Smells like Team Spirit*


October 25th, 2016

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shutterstock_109717886As the UK navigates its way through its post-Brexit vote uncertainty and disunity, the nation’s Team GB and Paralympic athletes gave the nation a much-needed excuse for collective celebration with their recent medal parades in Manchester and London. What a phenomenal summer it had been for British Olympic sport.

Watching the celebrations on TV reminded me of a conversation with one of my CEO clients the week before. We were talking about some events he was wanting us to run for his top 40 managers and I asked him what he hoped to achieve through these events. “I want to build them as a team”, he said.

We had already been doing some work with this group under the leadership of the previous CEO and had, up to that point, described our work with them as building a ‘collaborative leadership community’. This was because, from most expert definitions of work-based teams, a large group of 40 could never function as a classic ‘team’.

Size matters

Katzenbach and Smith define a team as:

“a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable”1

Most work-team performance experts agree about size and say the optimum team size is around 5-8 people. Team Roles guru, Meredith Belbin’s optimum team size is just four.

Belbin explains:

“(In a team of four) everyone will have equal(ish) input, airtime, responsibility, actions. There shouldn’t be any duplication of roles (functional or team) and decision making will be less drawn out…People are more likely to challenge, discuss problems openly, and get to solutions”2.

So, in these terms, a group of 40 managers could hardly function as a team – and I said so to my CEO client. But he was having none of it. ‘Rubbish!’ he retorted ‘Semantics! What about Team GB?’

Was Team GB a team?
His challenge got me thinking. Neither Team GB, nor the Paralympics Team, could be described as teams, using the criteria above. They are conglomerations of teams: and within those teams each individual has his or her own personal target – for a gold, silver or bronze medal, or perhaps just reaching the final cut. Their individual targets are the centre of their attention. It may be different when a team sport such as hockey is involved where efforts are obviously more focussed on a collective team goal. And from what we know of Cycling’s success, there is clearly a team of specialists behind each athlete that might better match the team definition above. But in what sense, if at all, could large groups such as Team GB (366 athletes) or the GB Paralympics Team (264 athletes) or my CEO’s Top 40 managers, really function as teams?

Smells like team spirit…
Listening to interviews with the athletes during and after the games, Team GB certainly seemed to show, and benefit from, building a sense of team, with a unified goal of making their country proud. They seemed to have a heightened sense of what might be called ‘team spirit’.

The Oxford Dictionary defines team spirit as:

‘Feelings of camaraderie among the members of a group, enabling them to cooperate and work well together.’

But it seemed to me that Team GB had more than this. They were being buoyed up and inspired by each other’s success – even by success in completely different sports. There was a coalescing around national identity and, perhaps, the overarching medal target for the nation. There were deliberate attempts to build this sense of collective national pride and team spirit in the athletes’ camp. As Owen Gibson of The Guardian observed at the time:

Despite only a third of the British team staying in the athlete’s village, the aim has been to make them feel like a cohesive whole. The swimmers, for example, were part of the team holding camp in Belo Horizonte for the first time…after disappointment in the pool in London one of the priorities was to change the mindset. When each team arrives in the camp, as they have done on a rolling basis throughout the Games, they are presented with their Team GB tracksuit at a special ceremony”3.

Gibson also noted:
“The willingness of big names such as Andy Murray and Justin Rose, together with experienced Olympians such as Wiggins and Grainger, to impart advice and be key members of the team has also been praised. Mark England (the experienced chef de mission since Salt Lake City in 2002) said this week it was the best team dynamic he had ever experienced”3.

It was spoken of so widely by GB’s athletes, there seems little doubt that ‘Team Spirit’ made a significant contribution towards GB’s second place on both the Olympic and Paralympic medal tables. But it seems to be less about functional team working and seems to have more of an emotional and even spiritual quality about it that can enhance individual and collective performance.

The essence of team spirit
The Olympics creates an intensity every four years that may be difficult to recreate in many workplaces. But perhaps the essence of ‘team spirit’ gleaned from GB’s Olympic and Paralympic success in Rio could be applied to a more standard workplace setting. Here is what I have noted:

  1. A sense of belonging – and a sense of loyalty to a collective cause – a sense of ‘we’, not just ‘I’
  2. A sense of identity, a name and even some rituals that contributed to that sense of collective identity
  3. An inspiring collective goal and purpose that their individual goals could tangibly contribute towards
  4. A willingness for big stars to be members of a wider team, able to come alongside and encourage fellow, relatively unknown, less experienced team members – for a collective purpose.
  5. A celebration of success in the spirit of community – each individual success celebrated by the whole.

So maybe these are the elements of team-building I should think about enhancing as I work with this group of 40 managers over the next six months? Watch this space…

Back at Brexit, a challenge awaits the ‘team’ of Brexit ministers. Can they coalesce around the common cause of exiting the EU while maintaining cordial relationships with EU countries? Can they come out of it all ‘smelling like team spirit’ on our behalf? We’ll have to wait and see!




1Katzenbach J.R and Smith, D.K (1999) The Wisdom of Teams. HBR Press


3Gibson, Owen The Guardian, 15 Aug 2016


*with apologies to Nirvana!