Working the Fundamentals

October 15, 2010 by
Filed under: Leadership, People, Teamwork 

With all the time we have watching our kids in their activities this fall, a pattern begins to emerge. All of these activities involve practice and drills intended to improve proficiency in fundamentals of each activity: dribbling and passing in soccer and basketball, scales and chord progressions in guitar, footwork drills and off-ice practice in figure skating. While the kids generally loathe this portion of their activities, there’s a good reason for this: they are working the fundamentals.

In all of these endeavours, we’re lucky to have dedicated and skilled coaches to teach these basics properly. After one basketball boot camp, I remarked that my son had just received more technique training than I have received in my entire life! The results in all this effort (and drudgery, if you were to ask the kids) is that they are showing remarkable progress, particularly at this young age where they are essentially sponges for knowledge, and haven’t had the attitude of ‘I can do that’ drilled out of them as most adults have.

In sports and music, the focus on the basics really never ends for the serious participants. Many professionals at the top of their game will continue to invest hours every day, working on the fundamentals. With a strong command of the basics, the more elegant and spectacular moves become far easier to master, as you don’t even have to think of the basic building blocks – they just come naturally.

In collaborating on teams, what are those basic building blocks, the fundamentals, that support strong individual performance and a high performing team?

I would think that one of the first ones is appreciation of others. An awareness of the contributions that everyone brings to the team, both technically and interpersonally. It is important to cultivate this appreciation, to seek out and recognize the contributions of others: and as Ken Blanshard suggests, praise them for it.

Another one of these fundamentals would be the liberal use of what we would call ‘common courtesies’. Being genuine in the use of ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in your interactions certainly shows your appreciation of others, but extends it to the everyday occurrences, rather than those exceptional events. Boosting our ‘courtesies per hour’ rate would, for most of us, be a positive improvement.

Coming from these is a thoughtfulness of others and their perspectives. Going beyond seeing their contributions as valuable and interacting in a courteous manner, I see thoughtfulness as more actively thinking about their needs, their perspectives, and taking these things into account in our actions. Wondering ‘what would they think’ in a given situation is essential for effective teams.

Finally, I would suggest that a strong ability to actively listen is essential as well. Building up on the previous elements, this is a natural progression, but for many of us active listening remains a difficult skill in practice: one that if we aren’t consciously trying to do so, we will be quite clumsy.

Like the fundamentals in sports and music, with conscious practice we can get better at these over time. We can become more fluid with their application, and get to a point where they are part of our natural behaviours. They become more strongly ingrained and a robust part of our nature.

Like those other fundamentals as well, we need to be careful to not take them for granted. We can become rusty without practice, and lose sight of them altogether in difficult situations. Think back to a time when your team was under some pressure: how effectively did you manage to retain a grasp of these team fundamentals: appreciation of others, common courtesies, thoughtfulness and an ability to listen actively. For most of us, as the pressure rises, these fundamentals easily fall away: we’ll lose our cool with others, talk over them in meetings, dismiss their input as less important or meaningful than ours.

We need to continue to work these fundamentals if we are interested in building and maintaining a strong team environment. Try taking the rest of the day today and practice these fundamental skills as you interact with those around you. My guess is that others will recognize and be pleasantly surprised, and you’ll get more of it in return. You will also have taken a step to make these skills a more intrinsic part of your nature. – JB

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