Dream Team: The Inner Workings of Teamwork

A dusk or dawn photograph of Bryce Canyon National Park shows a purple- and peach-toned cloud-filled sky above the depths of the canyons, the heights of the legendary hoodoos, and the wilderness in between. The history of habitation in the area depicted offers some important lessons regarding the survival of the human species. While opposable thumbs enabled many human advancements, the history of effective teamwork in the canyons suggests that the ability to build a successful team might actually be what sets us apart.

When I think about the miracle of human survival, I think of a picture of Bryce Canyon National Park, a 56.2-square mile, arid terrain of clay-rich soil in southwestern Utah. Archaeologists say humans have lived in the area for at least 10,000 years, including the Basketmaker culture, the pre-Pueblo Anasazi, the Paiute Native Americans, and the American settlers in the 1800s. And it baffles me, sometimes, how any of them survived.

Scientists give a lot of credit to the opposable thumb, basically describing it as the killer app of our evolution and survival as humans. The opposable thumb gave us manual dexterity and fine motor skills, allowing us to build houses, tanks, computers, and more.

But, if you think about Bryce Canyon for a moment, you will realize the opposable thumb is overrated.

Humans are not the fastest or the strongest animals. We don’t have the sharpest teeth or the ability to fill dried-out riverbeds in the arid canyon. We don’t have the skin to manage extreme temperatures.

Not Opposable Thumbs, But Teamwork

The people who lived in that canyon were able to survive only because they formed what we today understand to be teams. Their teams found paths to bring in water. They eventually built roads to transport resources. They worked together to bring in firewood and timber to stay warm and build shelter. They built a canal to capture rainwater, irrigate crops, and provide drinking water for themselves and others.

We are able to survive in places like Bryce Canyon and become the dominant species because our teamwork allowed us to achieve what we couldn’t do alone.

For a long time in team development, the focus has been cohesion. Many assessments, questionnaires, and competency frameworks focus on the strength and extent of interpersonal connection. We equate getting along with being effective. But analysis of the literature on teams suggests getting along might not be the key factor. To this end, we need to shift how we look at building effective teams and what team-related assessment tools measure.

Effective Teams Don’t Always Get Along

In 2020, a 10-episode documentary called The Last Dance told the story of Michael Jordan and his success with the Chicago Bulls, who won six National Basketball Association Championships in eight years in the 1990s.

I learned a lot of things watching the series (not the least of which is that I do not want to be on Michael Jordan’s bad side). One key takeaway was that no matter how good Jordan was, it took a team to get the job done, including the coach, Phil Jackson, and standout players such as Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, John Stockton, Toni Kukoč, Steve Kerr, and Bill Cartwright.

Jordan was a fierce competitor who could make moves on the court that his competitors could only dream of. He once scored 48 points on a not-so-healed broken foot. He also was—less known to fans—a notorious trash talker. But in The Last Dance you learn that “hate” might not be too strong of a word for how his teammates felt about working with him.

Jordan called the veteran Cartwright, who was six years older than him, “Medical Bill” during practices. The bullying by Jordan was so bad that Cartwright says he once threatened to “break his legs.” It is said that Jordan would hide his teammate Horace Grant’s food from him when Grant had a bad game. He yelled at another player on his team, “You’re a loser! You’ve always been a loser!” He once went to Rodman’s apartment and pulled him by his nose ring to bring him back to practice.

Although Jordan’s teammates didn’t like him, the Bulls were still a successful team. Why?

The Six Qualities of Effective Teamwork

The reasons the Chicago Bulls were successful can be linked to the six qualities that research shows are actually key to effective teamwork:

  • Trust – The other Bulls may not have liked their leader, but they trusted him and each other to keep their word, honor their commitments, and work for the good of the team.
  • Interpersonal norms – Rules of engagement for the team’s social dynamics determined how they managed conflict, collaborated, and communicated. These norms contributed to a sense of common purpose and belonging.
  • Operational and compositional norms – To achieve its goals, the team used clear methods—including shared language, processes, and approaches to decision-making. The Bulls also had a clear team structure and role clarity.
  • Mission alignment – They understood and agreed on the importance of their goal of winning championships.
  • Results focus – Whatever you might say about Jordan, he was focused on the bottom-line goals and objectives, as were his teammates.
  • Strategic adaptability – The Bulls focused on the big picture to drive continued and future success. They focused on what was most important while learning new approaches, innovating on the court and adapting in the face of challenges like injuries.

There is no question that Michael Jordan’s opposable thumb made him one of the greatest slam-dunk artists to set foot on a basketball court. But it was effective teamwork that brought home the championships.

This blog post was authored by Jayson Blair, a member of the Hogan Coaching Network and managing partner of Goose Creek Consulting. On November 10, Jayson will join the hosts of The Science of Personality podcast for a special webinar discussing the inner workings of teamwork. Register today!