No one can whistle a symphony. It takes a whole orchestra to play it. ~H.E. Luccock
On October 13, 2012, 33 men were finally rescued after spending 69 days trapped over 2,000 feet underground in a collapsed mine shaft in northern Chile.
I watched the scene, captivated by the strength of the men to have survived such an ordeal with only minor injuries, but the human resource professional in me began to focus on one question: how can one possibly survive with ones co-workers 24 hours a day for 69 straight days in a space that was about the size of a one-room apartment in complete darkness with temperatures holding steady at about 99 degrees? Once the details of their survival began to emerge, it became clear how they survived – they worked as a team and focused on one common goal: survival.
Luis Urzua, the shift foreman (who, by the way, was the last to be rescued from the mine), immediately split the men into three teams who alternated shifts between sleeping, working and playing. Each shift lasted eight hours and included some form of group exercise so that the miners could remain thin enough to fit through the small capsule that would eventually bring them to the surface.
The group voted on everything including how and when to distribute and ration food and water and the decisions were usually unanimous; the men rarely argued because Luis kept the group focused on the goals while remaining in control throughout the entire ordeal using compassion and complete honesty later stating, “…whether good or bad, you have to speak the truth.”
Teams frequently fail for a variety of reasons including fear of conflict, lack of accountability, mistrust, and failure to monitor results and/or a lack of commitment. So how does one cultivate a teamwork environment when we are brought up to believe we should stand out as individuals? The answer is not easy, but with commitment to the value of teamwork, it is possible.
To create a culture of teamwork, these powerful actions must occur:
- Leadership must clearly communicate the expectations and face conflict directly. Conflict can be healthy, but employees tend to remain there if the conflict is completely ignored.
- Leaders must be direct and honest with those employees who choose to avoid accountability. Gaining buy-in from employees is an investment in motivation for employees to want to be part of a team.
- Employees who do not know the facts behind decisions or if they are not given appropriate timely information will be more likely to make up their own scenarios to fit situations; this is never good. The best defense against mistrust is to be honest and open with employees regarding changes – they will see the change happen anyway, so you might as well give them the real scoop.
- Leaders should also be able to admit mistakes and be vulnerable to the team first; once the employees realize that leaders are just like them, teamwork becomes easier.
- Leaders are responsible for putting the teamwork concept into motion and then constantly supporting the initiative. Once the leader can show they are intimate with the goals throughout the entire process, the team will be more cohesive.
- Much like the miners, employees must share the same goal and objectives. Employees who understand what they are doing and why they are doing it tend to be happier and more focused.
- Discuss the failures once they happen (without assigning blame). Discussing the issues surrounding failure allows teams to discuss prevention of a re-occurrence. The team can learn a lot from failure – do not be afraid to address it.
- The hardest step to take is identifying dysfunctions within the team – the process can be painful and often takes time (something we have little of). Once you have addressed and dealt with the dysfunctions, employees will begin to focus more on the goals and not on the unnecessary issues.
- Remember that the most frustrated employee is typically the one who cares the most but do not feel their opinions are valued. Instead of labeling this employee with a negative connotation, perhaps find out what is really going on – they usually want to help and will be excited by the opportunity and your interest.
- Leaders must encourage the use of the terms “we” and “our” versus “I” and “me.”
- Remember that no one works alone – ever. Even if we believe that we have single-handedly closed a sale, there are always a lot of people backing up the effort. Rewarding and recognizing these efforts create harmony within teams.
Managers can learn a lot from the leadership of Luis Urzua. He celebrated every small win with his team always aware that his actions and moods affected the other miners. Those that were in the mine with Luis knew that he had their back – they trusted him and were eager to follow his lead. It should also be noted that while Luis had all the power in this situation, he never used it to his advantage. He never received more than his share of food or water and took the same shifts as everyone else. The miners made particular note of this once they were released.
Although we will likely not find ourselves trapped in a mine, ask yourself one important question: how would you and your team handled the same situation? If the first thing you think about is a cynical retort, maybe it is time to start over.