Teamwork in Times of Crisis

Author: Dirk Schlimm | | Categories: COVID-19 , Crisis management , Influence , Influencing Powerful People , IPP 2.0 , Teamwork

Blog by Jenoir International Inc

Eminent teamwork expert, John Katzenbach, shares three insights about teamwork that are worth repeating: (1) teamwork is not about team building, it is about performance; (2) teamwork happens across departments and hierarchies; and (3) the most ambitious goals can only be achieved through teamwork. If Katzenbach is right, and I believe he is, teamwork has never been more important: With the massive upheaval brought on by COVID-19, working together well is not just a nice idea, it is an imperative.

As I talk about this with people in business, government, and not-for-profit, there is a heightened awareness of both the constructive power of teamwork and the destructive effects of its absence. It seems that the crisis is an amplifier for good and for ill: some groups are coming closer together unified by a common purpose whereas others are being pulled apart by mounting stress and tension. Looking at the COVID response of governments around the world to the COVID we can observe both: There are reports of unprecedented cooperation among former political adversaries at different levels of government and reports of crumbling solidarity and cohesion among nation partners. While it is true that “charity begins at home” it is an equal fact that many times there are just too many interdependencies to go it alone. To manage well in times of crisis, we must understand the key principles of teamwork and get better at applying them consistently.

Here are the main points from my perspective:

  1. Your team is not who you think it is

    In an effort to make ourselves feel good at work, we have gotten used to calling every work group, department or even the whole company a “team.” But as Katzenbach reminds us, teamwork typically doesn’t happen within organizational units or even entire organizations, it happens across them. A team is a group of people from different departments, specialities, backgrounds, locations, etc. that is called upon to accomplish an important purpose together. It is more like a task force for a specific mission, including and especially a mission that was not anticipated by organizational design and established processes. During the COVID crisis, organizing the supply of scarce personal protective equipment has become a priority of national importance overnight - with never before imagined challenges. It has brought together medical professionals, logistics & supply chain experts, and international trade negotiators who were not working together yesterday, but they are now. They all “report” to different bosses but work closely across their respective hierarchies. This type of purpose/problem specific teamwork is nothing new and is required to get things done in other areas. Closing a complex technology deal calls for seamless cooperation of sales, product, finance, IT, and legal experts; recruiting high level talent draws on a team of talent acquisition specialists, hiring managers and other experts (compensation, legal, etc.); and dealing with a major customer problem (especially at a time when paying customers are much harder to find) can require a whole cast of characters from various functions and offices pulling together. What is important is that all of them understand that they are part of the team: They all work together and have a stake in getting the task at hand done. They are not just “representing” let alone looking out for their departments.

  2. Know who is in charge

    Every sports “team” has and needs a captain. Yet on a task force type team it is not always immediately clear who is in charge. Two problems are common: (1) Too many people want to take the lead and start quibbling over who is in charge (for example: different departments or international offices want to take the lead on an initiative) or (2) no one is taking charge “of the whole thing” - everyone just wants to do their piece per their job descriptions. Both situations are equally troublesome. The first insight here is that, while executive support is essential, the highest paid person on the “team” does not automatically make the best team captain. Far from it. As fighter pilots know, the mission leader is the one in charge, not the general who is flying along. The team (or their executive sponsor) must decide who is best positioned to take the lead. Who has the biggest stake? Who is closest to the issue? Who has the right resources? And who has the right skill and experience? One more important question is: Who can focus with the required level of attention? Senior managers are in many cases not the best mission leaders. While taking charge may come naturally they are also easily distracted, have many other priorities, and often lack the required appreciation for detail. Leading a team is hard work. The crisis may have interrupted regular processes and cut off resources; some people who should help won’t; and yet others work in faraway places and are absorbed by their own – very different - concerns. Someone must chase them down, keep them engaged, and escalate when necessary. Team leadership requires people who see the bigger picture, can be hands-on if needed, and have the patience and humility to manage through reality as it presents itself.

  3. Understand and make clear what is expected

    The COVID crisis has changed the way we live and work. One ubiquitous phenomenon is a shift to Everything from Home (EFH) be it working, learning, training, socializing; this has led to a massive switch to digital service delivery across a spectrum of previous in-person interactions. Governmental stay at home orders have also led to an increase in multigenerational families living closely together; this includes university students who have returned home from their residences (some far away) and have re-occupied their childhood bedrooms. In that regard, it was instructive to read the advice for families living in close quarters provided by military veterans, including a retired vice-admiral and former submariner. Routine and defined responsibilities, they say, are indispensable including making a daily plan of chores and dividing the workload among family members. To put it bluntly, some family members may not understand the expectation of cleaning up after themselves unless they are specifically and repeatedly told to do so; present company included. The family home is not a frat house.

