A famous organist was performing a concert on a huge antique organ in front of a large audience.  The bellows were hand-pumped by a boy seated behind a screen, unseen by any in the vast auditorium.  The first part of the performance went very well, and at intermission the organist took his bows as the listeners applauded enthusiastically.  During the break, the musician rested in a side passageway.  The boy came out to join him.

“We played well, didn’t we, sir?” the boy asked.

The arrogant musician glared at him.  “What do you mean, we?”

After the intermission, the organist returned to his seat to begin his next number.  But as he pressed his fingers down on the keys, nothing happened.  The bellows produced no wind, and so not a sound came out.

Then the organist heard a whisper from behind the screen:  “Say, mister, now do you know what we means?”

Out of the mouths of babes, as they say.

I’ve written more than a dozen columns over the last 18-plus years on the importance of teamwork.  You might wonder what else there is to say.  The simple answer:  plenty!  As long as projects require the efforts of more than one person, we’ll keep talking about teamwork.

Michael Jordan, in his book I Can’t Accept Not Trying, writes:  “There are plenty of teams in every sport that have great players and never win titles.  Most of the time, those players aren’t willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the team.  The funny thing is, in the end, their unwillingness to sacrifice only makes individual goals more difficult to achieve.  One thing I believe to the fullest is that if you think and achieve as a team, the individual accolades will take care of themselves.  Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.”

In Japanese culture, institutionalized conflict is an integral part of Japanese management.  At Honda, any employee, however junior, can call for a “waigaya” session.  The rules are that people lay their cards on the table and speak directly about problems.

Nothing is out of bounds, from supervisory deficiencies on the factory floor to perceived lack of support for a design team.  “Waigaya” legitimizes tension so that learning can take place.

Teamwork begins with the hiring process.  Ask interview questions that uncover teamwork skills.  Listen for stories or examples of “we” accomplishments, and unless the candidate was a one-person shop, the answers should include clues to a collaborative attitude.

A team approach requires a specific set of skills and behaviors from your workforce.  Lone wolves and mavericks may not mesh well within a team environment, so when you’re hiring people for a true team, ask these questions:

  • Why do you want to join this team?  Look for people who are interested in the goals of the team, not on achieving success on their own.  Find out what the candidate has done in the past, and what other work options he or she has considered.
  • What relevant teamwork experience do you have?  Teamwork skills usually carry over across departments or industries.  Probe to find out how the person has worked cooperatively with others in pursuit of group goals.
  • What’s most important in working on a team?  Teamwork means different things to different workers.  Find out what teamwork skills the candidate values – communication, reaching consensus, cooperative decision-making – and discuss these in depth.
  • How have you handled conflicts on previous teams?  No team functions without some disagreement.  You’ll find out a lot about your potential teammate by exploring his or her approach to, and experience with, conflict between team members or between the team and other parts of the organization.

Certainly, sports provide easy examples of teamwork in action.  But perhaps the most visible example of how much a team values contributions of everyone involved in great success is when the time comes to award championship rings.  A few years back, I spearheaded a committee to save the men’s golf program at the University of Minnesota, which was scheduled to be eliminated.  That same year, at impossible odds, the team won the NCAA men’s golf tournament.  I don’t wear much jewelry, but the championship ring that they generously presented to me never comes off my finger.


Mackay’s Moral:  We is a little word that sends a big message.


About the author Harvey Mackay

Seven-time, New York Times best-selling author of "Swim With The Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive," with two books among the top 15 inspirational business books of all time, according to the New York Times. He is one of America’s most popular and entertaining business speakers, and currently serves as Chairman at the MackayMitchell Envelope Company, one of the nation’s major envelope manufacturers, producing 25 million envelopes a day.

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