Teamwork is an essential component of all successful groups of people who come together to accomplish a common goal. Many successful teams in sports, business, politics, communities, and family exist.

There are pitfalls, though, that disrupt great teamwork and eventually break down the effectiveness of teams.  Here are four tips for fostering and developing an environment where teamwork truly does make the dream work. 

“Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.”Helen Keller

1.   Establish Targets That Are Clearly in Sight

If there is no target, it’s like shooting in the dark. If there is a target, but it is opaque in nature, then it’s like shooting in fog. If the target is constantly changing or moving, it’s like shooting while running. Only when the target is clearly in view to all members of the team can everyone envision it and know exactly where it is. Team members can move together in the same direction when the target is clear.  

Leaders remove the dark, the fog, and the movement of targets. Leaders set the course. I recall my shortcomings as a leader, when the targets were not clear and precise, with everyone moving in the same direction, members of the team drifted. Members began to assume their own targets, and teamwork fell short. That’s on me. That’s on the leader. 

As a leader, it pays to check in on the clarity of the target amongst the team members to verify the direction the team is moving. Asking team members, from both the highest and lowest levels of the organization, to identify the target or targets allows leaders to know if everyone is aligned.  If there are discrepancies, then leaders know to correct the course. 

Leaders who unite team members make it clear that the only path for success is one where everyone is working together with the goal in sight. Leaders who divide are those that pit people against each other, even within the same team, causing chaos, disruption, and dysfunction. I have been a member of teams, and have witnessed other teams, where the objectives and goals (targets) were not clear and were even intentionally different for different members. The result is a lower level of success because all members are not on the same page. It’s tough to work in an environment where the team is severed. 

When you think about life in terms of teams, everyone is part of at least one, and most of us are associated with multiple teams. Family teams, sports teams, business teams, government teams, and teams within the community are all examples of teams with which we are members. As leaders of these units, we must first define the clear target and walk with the team in the direction of that goal…together.  

“The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.”Phil Jackson

2.   Make Credit Less Important Than Organizational Success

Everyone wants to feel like a valued participant in the outcome of the team. For many, that “value” translates to “credit.” Who is getting the credit? How can I, as a team member, get more credit? Many feel that if they aren’t getting the credit or if another person on the team is getting more credit, then they are of less value.

When there’s competition for that value, sometimes agendas form and teams break down. Don’t get me wrong; a healthy competition for driving outcomes is not a bad thing. When employees work to better themselves and the organization, good things happen. However, when competition becomes destructive because the competition has become personal, then team success operates below par. 

Within the family, every child longs for the highest level of attention from parents, even if it means outshining a sibling to get it. In businesses, employees want the credit and the kudos from upper management, even if that means making other coworkers look bad. In government, members of teams tear down other members daily so they can look better and therefore, “get more votes.” In communities, there is the competition to drive the organizers to “like me better,” and sometimes that leads to personal agendas that interfere with real community initiatives. In sports, many athletes will cut down other teammates or help make teammates look bad, just to gain the starting roles, make the headlines in the newspaper, or top the statistical charts for performance.  

The critical problems arise when personal credit overshadows organizational success. When team members work solely toward their own need for credit, the organizational goals may become blurred. The longer this mentality goes on, the harder it is to correct the course.

On the other hand, when members of the team are driven by the organizational goals first, nine times out of ten, the organization thrives, and the appropriate team members get the credit anyway. It works best in this order. 

We are all human, and sometimes our agendas, assumptions, and misconceptions, even unintentionally, interfere with team functioning. Great leaders work to distribute credit for well-deserved outcomes while keeping other members of the team engaged and feeling valued as well. This approach isn’t straightforward because it requires leaders to know their team members as individuals. 

Leaders know that members of teams want and need credit, encouragement, and to feel valued. Understanding each team member’s level of comfort around credit and the need for encouragement will go a long way with that member staying engaged and actively pursuing the intended goals of the organization. It takes time and work, but it’s worth it in the long run. 

“None of us, including me, ever do great things. But we can all do small things, with great love, and together we can do something wonderful.”Mother Teresa

3.   Ensure Communication Channels Are Open and Clear

There are a plethora of books, articles, webinars, and classes on communication. Why?  Because we aren’t very good at it. This skill is one of the single most difficult criteria of high-functioning teams that leaders try to master. It’s not easy, even becoming more difficult as we move into the future. 

It’s a strange fact that we are humans who love and need contact with other people, and yet we aren’t natural communicators. Not many people like conflict or enjoy communication where we have to hold someone accountable. Sometimes we avoid it altogether.

When this occurs in teams, breakdowns are sure to follow. Leaders cannot afford to allow no communication or bad communication to operate. 

When communication channels aren’t open or transparent, assumptions begin to fill the gap. Have you ever gone to a staff meeting where someone brought up a concern about one of your actions, and you had no idea where they came up with their conclusions? Have you ever been on a team where you received discipline for activities in which you never took part? Have you ever made an assumption about a coworker, and having taken a particular stance against the person, you later found out that you had it all wrong? These occurrences happen daily. 

Open communication channels are critical for great teamwork. It takes time and energy from every team member to keep the walls down and communication flowing in all directions if a team is to be successful. Leaders who foster open, nonjudgmental, and safe communication will increase the odds that folks are saying what they mean and genuinely listening to others with hearts, minds, and ears open. 

A “walls down” environment is one that allows differences to exist without closing to those differences. All voices are heard, and every member listens carefully without judgment. Teamwork is at its best when communication works this way. Things get done, and the team voice becomes one. 

“No one can whistle a symphony. It takes a whole orchestra to play it.”H.E. Luccock

4.   Build a Culture of Shared Responsibility

Shared responsibility is easier said than done, but when tips 1-3 above are functioning, then all members take responsibility for the outcome.

Have you ever witnessed in your organization or on your team that certain people have the capacity to pick up slack when someone else is lacking in a particular area or project? Have you watched a sporting event and observed a player take control when the game is tight? Have you ever seen someone carry the load for another member of the team? 

Shared responsibility happens when team members pay attention to how they can assist in the journey to get to the outcome. In other words, each member brings what they have to the areas that need extra hands, or when team members need extra help. They come with no intentions or assumptions, other than completing the task and reaching the target. 

Shared responsibility also applies to decision-making. Having a role in decisions implies that all participants have an understanding of the direction and the outcomes, and most importantly, have a say in them. Working together to obtain the best results is the goal of all great leaders. 

Leadership that values shared responsibility as an essential step to success openly promotes and encourages the organization to abide by it. It’s the difference between poor-to-good teams versus great-to-exceptional teams. As I learned in my family with six siblings growing up, sharing is essential to getting along. When sharing does not exist, infighting takes over.  Avoidance and coveting one’s possessions, thoughts, and things take over when sharing is not present. Sharing is key to moving forward and staying together. It’s also more fun to live and work in an environment of sharing. 

As with the other tips, it’s not easy to obtain a shared responsibility within the group. It must come from the leaders and become a metric for which leadership adheres. It must be corrected when there are breakdowns. It should be a priority as it’s the key to success.

I write about this in my book, Beyond the Talent: Profile of a Winning Team. Teams will not reach the highest level of accomplishment without this critical truth. When everyone shares the responsibility in obtaining the outcome, and no one cares who gets the credit. With walls and agendas down, and with open communication along the way, there is no stopping this group of people from reaching the highest levels of success and accomplishment. These teams meet deadlines, achieve outcomes, and ultimately win championships.