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Building Teams - 27 September 2011

The man in this photo is Izzeldin Abuelaish.  He was born and raised in a Palestinian refugee camp.  His family of 11 lived in a small room and they all slept on one mattress, except for the baby that slept in the sink.  There was no electricity, no running water, and no toilets.

Despite this, Izzeldin excelled at school and eventually received a scholarship to study medicine in Egypt.  Before long, he got married, had children, and became the first Palestinian doctor to work in an Israeli hospital.  He was located in the maternity ward.

Years later, during fierce fighting in the Gaza Strip, Izzeldin's house was shelled by the Israeli army.  The rockets hit his kids' bedroom.  He rushed in and saw them decapitated, their blood and body parts strewn across the floor.  His three daughters were killed in that attack.  And yet his autobiography is titled I Shall Not Hate, because even though there were endless cries for reprisals, he refused to get revenge.


Referring to the peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, he writes in his book that the talks have broken down over a proposed border, "in other words, an externality.  Let me tell you, there is no magic square yard, or hilltop, or valley, that if ceded by one side to the other will bring about peace in the Middle East.  Peace can only come about after an internal shift - on both sides.  What we need is respect, and the inner strength to refuse to hate."

The key words he mentioned were externality and internal shift.  And they apply not just in political conflicts, but in any situation where groups of people need to unite and work together, whether it's among friends or within families or in the workplace.  At work, when managers try to build more cohesive teams, they often make the mistake of focusing on externalities rather than the internal shifts required for greater collaboration.

Externalities don't work.  They're superficial ways of temporarily disguising a problem.  The lack of teamwork inevitably returns.  Externalities include:

  • Team building games, the effectiveness of which is unsupported by research
  • Values statements, which are redundant because you can't change people's values
  • Forced interaction, which can be time-wasting and annoying rather than fruitful

An internal shift is more essential.  This can be stimulated via the following methods:

  • Facilitate communication and debate, even if this results in conflict (which can actually be healthy if managed well)
  • Create consistency, especially by keeping the same members of the team intact for as long as possible without disrupting the dynamic they've formed
  • Foster understanding, and this can be done by conducting personality profiles, so that team members know each others' preferred communication and working styles
  • Provide sufficient information and resources, because teams crumble when members need to compete for supplies, attention, opportunities, and other basics

Team members don't have to like each other to work well together.  They also don't need to be laughing all day or having fun in order to be effective, although it doesn't hurt.  In the words of Izzeldin Abuelaish, "what we need is respect", and that begins with an internal shift.


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