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The Evolution of Team Synergy: Transforming Parts into Partners

That the term “synergy” keeps showing up on my mental radar and calendar is not surprising. But yesterday, I experienced the “mother nature” variation. Meandering along the banks of the Chagrin River, 20 miles east of Cleveland, I stepped off the heavily wooded path at the confluence point of two streaming tributaries. Walking along a pebble and rock-strewn beach-like area, I discovered a small depression not more than a few yards from the babbling flow. I also spotted and positioned a slab of rock that conveniently became a back support as I lowered myself into this natural “easy chair.” The surrounding visual-tactile-audio mindscape was an array of 100-foot trees on both embankments – one flat the other hilly – seemingly converging and sculpting an endless green carpet-Cayahuaga Sky Blue vista. In this theatre au natural, my skin was being toasted tenderly by a radiant sun; and basking in the cloudless, 80 degree, low humidity ambience was made even more delicious by a caressing and cooling breeze. The background stereo of rushing river and rustling trees, complemented by periodic chirping (along with sudden yet graceful swooping) evoked memories of Beethoven’s Pastorale (# 6). My late afternoon interlude at the sensorium was complete.

Not only was a sense of sanity being restored, but this dynamic symphony of sights, sensations and sounds resulted in that synergistic summation – “when things work in concert together to create an outcome that is in some way of more value than the total of what the individual inputs is” (Dictionary.com). And for me, the unexpected outcome, the resultant paradoxical synergy state, was that fleeting fifteen minutes of mind quieting serenity, along with a renewed sense of awe for the holistic interplay of human-nature “Soular Power!”

From the Sublime to the…

My high school chemistry teacher, 4’10” Shaky Jake Lieberman (more wily leprechaun than learned professor), after regaling us with stories from his two favorite avocations – boxing and the opera – would invariably declare, “Okay, boys, time to move from the sublime to the ridiculous; let’s get back to chemistry.” (Those days, Stuyvesant H.S. in NYC only had male students.)

Guess it’s time to leave the sublime (for awhile, anyway) and examine synergy from a more practical, everyday perspective. Synergy comes from the Greek word synergia, meaning joint work and cooperative action. From a technical vantage point, it is the increased effectiveness that results when two or more people or businesses work together and, I would add, the result is most pronounced when there’s a mix of some commonalities along with distinct differences. And as we’ll see, this combination has implications for the productivity of dyads and teams.

Stress Doc ™ Meeting the “Great Ideas! Guy” (sm)

For example, I recently co-authored an article with Jeff Peden identifying “Top Ten Obstacles" to improving leadership-business partnership, performance and profitability. Our partnership was definitely synergistic – a common capacity for “emotional intelligence” played out in mostly dissimilar (e.g., corporate vs. government) arenas, thereby yielding varying takes on human-system motivation and interaction. Experienced in corporate sales and customer service, Jeff recently wrote and published Take It To The MAX-The Ultimate Strategy for Maximizing Profits and Growth. He asked me to review the book. (Jeff was aware of my book, Practice Safe Stress: Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout and Depression.)

Jeff had many excellent ideas (not surprising, he’s the “Great Ideas! Guy” (sm ;-), but also evident was that too many business and organizational leaders, despite knowing what they should do, frequently don’t turn ideas into action. Fittingly enough, Jeff jumped at my idea for a collaborative piece on key psychological barriers contributing to this leadership-performance gap.

If I may say so, the result was a yin and yang, two “hearts singing and minds dancing” essay. For example, our give and take captured the double-edged quality of “loyalty”: Jeff added the participatory-cooperative (1) aspect to my repressive-controlling (2) precept thereby expanding the Stress Doc’s “Law of the Loyalty Loop”:

(1) Those who help plan the battle don’t battle the plan and

(2) Those who never want you to answer back always want you to back their answer!

While I could enumerate other “whole is greater than parts” examples, I’ll close with a straightforward declaration: with the breadth and depth of the ten obstacles ** along with our relative precision (the essay is approximately 2500 words, thanks, mostly, to Jeff’s editorial talents), “Top Ten Mind Barriers to Maximizing Leadership-Business Performance” reflects the conceptual and experiential diversity and uncommon synergy of a psychology and business brainstorm-collaboration. (Email [email protected] if you missed the essay.)

