what can a blue dragon teach us about leading teams?

Simon Thiessen

Simon Thiessen About The Author

01-Mar-2016 09:52:41

 Effective teamwork is barely possible while you are ‘just hanging in there’

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Wow, you can learn some lessons the really hard way. I recently competed (I am using that term very loosely) in a two day mountain bike race called The Blue Dragon that made its way through the magnificent Blue Tiers in NW Tasmania.

What makes this event extra fun is that you ride with a partner and must stay together at all times. This does mean that you have to go at the pace of the slowest person – my partner spent a lot more time waiting for me than the other way around.

However, having a partner has many benefits: it’s great fun to be out there with a good friend, you can learn from each other and you can keep each other motivated when things are tough.

That last point was especially critical. We were WAY out of our depth and it was really tough. We had the fitness but our technical skills were definitely short of the mark – which meant we spent a lot of time falling off or trying not to. We spent a lot of energy surviving rather than thriving.

There were times – fairly regular – that we just didn’t want to be out there and that we were counting down the kilometres. We were always going to make it, but it became a grueling experience rather than an enjoyable one.

So what did this teach me about effective teamwork? There were plenty of invaluable messages both as a team member and also specifically for those who are leading teams.

You have to make a conscious effort to be a good team member

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When you are spending a lot of time and energy just coping with a situation, it is easy to become so focused on yourself that you forget about the people around you.

During the race, I had to make a conscious effort to be aware of how the way I was feeling was playing out in my behaviour – and how that may be impacting my teammate.

Some people get grumpy, others bossy, some sulk. I have probably done all of those at some stage but in this race I found myself becoming very introverted. It’s something I have done before when racing solo - I direct all my energy inwards at willing myself through a situation.

This inward focus is one of my coping mechanisms which is fine. Except that I wasn’t racing solo and my teammate needed more from me than that.

While I was so focused inwardly, I wasn’t thinking about two critical things:

  • How much of the team supply of energy and mental strength I was consuming – while not giving any back
  • What my partner needed from me. I wasn’t the only one suffering – she was doing it tough as well and probably needed more from me than introspective determination

There was a point at which I became conscious my teammate was working really hard to keep me positive. I realised that I wasn’t making my contribution to the mental health of the team. From that point on I became a better team member (although still a crappy mountain bike rider) – but it took a conscious effort to do it.

Sure, there are times when you have to look after yourself – but in teams where everybody looks after each other, there seems to be a lot more of the good stuff to go around.

The leader needs to create an effective teamwork platform

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Sometimes you struggle because you go on a mountain bike ride when you should have known better. Sometimes you struggle because you are working in a climate where everybody has siege mentality, where everybody is covering their backsides and worrying about their job security

Regardless of the reasons, it is bloody hard to focus on being a good team member if you are really struggling just to survive.

What sort of climate are you creating? Is your leadership style or the pressure for performance in your team creating a climate in which people are just ‘hanging on and hoping not to fall off?’

In a previous article I described the impact on performance experienced when track workers were concerned about snakes hiding under rocks. Too often, the snake under the rock is a boss whose moods and reactions are unpredictable and hostile, who tends to catch people doing things wrong rather than what they do right, who doesn’t show appreciation for the effort their people make.

The link between leadership style, working climate and performance is well established. In fact, the quickest way to change performance is to adapt leadership style because it is the one thing you have direct control over – and because the link to performance is so strong.

Deal with the energy suckers

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Do you have people in your team who are consuming more of the team resources than they should -who don’t contribute to those team resources? I’m not talking about tangible things like dollars, equipment, etc – I am talking about those intangible things that are present in abundance in good teams and absent in ineffective ones. Things like goodwill, support, empathy, positivity and collaboration.

How long can you expect your quality employees to compensate for these energy suckers? As leader it falls to you to deal with just as you would any form of underperformance.

What’s the bottom line? If you want effective teamwork from your people make sure you are leading teams that aren’t feeling smashed. Oh, and think really carefully about entering a mountain bike race that is way above your skill level!

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