On Teamwork

My mother used to say, “If you want the job done right; then do it yourself.” She didn’t trust anyone or anything including our dishwasher. Every July, on what felt like the hottest day of the year, she would cook a feast for over 30 guests to celebrate my dad’s name day (the common European celebration of the day associated with one’s given name). She refused to serve her Greek feast on paper plates, which meant that by the end of the night we were swimming in a sea of dirty pots, pans, and plates. My mother refused clean-up help (“No one can clean like me”), even from the dishwasher (“I’ll end up having to redo them”). She would then stay up for what seemed like two days scrubbing, washing, and drying plates.

When I first became a manager and then later when I married and became a parent, I wore this same type of independence as a mark of success. The more I could do on my own, the better. Instead of training someone, I reasoned, it would take me less time to do it alone. Instead of focusing on team development and cooperation, I focused on personal triumphs. Eventually, I realized, I wasn’t managing a team, but a group of individual contributions.

Managing is a lot like doing the dishes. The minute you clean up one mess, there’s another one waiting for you. However, good managers don’t clean up messes; instead, they support others in cleaning up their own mess or show them (by example many times) how to avoid the mess to begin with. They have the confidence in the people they’ve chosen to solve their own problems. It’s about empowering people. It goes a lot further than “doing it yourself.” When you assume that the job will be done better if “you do it yourself,” what you’re saying is that “you don’t possess the wisdom and skills” to manage this situation on your own.

I’ve shared this perspective with others who have argued that some people like having problems solved for them. I’m not sure if I agree that people “like” it, but I do think that there may be people who have grown accustomed to it and have accepted it as a way of life. It does remove any concern about making mistakes, doesn’t it? It may save time when you’re on a tight deadline. It’s a trap parents often fall into. We don’t want our kids to make errors or fail – so we do the work for them. What if what we learn is that others have a better way of doing something? Maybe that’s what we’re afraid of after all?

Today, the wisdom I share on managing teams is the same wisdom I apply to parenting: your job is to get out of people’s way so that they can do the job that they’ve been entrusted with. In other words, get all the noise, distractions, and naysayers out of the way and do your best to not become the noise, distraction, or naysayer. And my mom – well, she learned this lesson the hard way. Today, she’s been known to run a dishwasher with just one spoon in it. She’ll defend her action by saying, “Otherwise it’s just sitting there. Now it feels important; now it feels like a dishwasher.”

Team image on home page via Shutterstock.

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