One of my all-time favorite movies is Remember the Titans. It follows the legendary 1971 high school team that won the Virginia state football championship and rose to become the No. 2 ranked high school team in the country. But those victories alone were not what inspired a Hollywood film and provoked barbershop conversation decades later.
The players attended a newly integrated high school in Alexandria, Virginia, a town teeming with tension. That season they conquered the racial divide among themselves and taught their fans to do the same.
“At a time when the city was ready to burn itself to the ground, the kids stepped out and changed attitudes among themselves and their community,” Coach Herman Boone said in an interview included in the movie’s DVD.
They had embraced a teamwork attitude; each member learning to put aside his prejudice, mistrust, pride and fear to become part of a greater whole.
The shift from ‘me’ to ‘we’ (or in the Titans’ case, from us and them to just us) doesn’t come naturally for everyone. It sure didn’t for me. That’s why today we’re going to examine some qualities of a good team player, and discuss how to adopt an attitude of collaboration.
Talk it out
Coach Boone might have taught ball-handling strategies, but the more critical skill he imparted to his players was communication. He made the young men ride together, room together and train together. They resisted—except for one white player who crossed the color line and set the tone for everyone else. The steady wins on the field might have cracked the wall, but it was the locker room conversation that demolished it, Boone later said.
Communicating means more than simply talking (and definitely more than just texting). To improve your connection with people…
- Be candid. Harboring hidden agendas, relaying messages through third parties, sugarcoating bad news, beating around the bush and airing grievances on social media are surefire ways to sabotage group relations.
- Be quick. If something is bothering you, address the problem within 24 hours so that a short-term frustration doesn’t morph into a long-term grudge.
- Be inclusive. Be discreet when needed, but otherwise share as much work-related information with your team as possible. Open communication increases trust, trust increases ownership and ownership increases participation.
Roll with it
Trailblazing record producer Quincy Jones was once accused of being a sellout. He was big in the jazz world, rubbing elbows with the genre’s most renowned musicians. But in the 1980s, he jumped into the pop scene with an emerging superstar, Michael Jackson, to the chagrin of jazz diehards.
Jones shrugged them off. “When I was 12 to 13 years old, we played everything—strip music, rhythm and blues,” he told Context magazine. “We played pop music, [polkas], and Sousa…. We played every club in town—black, white, tennis. So I’ve always had a range to draw from.”
I’m not sure there’s a better attribute to bring to a team than adaptability. What organization doesn’t benefit from someone who is able to roll with financial ups and downs, pinch-hit for colleagues, adjust to changing operations or shift strategies on the fly? These team players exhibit a nimbleness that’s contagious, injecting a can-do spirit across an entire division.
You can become more flexible in your thinking if you…
- Keep learning. For many years, I carried a notecard in my pocket and jotted down new information as I learned it. I got into the habit of looking for new material and skills to acquire.
- Think beyond your role. How many times have you heard a colleague whine, “That’s not my job”? Don’t be that office bellyacher! Instead learn a little bit about everyone’s duties, especially those higher up on the ladder than you. You never know when an opportunity will arise to save the day in a company crisis.
- Think creatively. Look for unconventional solutions when you meet a challenge. “There’s an expression that says a person’s age can be determined by the degree of pain he experiences when he comes in contact with a new idea,” Jones once said. “The ones who don’t react with fear are the really creative people. ‘Let’s try it,’ they’ll say. ‘Let’s go there even if we blow it.’”
Wave your pom-poms
Figuratively, of course. But consider the enthusiasm of sideline cheerleaders and how much energy they infuse into fields and stands.
I think about companies like Harley-Davidson, which went from owning 80% of its market to nearly going under in the early 1980s. Or General Motors’ sputtering in the 2000s, or Starbucks diluting itself with rapid, unsustainable expansion.
In all three cases, the enthusiasm of the CEO and employees rescued those companies from the brink of disaster and grew them into the juggernauts they are today. You don’t need to be cheerleader-perky to bring energy into your workspace. But you can grow your enthusiasm by…
- Showing a sense of urgency. Give yourself deadlines for completing the steps of a project, especially the mundane tasks you’re putting off.
- Taking on more. When someone asks you to do something, do it and then go beyond the assignment.
- Striving for excellence. Nothing breeds enthusiasm like the feeling of success that follows a job well done. Let that momentum carry you into the next project.
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz perhaps said it best: “When you’re surrounded by people who share a passionate commitment around a common purpose, anything is possible.”
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These qualities are merely a taste of the many attributes good team players bring to their organizations.
I’ll leave you, then, with one final task: Think about the people in your sphere. Consider everyone from the parking attendant to the CEO. Identify those who exhibit the best team qualities. Watch them. How do they put their attitudes into action? How do they inspire others to follow their examples? Teamwork doesn’t come naturally for everybody. But remember those Titans, and know that attitudes can change.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of SUCCESS magazine and has been updated. Photo by Jacob Lund/Shutterstock