Why Teamwork Works
We are, each one of us, severely limited creatures. We can only ever get good at a few things, we can only apply ourselves properly for a certain number of hours each day; we can keep just a select number of issues in view at any point. And while a working life can feel quite long, we only have three or four decades of high quality effort in us – which is the blink of an eye in the larger sweep of history. Ideally though, the structure within which we do our work moves the balance in an opposite direction: it radically expands upon individual strength and capacity.
When we work alongside others (either as the director of combined labour or as a member of a team), our collective powers are extended way beyond anything that one fragile being could ever accomplish. We can rely on the abilities of others to make up for our own many inevitable shortcomings. We may grasp the legal side of a problem extremely well – but not fully appreciate its commercial implications; we may excel around product development but be fatefully weak when it comes to marketing; we may be excellent administrators but be slow to grasp the wider strategic opportunities and dangers.
The team is far stronger, wiser, more intelligent and more capable than the people involved within it can ever be, considered one by one. We massively exceed our own strength. In the ideal team, we grasp exactly what we contribute but also how much the project benefits from what others bring to it.
However annoying our colleagues may be, our irritation with them is soothed by an awareness that it is precisely their differences that makes them capable of particular moves we would be incapable of, and that therefore justifies the unusual efforts we have to make to get along with them. We accept that it is, after all, no particular surprise that we don’t naturally get on with certain types at the office, yet it is via work that we can get to appreciate their merits in a way we never would in a purely social setting. Through team work, our egoism is submerged in a bigger loyalty: we are held together by a shared goal which everyone knows they could never accomplish in isolation.
When – as is bound to happen – one person falters, and loses confidence, the others encourage them to get back in the saddle and everyone knows the favour will be returned when they are in difficulties. Conscious of our joint strengths, we let go of our naturally jealous drift: the success of one contributes to the success of all.
Together we can reach many more people with a good idea or product; we can have a serious shot at making a benign impact that would be impossible alone; we can take on larger and more impressive ambitions. Ultimately, we can take on new participants who will be able to continue the project when we are gone. Our efforts aren’t constrained by the limitations of a single working-lifespan. The greatest human projects are multi-generational; our efforts are extended across time; in an important sense we cheat death, because our contribution lives on in the efforts and ambitions of our successor members.
The best teams reverse the baneful fundamentals of the human condition: through collaboration, they replace the competitive war of all against all; they substitute collective strength for individual weakness; they turn the brevity of our lives into endeavours that can outlast our regretfully brief spans.
If you enjoyed this article, many of its ideas are explored further in our workshop on Communication.