This article was originally published in Corp! Magazine.
Not so long ago, a friend of mine walked into a meeting moving with all the fluidity and grace of the Tin Woodsman after a rainstorm. He was doing a credible job of moving forward while doing his best to not actually move his legs. As a form of locomotion, I would not have believed it possible if I hadn’t seen it.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I was practicing layups last night, and this morning I couldn’t move.”
A serious amateur basketball player, he had done some serious practice the night before. Unfortunately, he had neglected to warm up: he was in a hurry and felt that he didn’t have time to do a slow warm-up. Instead, he had “warmed up” by doing a number of fast, sharp moves, which ended up straining his lower back and legs. It was no wonder he was having trouble walking. The time he “saved” by not warming up, he paid back with interest over the next several days.
At this point, I suspect many readers are nodding sagely and thinking that only an idiot forgets to warm up before an activity. Unfortunately, they’d be wrong. Very smart people, very knowledgeable people forget to warm up. Furthermore, it’s not just individual athletes who forget to warm up; teams do as well. Moreover, it’s not just athletic teams that occasionally forget. Work teams routinely forget to perform the functional equivalent of warming up; even worse, most of them believe that it’s not necessary. In sports, many an athlete has learned the hard way that no matter how often you can get away without warming up, it only takes one time when you didn’t get away with it to drive home the error of your ways.
Unfortunately, businesses tend to be slower learners, perhaps because the pain is not so obviously connected to the actions taken or not taken. What does it mean for a team to warm up? In sports, the answer is pretty easy. They run, they stretch, they practice the skills of their sport. They might eventually play practice games.
In business, however, it’s less obvious. However, just as athletic warm-ups are based in understanding the activities that the athlete needs to perform, the equivalent behaviors can be deduced for a business team. In sports, an athletic team needs to be able to function as a seamless unit, each member automatically moving to where they need to be. Top basketball players often seem to have an almost uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time to assist one another.
In a business, it’s critical that a team be able to bring the right person or right combination of people to bear on any given problem. That can only happen if the members of the team are fully knowledgeable about one another’s strengths and weaknesses, are comfortable asking each other for help, and feel safe in admitting that they might need help. The last point is critical: far too often members of a team are seen as less competent or less capable if they ask for help. I’ve been in many companies where the stated attitude was that you were hired to do a job, and if you need help, you don’t belong here. That’s rather like Michael Jordan trying to sink the basket without any help from the rest of his team. If the rest of the team wasn’t backing him up, he wouldn’t be so successful.
Therefore, for a business team to “warm up,” they need to focus on preparing their teamwork skills so that those skills will be there under pressure. That means spending time getting to know one another and developing an appreciation of one another’s skills, interests, accomplishments, perspectives, and working styles. That includes, by the way, skills, interests, and accomplishments that are not obviously work related. Knowing that a coworker is a chess master, for example, tells you something about their ability to concentrate, plan tactics, execute strategy, anticipate problems, and deal with distractions. Knowing that someone is a marathon runner might tell you a great deal about their tenacity and ability to focus. Team members can only truly become comfortable with one another when they know each other as individuals, not as someone hired to do a job.
As paradoxical as it might seem, the secret of a successful team is strong individual connection! Just as top athletes look for ways to assist their teammates, so too must members of business teams practice helping one another. That means getting past the “I can do it myself!” attitude: it may be endearing in a 4 year old, but it’s extremely frustrating in a coworker. No matter how much you can do on your own, you can do more when backed by a strong team. We would have no patience with a basketball player who lost the game because they turned down an assist. Indeed, someone who took an “I can do it all myself” attitude would probably be cut from the team.
Finally, management needs to think about how it’s evaluating the team and its members. Are they being evaluated on individual contribution only? It’s extremely hard to help someone else score if only the scorer gets the credit. It’s hard to accept help if that’s seen as reducing one’s own status on the team. Part of enabling a team to “warm up” its helping skills is removing any obstacles that may be in the way of using those skills. What if the team doesn’t bother to warm up? Will disaster necessarily ensue? Of course not. You might not have any problem at all, nine times out ten. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing in advance which time is the tenth time.
How are you helping your team warm up?