Why I Hate Teamwork Posters with Pictures of Rowers

I hate teamwork posters of rowers because they misrepresent what a team should feel like.

I was working with a team of executives in a big corporation. The leader of the team was an Executive Vice President and the members were each Senior Vice Presidents managing significant departments. I was working with them to increase their team effectiveness as the alignment wasn’t great and the trust was low.

In the first session of our team effectiveness process, we answered the question “what is the company counting on us to do?”  The team found it challenging but they came up with some strong answers about what they can only achieve together. Mission accomplished.

In the second session, we used the Birkman® tool to increase team members' self-awareness and their understanding of the needs of others. They were very open and interested in how they could behave more effectively around one another. Check.

In the third session, we addressed the root causes of some conflict and bad feelings on the team. As in most cases, the issue was mostly about the gap between how things were intended and how they impacted others. They resolved to be more deliberate. Progress.

By this point we had: 1) improved the alignment around the team’s mandate; 2) increased the understanding of the interpersonal styles on the team; 3) and done some delicate work on the conflict mostly going on outside the boardroom.  I was, therefore, fascinated when one of the members of the team was courageous enough to say “it doesn’t feel like a team.”

I had seen significant improvement and signs that this team was much better positioned to succeed than when we started, so I was a little taken aback by the comment. Until I realized that executive-level teams are different. It’s not like a team within a retail store or a bank branch, where most people are doing similar jobs and sharing the workload. In those cases, everyone is in the same boat, pulling their own oar.

Members of an executive-level team each have their own roles to play. The rowing team metaphor doesn’t work. Instead, executive teams are more like baseball teams. Sure, they are all wearing one uniform and following one game plan, but sometimes they work alone (as in the case of a batter), sometimes they work in pairs (pitcher throws to catcher, or shortstop and first baseman collaborate in a double play) and only seldom do they all get in on the action.

If your mental framework for a team is a rowing team (given all those blasted motivational posters, who could blame you), you need a new model for teamwork at the executive level. Don’t expect a team at that level to feel the same way your department level team does. You’re not all in the same boat. So figure out the game plan, play your position, and keep your head up to spot your chances to support your teammates.

I’m taking down the rowing posters.