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  • WSL Leadership

Turning Co-Workers into Teammates

Many of us have co-workers. Not all of us have teammates. There is a distinct difference between the two. And one is significantly better than the other.

Co-workers are those people who do similar or related jobs. Maybe they share an equivalent level or silo in the organizational hierarchy. Co-workers can be amicable or the opposite. Co-workers are together by chance and happen to be doing related things. There are workgroups and departments for people who are bound together on shared tasks - but a workgroup isn’t a team.

Where co-workers are assigned similar tasks, teammates pursue shared goals.

This distinction might seem like a mild semantic shift - but it can profoundly affect your productivity, creativity and motivation.

Having teammates means people you can trust. Teams are mutually motivating environments (not just an aspirational label thrown on a workgroup or department). On teams, the team's purpose comes first and shapes teammate behavior. Teammates expect each other to make decisions to support the team, and when they don’t, there can be a feeling of betrayal.

Sharing a mission means a lower tolerance for counterproductive behavior and higher mutual support. Being on a team feels good and is intrinsically motivating (vs. a workgroup full of members that need to be motivated).

You can tell if someone is on your team if you have similar or resonant answers to questions like: “What is our purpose/mission here?” “What are our shared values?” “What are our expectations of each other?” “How do we hold ourselves and each other accountable for quality contributions to our shared purpose/goals?”

Leaders who cultivate teams get more done than leaders who manage co-workers. Leaders who choose their team members wisely are on the fast track to flourishing teams. Not everyone has the power to make those personnel choices, and not everyone chooses wisely. Conveniently, it is possible to turn co-workers into teammates.

Having teammates doesn’t mean you need to know everything about them and throw a surprise birthday party for their dog. You do need to understand what is important to them. I’ve worked with groups that had been together for months or years, and they barely knew each other. It wasn’t surprising to learn that the group had a mediocre performance.

A team doesn’t necessarily have to have a silly, jokey culture to be high-performing - it does need to be crystal clear on its purpose. Part of this is also clarity in knowing that it is a team.

You might, or might not, be surprised to hear how often I ask a group what their purpose is, and I get a different answer from each person. There is a difference between “my” purpose and “our” purpose - and agreeing on “our” purpose is vital so a team can direct its energy well.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie Miracle is when the coach asks the skaters, “Who do you skate for?” Every time they answer the names of their different universities, the coach makes them skate a sprint across the ice. They get physically worn down skating sprint after sprint until it dawns on them that they are all skating for the US on the same Olympic team. They didn’t realize (or accept) they were on a team with a shared purpose until that point.

To find your teammates, find your shared purpose. It might be an unexpected conversation, but it's an excellent first step toward being a team. You might also learn you don't have teammates if you have those conversations.

You don’t need to (and probably shouldn’t) make your co-workers run sprints until they agree that you share a purpose. You may need to delve into your emotional intelligence and have much more thoughtful conversations exploring shared values, expectations and accountability to find out if you even have a co-worker instead of a turd in the punchbowl (as they say).

I have facilitated those clarifying conversations among potential teammates and supported leaders to make it happen. It can be an eye-opening experience. They are the types of conversations where trust is built, and teams are formed.

As a leader or a co-worker, if you feel your energy sapped and motivation lagging (or exhaustion that feels like you’ve been doing sprints for hours), take a moment to figure out if you have a team. Get curious about alignment on shared purpose, values, accountability and expectations. Get to know your people, and you might find you have some teammates after all.

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