There is no I in TEAM. Or is there?

The recent thrilling comebacks by Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool in the Champions League semi-finals have had sports columnists throughout the land eulogising about the powers of resilience and cohesion with comments like ‘team spirit pulled them through in the end’, and ‘tactics were thrown out the window as they won through pure emotion and guts’.

Just a few days ago I had my own demonstration of the mystical capabilities of teamwork as I captained my Norfolk team to a thumping victory against our East Anglian counterparts in our annual golfing match-up with a performance that seemed to rise way above the sum of our individual games.

Switch from the back pages to the front however, and we see clear evidence of teams falling apart, as the politicians of the Tory Party rip each other to shreds in their pursuit of individual leadership goals or Brexit viewpoints.

This blog will investigate the theories of team spirit and how to foster this most elusive of concepts. For any Manager at work, or team Captain at the Golf Club, this can make the difference between success and failure.

According to Mullen and Copper (1994), the three most important aspects of team spirit are:

  1. Interpersonal attraction
  2. Commitment to a common task
  3. Pride in the group

Let us consider each point in turn.

Interpersonal attraction does not necessarily mean that all members of a team should be best friends. Indeed there is a danger that when teammates get too familiar then damaging cliques can form. Sir Alex Ferguson would regularly sell one or more of his best players at the end of a season in order to avoid complacency setting in.

The key here is that the best teams resemble families in the sense that although teammates may not always like or agree with each other, they know they belong to the same ‘household’. For the Manager here the essential task is to create an environment in which open and honest channels of communication exist among teammates and between team members and managers.

‘Lions Tours are about bonding together. As a touring side you are always up against it. Success depends on whether you come together or you split into factions…..There were times with this Lions squad when we felt invincible – that we could take on the whole world and beat them.’

Jeremy Guscott – British & Irish Lions Rugby player

In order to ensure commitment to a common goal among the team we begin to realize the importance of each I to the group. All individuals need to be told exactly how they can contribute to the overall success. By focusing on and ensuring the individual players in the team know which skills they need to improve, they will work harder for the team goal. For these individual regimes to be set effectively, it is vital that the Manager gets to know each member of their team as well as possible, what makes them tick and what external factors may be influencing their performance for good or for bad.

This particular aspect of team spirit can be lost very quickly if just a single team members motivations become out of line with the common goal. In this situation, and if the individual cannot be brought back in line with the group, it is important that the team member is removed or replaced as soon as possible.

If there is a single secret to good management or captaincy, it is surely to create the right mix of talents and personalities within the team.

‘I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed’

Michael Jordan – All Star Basketball great.

Pride in the group must ultimately be grown intrinsically through mutual respect and shared history. It is relatively easy for the coach of the British & Irish Lions rugby team or the Manager of Manchester United to foster this pride by highlighting the great players that have represented the team in the past.

There are some things, however, that the Captain or Manager at a lower level can do to strengthen this process. For example, my efforts in researching, designing and organising new team shirts for my Norfolk side prior to our recent match was a crucial aspect in creating identity and pride in the group.

‘Even when you have played the game of your life, it’s the feeling of teamwork that you’ll remember. You’ll forget the plays, the shots and the scores, but you’ll never forget your teammates’

Deborah Miller Palmore – US Olympian

It is clear that these three dimensions interlink to form the glue that keeps teams together through hard training sessions, long seasons and setbacks.

At this point it should be emphasised that team spirit is not based upon some kind of ‘quick fix, pep talk’ through the cursory application of some arcane psychological strategy. Instead it involves a long-term commitment to the development of process-related and interpersonal relationships within a team in the interests of enhancing its performance. Emphasising this point, McLean (1995) claimed that team spirit is ‘not a set of exercises that get wheeled out from time to time, but it is a way of thinking which pervades every interaction within that group’.

This blog then, has detailed the main dimensions of team spirit and provided guidance on how it can be generated and maintained. But finally, to return to our initial question posed in the title, any team is composed by a number of individuals, or I’s. Our famous quote perhaps encourages neglect of individual motivations and requirements within a group. This is something that all Managers or Captains should bear in mind.

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