthiness within time.

Teamwork is one of the crucial elements for each team or organization’s success.  Building on it helps companies and leaders achieve higher results and make a stronger impact in the world. Focusing on building a successful and strong team brings many positives to the company and the surrounding environment.  No matter the challenges in the way, companies and leaders who focus on building and sustaining teamwork and informal relationships are the most successful ones.


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