** “Top Ten Obstacles" to improving leadership-business performance, partnership and profitability:

1. Time Pressures

2. Stress Overload

3. Lacking Perspective and Experience

4. Are You Going the Way of the Dinosaur?

5. Underdeveloped Emotional Intelligence

6. Need to Be an Autocrat

7. Judgmental Bias

8. Grappling with Your Intimate FOE

9. Fear of or Clinging to Success

10. Masters of Mendacity

The Evolution and Variation of Team Synergy

Now let’s take the next evolutionary step. How do you go from being part of a dynamic duo to creating or facilitating a high task and high touch synergy group? To do this let’s expand our focus:

1) first by reanalyzing our conception of the idea and ideal of team and then 2) examining the behavior of whole-interrelated systems unpredicted by the behavior of their individual parts (Wikipedia). Here are some Conceptual Tools for Rethinking Team Synergy:

1. There’s No “I” in TEAM. In a general way the popular TEAM acronym speaks the language of synergy: Together Each Achieves More. The slogan indicates that the individual benefits from the collective and that harmony is its own reward. But what about the inverse: does individual talent (not necessarily in a formal leadership role) impact the capacity of the group to meet its goals around performance and productivity, morale and camaraderie? How about these TEAM acronyms:

a) Talent Engages All Members or

b) Talent Energizes Ambitious Motivation

And might individual differences, including difference of perspective or culture, challenge the team to reach another level of evolutionary function?

The original TEAM saying – Together Each Achieves More – in some ways is similar to another popular, or at least, oft-heard, saying, “There’s NO ‘I’ in Team.” (Of course, some people think the latter is a shorthand code for suppressing disagreement, difference or dialogue.) My discomfort with both motivational mantras is their downplaying the role of the individual, especially the need for individual(s) thinking and behaving outside the conventional group “form and function” framework. The contrarian and the community must generate optimal conflict and positively provoke each other’s mindsets and skill sets. As John Dewey, 19th c. pragmatic philosopher and “Father of American Public Education,” observed: Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It shocks us out of sheep-like passivity. It instigates to invention and sets us at noting and contriving. Conflict is the “sine qua non” of reflection and ingenuity.

Such a provocative collaboration is critical especially in rapidly reorganizing times that demand new ideas, idiosyncratic intuitions, relevant data and flexibly focused adaptation for the survival of the fittest (government bailouts not withstanding). As Adam Gopnik noted in, Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Life (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009): Repetition is the law of nature but variation is the rule of life.

Components of Organizational Variation and Vitality

For teams and organizations in the throes of uncertain times, life-evolving variation tends to emerge from:

a) the diversity and varying talents/vulnerabilities of community members; a history of organizational research shows that optimally diverse teams invariably come up with more creative solutions in experimental trials than more homogeneous groups,

b) unexpected, error-disrupted, compelling or chaos-inducing developments in the environment,

c) a heightened motivational state of “constructive discontent” and a “whatever it takes” exploratory mindset,

d) the resultant clash- or crisis-induced, “necessity as mother of invention” problem solving,

e) a capacity to coordinate people and resources, and

f) the opportunity for post-chaotic transitional grieving (or debriefing) as well as designing structures and strategies that incorporate and sustain the significant variation into everyday operations. In an organizational system, acknowledging, grappling with and ultimately integrating individual difference and convention-busting conflict is vital for achieving that ebb and flow of productive stability and evolutionary synergy.

2. There’s No ‘I’ in Team….So how did I resolve my differences with these motivational clichés? The answer alluded to above actually takes on a semantic twist: “There’s NO ‘I’ in Team…but there Are Two ‘I’s in Winning!” From a poetic perspective a number of interpretations of the latter phrase are possible:

a) keeping your eyes on the prize,

b) reflecting on the past to help envision a new future, or my favorite

c) mixing the literal and the “letteral,” one comes up with two “I”s that definitely “C” – the “I”s stand for “Individuality” and “Interactivity” and their related “C”s are “Creativity” and “Community.” And voila: the formula for a winning team is a synergistic blend of “Individual Creativity” and “Interactive Community.”

