2006 – The value of values in teamwork
One problem with writing this
column is that work and workplace issues tend
to follow me around wherever I go. For two weeks
I have tried to put them behind me during a sailing
race around Britain and Ireland.
But the race has proved a microcosm,
almost a laboratory, of workplace experiences.
Most revealing of all has been the interplay of
motives, work and commitment in an isolated project
The project in this case was
a simple one: to be class winners in this month’s
Sevenstar Round Britain and Ireland race organised
by the Royal Ocean Racing Club. For a mixed-ability
team of varying levels of experience, ranging
in age from 24 to 66-years-old, the campaign began
with a string of shorter channel races as the
team settled in to its best positions.
But planning the campaign started
a little earlier with an afternoon-long session
among the team members working out a set of ‘team
values’ that would govern our behaviours
in the race.
Familiarity with this process
did nothing to dampen my cynicism. It is one thing
to espouse certain values or principles on paper;
it is another thing entirely to incorporate them
in to everything you do and say.
But Philippe Falle, team skipper
and director of Sailing Logic Racing, a Southampton-based
sail training and racing company, believes that
a shared set of values to which each team member
may beheld accountable is an important foundation
for any work project.
‘The point is to be clear
about what we want to accomplish and the manner
in which we shall seek to go about it,’
he says. While everyone in the team agrees that
winning is import, no-one believes the goal should
be to win at all costs.
So heading the list of values
is ‘respect for the sea’, a term that
includes safety consciousness and its practical
application in always keeping one hand for the
boat when doing jobs in a heavy sea.
Some of the values, such as ‘passion’,
‘positivity’ and ‘harmony’
strike me as a little bit corporate straight from
the human resources training manual. I don’t
feel passionate about sitting in front of a computer
screen or when crawling across the foredeck of
a boat for that matter.
Nor do I feel much positivity
coursing through my veins when the boat is pounded
by 20 knot winds and the bunks are soaking water
from the bilges. As for ‘enjoyment’,
another of our values, you would need to stretch
its definition beyond recognition in this arena
for most people. There is not much enjoyment about
retching over the side of a boat.
But other values such as ‘respect’,
‘trust’ and ‘sensitivity’,
would seem to earn their place in the team. I
support the inclusion too of ‘humility’
but do not share the warm enthusiasm for ‘boat
speed’ the focus, bordering on obsession
for all serious sail racing skippers.
Boat speed, like human performance,
is surely an outcome of strong teamwork knitted
around common beliefs and behaviours. But I would
not list it as a value in its own right.
Like a lot of companies that
undertake such exercises, the list of values is
buried away when the race starts and all but forgotten
until we reach a low point when the two ‘watches’,
the shifts of crew members that keep the boat
running at speed around the clock, are beginning
to bicker over jobs.
To some extent this is understandable
since even the smallest job such as making cups
of tea for everyone can take an age in a rocking
boat. When people get injured or seasick it is
not always easy to exude sympathy if you are the
one who must pick up their work.
The same happens in small teams
everywhere, particularly if too heavy a workload
puts a strain on working relationships. The workload
on a racing boat is determined by various factors:
the need to maintain a high boat speed through
constant trimming and sail changes, food preparation,
cleaning, general boat maintenance, and, not least,
Most of the above are simplified
in gentle breezes. But when such work must be
carried out inside and on the exposed deck of
a bucking box it is multiplied in its difficulty.
Much time and energy is spent
by HR departments measuring and improving levels
of workplace engagement since they tend to be
linked closely to performance. Engagement tends
to have various definitions but most seem to settle
around the way people relate to their employer
and the willingness of individuals to perform
Engagement levels in a racing
crew like this one are difficult to determine.
Firstly it must be recognised that crew members
have paid to be on the boat. Their motivation
for being there is already high. All are keen
to learn new skills and improve on their existing
There is no going home after
work but there is the ‘off watch’
where it is sometimes prudent, particularly in
endurance races like this one, to engage in what
management writer Charles Handy has called ‘proper
selfishness’. Going that extra mile for
the company is one thing but is it good for an
enterprise if overwork leads to illness?
Most crew members have missed
watches or parts of watches through illness, fatigue,
or injury. Indeed fatigue can cause the mistakes
that lead to injury. It can also cause arguments
and crabbiness within the team.
Working in such an enclosed atmosphere
on a project defined in difficulty by the strength
and variation of the weather can only be mastered
through a willingness to work flexibly, where
each team member can cover almost every job on
the boat when necessary. The extent of the project
is dictated by distance, not time.
Another big difference between
this kind of sports team and a workplace team
is that competitors can not be dismissed once
the race has started. Every boat has to make the
best of its crews, no matter their respective
levels of competence.
This is a salutary lesson for
the most competent sailors on any boat that needs
also to be learned in companies. We could have
made the boat go faster, undoubtedly, with a crew
of Olympic-class racers but it is amazing what
speeds can be achieved by lesser talents with
the right kind of encouragement and learning.
Reverting to the list of values
within the race helped each of us, the leaders
and the led, to take stock, to reflect, and, where
necessary, to adjust our behaviours within the
crew. It’s not easy to look at your own
performance when the easiest option in the past
has been to blame others.
But when you have to make a team gel –
where there is no alternative – it is amazing how
poor performances can be transformed, how character emerges
from hidden depths, how the star players are those that
work for the team rather than themselves. A lesson for those
who focus solely on talent management: it is not the super-stars
that make great projects work, it is teamwork, based on
mutual respect and trust among members.