5 Tenets of Teamwork

How to collaborate more effectively

Note: This first appeared in the Peak Performance Newsletter, which I coauthor with Steve Magness. For additional and exclusive content, subscribe here.

A big theme of Peak Performance — not just the newsletter, but the real-life attainment of it, too — is continuous improvement. As far as we’re concerned, if you’re not looking to get better then you’re being complacent. In that spirit, we, Brad and Steve, authors of this newsletter, stepped back to reflect on our own partnership and to explore how we can take it to the next level. Here’s what we came up with — a few themes worth revisiting constantly that are applicable across collaborations of all sizes.
 1. Drop Your Ego.
When ego takes over people become close-minded to new perspectives. Constructive criticism feels like a personal attack and you’re often thinking of a way to defend your position before ever fully considering an alternative. You aren’t so much listening as you are waiting to talk. In egotistical environments, it’s only a matter of time before people start to act guarded and important ideas that should be voiced are not.
Instead of giving into ego, remind yourself that perhaps the utmost sign of confidence is being open to new ideas and realizing that you can always get better. You should invite counter-opinion and be thankful when your ideas are challenged — that’s the whole reason you’re working with others to begin with! An open mind is one of the best assets to teamwork. It makes the team better, and the work better, too.
2. Not Death by Meetings. But Not Unilateral Decision-Making, Either.
Collaborations tend to suffer from two extremes when it comes to making decisions: In the first extreme — death by meetings — every decision is subject to endless debate and conversation. Things move slow, if at all, and work that was once fun ceases to be so. In the second extreme — unilateral decision-making — individuals pull the trigger on decisions without consulting anyone and leave others feeling left out and disappointed. Even worse, unilateral decisions run the risk of being sub-par ones because they bypass potentially valuable input. Both extremes erode trust: In the case of death by meetings, “I can’t believe they don’t just trust me to do something so simple.” In the case of unilateral decision-making, “I can’t believe they did that without asking me!”
There is, of course, a middle-ground. Most decisions don’t require a long deliberative process but ARE almost always better off thanks to a quick call, text message, or email. Quick check-ins don’t disrupt fast-paced work but do ensure the players are engaged, trusting, and on the same page. It’s worth noting that quick check-ins are only possible if egos have been dropped — this way, people won’t feel the need to give input where it’s unneeded. In his book, Team of Teams, General Stanley McChrystal and colleagues call this “shared consciousness” (everyone on the same page) combined with “empowered decision making” (people aren’t scared to act). 
3. Play to Your Strengths.
Have open and honest conversations about where team-members are strong and where team-members are weak. When disagreements occur, it’s easy to fall into the trap of wanting to be right, regardless of your expertise. Reminding yourself not only of where your own strengths lie but also where those of your team members lie is a way to give yourself permission to defer to someone else who has greater experience. People should mostly play to their strengths, especially in high-impact or high-stress situations. Only work on developing weaknesses during slower, lower pressure situations.
4. Appreciate What Frustrates You.
Perhaps it feels like the team is moving too slow and you want to move faster. Or someone is being overly meticulous about the quality of a memo. Maybe someone decides to push something out before you feel it’s ready. In all these cases, ask yourself: Is this going to cause grave harm? If the answer is yes, then speak up! But if the answer is no, appreciate your frustration. More often than not, the best partner for the anal perfectionist is the stream of consciousness thinker. Alone, the former wouldn’t produce enough volume and the latter wouldn’t produce enough quality. But together, they strike a productive balance. Of course, this, too, requires leaving egos behind. Genuinely appreciating what frustrates you inherently means recognizing your own personal approach may not always be best.
5. Trust + Tension = Productive Cohesion.
Trust is the most important asset there is in any relationship. When trust is lacking, efficiency suffers. (Examples include: extensive legal processes, micro-management, and constantly needing to check someone’s work.) Trust is also paramount because it allows for healthy tension. In a collaboration without trust, people are likely to succumb to group think (e.g., “It’s not worth questioning norms because I’m not comfortable doing so” and/or “I know my challenges won’t be taken seriously anyways”). But on a bedrock of trust — a deep belief that everyone involved has the best interest of the collaboration at heart — people are willing to challenge ideas, and those challenges are better received. The result is productive cohesion: a healthy amount of tension supported by trust, which works to enhance the pace of a collaboration’s progress.


Thanks for reading. If you like what you read, I’d be honored if you considered my new book, Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success.

Brad Stulberg writes about health and the science of human performance. He is a columnist at New York Magazine and Outside Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Bstulberg.