The creative individual typically challenges the community to reexamine its conventional values, positions and actions. A community that’s not cut off by “one right way” tradition or rigid “funda-mental-ist armor” challenges, sometimes tolerates, and may eventually find room to encourage the idiosyncratic individual to speak the language of, relate to, educate and even stir up, if not inspire, the larger collective. And when these two “’I’s that ‘C’” intermingle, another notion of synergy materializes: behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the behavior of their parts taken separately. This is called emergent behavior (Wikipedia).

“Individual Creativity” and “Interactive Community” in Action

A thank you note from a recent Stress & Team Building Workshop concerning the emergence of intimate and productive group engagement illustrates synergy’s surprising dimension. The “honesty” referred to below reflects the intimate sharing both in small groups and the extra-ordinary public testimonials of personal trials by fire. Also unanticipated was that the creative facilitator (white male) and the larger community (primarily black females) spoke and shared a meaningful degree of a common language and world view, at least within a “Practice Safe Stress” ™ program context. And finally, another paradoxical, if not synergistic, phenomenon may have helped bridge the cultural divide: People are more open to a serious (or surprising) message when it is gift-wrapped with humor!

Cleveland Council of Black Nurses sponsored by Case Western Reserve/Skills and Simulation Center [2-hr "Practice Safe Stress and Team Building through Humor" Program]

April 4, 2011

Dear Mark,

Thank you so much for the wonderful workshop that you presented for the Cleveland Council of Black Nurses. As President, I truly appreciated your humorous, but principled approach to "Team Building". You worked miracles & brought about an honesty that I did not think was possible.

Again, thank you & I would certainly recommend your workshops to all in the health care fields. The program that you presented was truly "Tailor Made" for us.

Barbara Rogers, RNMSN
President

216 921-3204
[email protected]
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In closing, while the “winning” benefits of “IC2” Team Synergy have been illustrated, one must not overlook the potential dangers: a) the creative individual may be pushing the envelope too far and too fast, beyond group norms-traditions and the bounds of calculated and acceptable risk-taking and b) the community sees “difference and disagreement as disapproval or disloyalty”…and isolates or shuns divergent perspective while demanding group think.

3. Relation and Rejuvenation of “The Whole and the Parts.” Perhaps the most recognized description of synergy is the classic phrase: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And our previous analyses of synergy, each in its different way, speak to this non-linear summation. So what enables 2 +2 = 5? What enables Mother Nature and human nature to be serenely at one with one another; what sparks two consultants with varying backgrounds to produce a fertile article that surely would not have been conceived or written separately; or what allows a roomful of nurses to discover, bond and candidly reveal an unprecedented and “miraculous” range of individual and collective voices and stories? For me, the magic lies in creating an atmosphere of free-flowing communication – from conflict to communion – while orchestrating surprising intermingling, i.e., fun and thought-provoking group exercises amongst the reawakened and fertile parts. The energized parts are not afraid to acknowledge flaws and foibles, nor afraid to test relational norms and be a bit “out-rage-ous.” And yet their interaction facilitates understanding of both individual-cultural difference and common humanity. And this empathy (“not only have I walked in your shoes, but I feel your bunions”), often enhanced by shared memory and self-effacing laughter, becomes the electric current for renewed connection. In time, the synergistic process and product distill the complexity of life into an essential yet elegant simplicity. Engaged in a “jazz riff,” status barriers are surmounted; the distinct parts form an insightful and unified collaboration: Now “Parts” are transformed into “Partners!” And as we’ve come to appreciate, “Individual Creativity” and “Interactive Community” is the formula for winning teams and associations.

Surely an inspiring notion, and words to help one and all…Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote & kickoff speaker, webinar presenter, as well as a "Motivational Humorist & Team Communication Catalyst" known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN programs for both government agencies and major corporations. In addition, the "Doc" is a team building and organizational development consultant. He is providing "Stress and Communication, as well as Managing Change, Leadership and Team Building" programs for the 1st Cavalry Division and 13th Expeditionary Support Command, Ft. Hood, Texas and for Army Community Services and Family Advocacy Programs at Ft. Meade, MD and Ft. Belvoir, VA as well as Andrews Air Force Base/Behavioral Medicine Services. Mark has also rotated as a Military & Family Life Consultant (MFLC) at Ft. Campbell, KY. A former Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant for the US Postal Service, The Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- www.stressdoc.com -- called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email [email protected] or call 301-875-2567.

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