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What comes first, teamship or friendship?

When you think about a great team you have been in, do you think about the work, or do you think about the people you worked with? For me, it’s the people.  Thinking back to my first start-up, my team and I led creative workshops for some of the biggest global TV shows in the world. Every year the production teams would meet to share ideas, collaborate, and plan, and we made these events happen. Working for the top TV creatives was both inspiring and incredibly challenging.  We once worked a high-profile TV event where most of the top talent were a pleasure to work with, excepting our main contact who bullied her way through the project.

Despite the hard work and the late-night tears, we believed in the project, and we worked positively with each other to deliver a brilliant event.  We are still proud of that work today, not just for the quality of the work we delivered, but for how we were able to work positively and support each other, despite the challenges. A decade later, our team continue to be good friends, even though we’ve moved to different companies.  When you’ve been through one of those “best of times, worst of times” situations, it shows you what people are really like, and if they are great team players, it brings you closer.

However, being great friends doesn’t always make you a great team.  Some of the worst performing teams I know are great friends and have a brilliant time together but don’t get anything done.  Collective intelligence research tells us that teams who avoid constructive conflict in favour of consensus make fewer successful decisions because they don’t challenge each other enough.   

High performing teams do not need to be best friends first.  It’s easy to assume that friendship is the first step towards teamship, when really it’s the other way round.  We come to work to achieve something, whether that’s launch a new product or serve our customers.  Putting friendship before teamship means we might launch an inferior product because we didn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, or forget to serve our customers because we’re too busy having a laugh. 

Great teams are like sports teams; they expect great performance from every player, and they play well together because they want to win.  When we work well together despite the pressures at work, we can develop a deep trust and respect.  I’d argue that being respectful of each other and being a pleasure to work with are the basics of doing a great job in any team.  From that we may create brilliant friendships and find those best friends at work, but the teamship has to come first.  If friendship comes from teamship, that’s a bonus.

Pam Hamilton is the author of Supercharged Teams: 30 Tools of Great Teamwork. Pam is a teamwork and collaboration expert with a background in psychology, an obsession with collective intelligence, and 20 years experience working in corporate and public sector teams across the world. This article was first published in TJ Magazine, August 2021.


Is your team toxic? The warning signs and what to do about it

How would you describe your team at work?  Are they a group of professionals who do their best to work well together to achieve their goals?  Or are they more like a dysfunctional family who make excuses for each other’s bad behaviours and terrible habits?  Most work teams are somewhere between the two – we spend so much time at work that we can’t help getting to know each other well.  Everyone has good days and bad days, and we don’t always work together as well as we could, but for the most part if we can get along, and do the best we can, working in a team can be enjoyable.

But what do you do if your team always feels like a dysfunctional family all the time? 

You may be in a toxic team – here are the warning signs:

  • Bullying and bad behaviour are ignored, excused or even encouraged
  • People regularly cry at work or shout at each other
  • Team banter makes people on the team feel uncomfortable, embarrassed or left out
  • People make excuses for each other like “don’t mind her, she’s always like that”, or “ignore him, he doesn’t mean it”
  • People are indiscreet, unprofessional or spread gossip
  • People are overworked, underpaid or unfairly treated, for example being expected to answer emails at all hours
  • There’s a culture of fear – no one wants to say anything because they worry about being targeted

It is tempting to think that the people we work with are like our families – we can’t always choose who they are, we get to know each other well over time, and eventually we work out what each person is good at, and we sometimes see their worst sides under pressure.  But work teams are not our families.  In fact, high performing teams prefer to use the analogy of a sports team – we are here to win together, which means being our fittest, best version of ourselves, and playing well together.  When we do great work we win our games, and we enjoy ourselves too.  It’s no longer acceptable to just say “that’s the way it’s always been”.  Instead, we need to bring our best selves to work, and make sure other people do too.

The best teams behave respectfully towards each other, no matter who they are, no matter how pressured the work is and not matter how senior they are.  Research has shown that bullying and bad behaviour are terrible for team spirit and lower team performance, so they are not just bad for the team members, they are bad for business.  The problem is that toxic teams have often developed a strong culture and habits are hard to break. 

However, we all have a responsibility to each other to improve the way we all behave at work.  Anyone in a team, whether the team leader or a team member can intervene to fix a toxic team. 

Here are 5 steps to take to fix a toxic team:

  1. Ask for things to improve:  If there’s a toxic culture, anyone in the team can say to the rest of the team “I’m feeling uncomfortable/unhappy/bad about how we behave together at work, could try to work together in a better way?”  You’re not blaming anyone, you are raising the possibility of improving the way things are.  In the worst case scenario, people may not take you seriously, and you will need to keep asking a few times before they listen.  But more often, other people on the team will agree and support you, and they will start asking the same question too “could we try to work better together?”.
  2. Focus on behaviour not people:  Once you have people’s attention and made them aware that you’d like things to improve, you can refer to examples of behaviour you’d like to fix (without blaming specific individuals).  You can say “I know we have all laughed in the past when we tease the interns, but I don’t feel comfortable about it anymore because I don’t think they find it funny.  I’d prefer it if we stopped doing it”.
  3. Speak up early if it happens again:  Once you’ve said you’re uncomfortable with a specific behaviour, then the next time it happens you can say “I have already said that playing tricks on the interns makes me uncomfortable, I don’t think it’s right to carry on.  I’d like it to stop please”.
  4. Name and explain unacceptable behaviour:  In future, or with new people joining, you and the rest of the team can tell them how you have agreed to work together and what you don’t do as a team, for example “We don’t play pranks on each other in this team because it was making some people feel really uncomfortable, even if other people found it funny.  We discussed it and we agreed it wasn’t fair, so we stopped”.
  5. Seek support:  If all your best efforts fail to make the team less toxic, you may need to ask for advice and support from your boss or HR.  Sometimes company cultures are so ingrained that they need professional intervention from someone independent or more senior.

In toxic team situations, it is far better to speak up than to let things get worse.  You are doing it not only to improve how you feel at work, but also to help the rest of the team.  Some people don’t realise the impact they are having on others, but if you openly discuss how you would like to work together, you will build trust, do better work, and enjoy the work more. 

Every person in the team, not just the leader, has the permission and the responsibility to ask people to behave better at work.  Let’s not be a dysfunctional family at work, let’s be more like sports teams and do our best to play well together and win.

Pam Hamilton is a teamwork expert and author of Supercharged Teams:  30 Tools of Great Teamwork. In Chapter 8 of Supercharged Teams “Dealing With Conflict” you can find 4 tools on how to deal with a toxic team and what to do about conflict at work. There is also a free team assessment you can take to understand how your team performs and learn which chapters and tools are right for you. This article was written for and published by The Mail Online on 27th July 2021.


How to speak up to your boss (without losing your job)

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I started researching this article thinking I would write about the problems of intergenerational working.  Boomers complaining about millennials for not using apostrophes properly, Gen Z making fun of Millennials for their avocado toast and coffee obsessions, Gen X’s hedonism getting out of control at the Christmas party, that sort of thing.  We’ve all noticed it – different generations bring different beliefs and behaviours to work. 

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Outputs versus outcomes: one simple tool to supercharge your goal setting and teamwork

The police have targets to measure their performance, and over the last decade have moved away from output-based targets to outcome-based ones.  If police targets were based purely on how many arrests are made, they would be ignoring the fact that arresting people does not deal with the causes of crime.  Even though they still need to solve crimes and arrest criminals, the police are increasingly responsible for working alongside community groups to keep people healthy and happy so they don’t turn to crime in the first place.

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