Working as a team: The No-BS secret sauce

Working as a team

Working as a team is pretty important in the modern workplace. Bosses are always trying to shove teams — and “cross-functional teams” — down our various throats, with the underlying logic being: “Multiple heads are better than one!” 

In general, this idea is true. Working as a team tends to get more done than a bunch of individuals heads-down on various tasks. But there are a few caveats that most people never seem to really explore. For one, there’s documented evidence that most people don’t really want to collaborate that much at work. Additionally, there’s documented evidence that the idea of “cross-functional teams” is predominantly manure.

Let me give this to you as straight as I can up top. One of the most perplexing things about how we structure work? We want everyone to work in teams and yaaaaaay team, right? But then we promote individuals. Obviously that’s going to cause problems. If a team of eight people hustles on a major project for a year and nails it, and the company makes a bunch of revenue, here’s what happens. 1/8 or 2/8 — so 12 to 25 percent — of the team gets advanced, and the rest go hustle on some new project with no bump.

I’m all for working towards purpose and passion and vision, but at some point, the money needs to be there. Daddy needs a bigger house! I jest. But this is one of the issues with working as a team: how we reward teams vs. rewarding of individuals.

The other problem, of course, is that very few people who become managers really have a clue what team development should look like. We’ll try to fix that a little bit now.

Working as a team and Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin was a leading strategist of the civil rights movement. His big idea around said movement was that those fighting for civil rights need to be “angelic troublemakers.” That basically means: annoy the powers-that-be, as opposed to directly clashing with them. MLK loved Rustin, even though he was (a) openly gay and (b) extremely liberal, which were major lightning rods at the time. One of the main reasons MLK loved him is because he was a classic agitator.

Now, obviously the civil rights movement and some fire drill in your widgets company are very different things. One was a major turning point in human history, and the other is an issue no one will remember in three hours. (Because of a new urgent project!) But the civil rights movement did a lot around organizing, strategy, and working as a team. So, maybe we can learn from it.

As this Fast Company article notes:

Angelic troublemaking—or going against the grain in a benevolent fashion—is a powerful philosophy for business as well as social movements. It’s not just about being difficult; it’s about forcing people to see situations differently. The concept is about making a mess, with good intentions, so things can change.

Alright. Let’s move to a visual.

Working as a team: A visual

Here we go:

Working as a team types of people

This graphic is fairly self-explanatory, but quickly let’s run through it. You’ve got two choices:

  • Agreeable vs. disagreeable
  • Selfish vs. altruistic

Where you fall in terms of intersection puts you into one of four buckets. I’d honestly say most people at most jobs are “political” (selfish but agreeable) or “jerks” (selfish and disagreeable). Most in the “jerks” category are really “assholes,” and many of them become high-level management. Awesome!

Now we’ve got a visual and some background. Let’s start putting it together.

Working as a team: Why do a lot of teams fail?

I’d say there are a couple of main reasons:

This last concept is where we tie back to Rustin and angelic troublemakers. First, you need diversity when working as a team if the team is going to generate any ideas. That’s been proven in hundreds of studies, including this one. Secondly, most people prioritize group harmony over ruffling feathers when working as a team.

We’ve all been in the situations that result. A team comes together. Everyone basically has access to the same information and keeps repeating and rehashing that. Meetings and calls go in circles. A bunch of people realize the team is a joke and getting nothing done, but won’t stand up and say anything to avoid ruffling feathers.


And now we’re arriving at the secret sauce of working as a team.

Working as a team: Interject a wild card

Do it. Toss someone in there from a different department. Throw in someone who has no real reason to be in this meeting or on this team. Tell that person to ask questions like, “Wait, what’s the goal here?” or “What problem is this whole deal trying to solve?”

From that same FastCo article above:

At Walton Isaacson, people from totally different departments are sent to meetings they have no business being in. Recently, its events team was working on ways to get more people to live events for Lexus. Walton added someone from the digital ads department—someone with a very different perspective, who might throw a wrench in conventional events thinking—to the planning meeting. Together, the team came up with the idea to turn the live events into a television show about poetry and spoken-word performance. The show, Verses and Flow, is now a full-fledged series in its sixth season.

Growth comes from conflict. Innovation comes from tension. That’s why working as a team needs to involve some type of wild card.

Working as a team: Innovation and tension

Let’s do a macro and a micro example here.

Macro: the civil rights movement. Lots of tension there. KKK. Violence. The bridge in Selma, Alabama. It was a very tense, conflicted time. Without that tension and conflict, could we have made strides for African-Americans? No. Now, you can argue that we haven’t made that many strides — see the recent rash of police shootings — but the civil rights movement was crucial in American history, and it was borne of conflict.

Micro: Your marriage is a train wreck. You are not communicating well. There’s no sex. It’s overall a bad scene. This is conflict and tension. Well, it can lead to one of two things. You either work on it, fix it, and make it better — innovation, growth — or you get divorced, which is “growth” of another kind. (In that you both head in new directions.)

Basically, you cannot grow without conflict. Opposing forces drive development and growth. But when we are working as a team, we often put like-minded people together and give them similar information. How’s that going to be successful?

What else would you add on working as a team?

Ted Bauer


  1. One of the biggest problems though is that most ‘teams’ are not real teams and trying to impose a team dynamic on groups of individual people fails every single time.

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