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There’s No ‘I’ in Team

….but of course if you look closely you will find the word ‘me’. Here at Zeitgeist we do a lot of work with building high performing teams and of course many of us are familiar with Tuckman’s model around team dynamics or Lencioni’s excellent book on the dysfunctions of teams and there are a myriad of other books and papers on the subject because as humans we tend to arrange ourselves in teams – we are social creatures.

We see many client companies with ‘Teamwork’ as a written value and nearly everyone we meet recognizes the importance of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts and yet we come into contact daily with dysfunctional teams – those teams where they are actually potentially destroying value rather than harnessing the collective abilities of the team to produce exceptional results.

Guess what? If you are in a dysfunctional team currently or there are dysfunctional teams within your organization you will be distraught to know that even elephants get it so there has to be a chance for us right?

We were intrigued by some research done by researchers from the University of Cambridge. They built some massive ‘team building games’ for elephants and observed the resultant behaviour. The team published their findings in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Asian elephants (Elephas Maximus) involved in the study had already been taught that pulling on a rope brought a platform towards them and a food reward on that platform within their reach.

But this apparatus, set up at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang province, presented them with a new twist on that simple task. One rope was threaded all the way around a platform so if only one end was tugged, the rope simply slipped off and the platform did not move.

But if two elephants working as a team each took an end of the rope and pulled, the platform moved and they could claim their treats. “When we released one elephant before the other, they quickly learned to wait for their partner before they pulled on the rope,” said Dr Plotnik – the study leader.

Many scientists, photographers and film-makers have documented remarkable behaviour by wild elephants, including “targeted helping” of other elephants that become stuck in mud.

So then if elephants can achieve effective team work through complex social interactions, how much easier should it be for us humans who have the added advantage of a bigger brain and language to help us figure this stuff out?

Perhaps next time you are frustrated with your team’s inability to execute excellently you might remind yourself and your colleagues that even elephants can do it….

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