    Things are no different with business teams now working remotely and facing tougher challenges due to the COVID economic fall-out. Projects and work processes have to be “made work” in new and different ways. A lot of aspects of work - technology, schedules, deliverables - may not operate reliably and so the “expectation” may well be that people “figure it out” instead of complaining and waiting for someone to do it for them. The crisis puts a huge premium on being proactive, resourceful, and creative. At such a time, dealing with people who think that we are still in business as usual can be infuriating. But then again, people may simply not understand how their jobs translate into new responsibilities in the new environment; in particular they may not realize that things that were easy to do for other departments in the past now require their cooperation - teamwork may have to make up for processes interrupted by crisis. So, what are they responsible for? What are they to do when others don’t cooperate? Here senior executives must step in and set the tone. P.F. Drucker aptly observed that “unless expectations are clear there will be no teamwork. Instead there will be friction, frustration, and conflict.” And so, good teamwork starts with making expectations clear and being willing to accept new responsibilities; and yes, some of these new responsibilities will make jobs more difficult. But unless this is done and accepted there simply will be no teamwork, there will only be friction and frustration.

  4. Provide context

    Managing in a time of crisis means that we need more help from others - even for everyday tasks. For example, companies around the world are busy figuring out whether their operations fall under “essential business” exemptions. This can be a matter of business survival and maintaining essential operations in areas that are not immediately obvious to those making the rules. Legal departments, for example, are being asked questions they have never been asked before. They cannot divine the answers just because they are lawyers but they need input from sales, customers, operations and others. They cannot work in a vacuum, they need a team. Therefore, while asking for help is a big aspect of teamwork it must be done effectively and respectfully. This means more than please and thank you: We must make it easy for others to help us. Everyone knows the frustration of receiving a string of emails with the subject line “please handle” or the one liner “can you please answer this.” Handle what? Answer what? There is no summary of the situation, no explanation who the players are, and no discussion why the issue is even important in the big scheme of things. Sometimes, it looks like a problem just gets thrown over the digital wall - “looks like your department, you figure it out.” Asking for help in such a manner is not just ineffective, it is rude. It communicates that my time is more valuable than yours, and you should take your time to figure out what is going on. In contrast, making the effort to “bring colleagues into the situation” is so much more effective: It saves me reading 15 emails, it makes clear to me what you need, and it allows me to focus on the problem in the right way and provide answers to the right questions. So next time you ask for help: Please come up with a meaningful subject line identifying who and what (point of interest: email subject lines can be changed!) and please, please provide context.

  5. Solve problems

    If I have learned one thing in business it is this: Nothing is easy - even things that should be are not. There is always a wrinkle and always someone who disturbs the flow. That’s why it takes a team to tackle problems; things are complex and tension is built in. We want short term and long term results; we want lots of sales and little risk; and the list of built-in contradictions goes on. Typically these points of tension are represented by different departments, such as sales and finance arguing over price concessions, or local field offices and global headquarters arguing over standard vs customized products and marketing approaches. This tension can be exacerbated when people from different disciplines or cultures collide - German engineers approach things very differently than American sales people. One of the vexing problems of the current COVID crisis is that we want to protect people’s health and keep the economy going. And so we must be good at solving problems, difficult problems. In the context of teamwork this requires, first and foremost, that we listen to team members who represent different disciplines and acknowledge their perspective. We can be passionate about our point of view but we must be respectful and we must get into problem solving mode - that means creating new options that integrate more than one perspective. This process is at the core of the idea of win/win, which was first discovered by Morton Deutsch, and explained in his 1948 PHD thesis. The story goes like this: Morton watched how a head and assistant coach argued about the best play in a football game. He discerned that this was not an argument about who was right but what was the best play - because more than anything (including being right) both coaches wanted to win the game. As a result of such an argument among people on the same team there may well emerge a third option that is better than the initial two. This looking for options is a key component of creative problem solving. It requires excellent listening skills and healthy debate. Teams and their members must be good at both.

  6. Provide and accept feedback

    Good teamwork does not come natural. All of us are befallen by the one-man/woman-show or “not my problem” syndrome. So we must work hard at getting better at it. The good news is that most people want to do just that and that is also what the crisis requires of us. One of the best ways to get better at things is to seek out, accept, and provide feedback - especially of the unvarnished variety. Providing feedback should be built into the teamwork “routine.'' Rather than wait for problems to become unmanageable the team should pause at regular intervals and ask: How are we doing as a team? What is working well? What could we do better? Where have we missed each others’ expectations? Do we know who is in charge? Should someone else be in charge now that we know the problem better? This has to be done in a way that is constructive - let’s understand first, get to the problem, and please, let’s put the mission first.

One final point: We must take responsibility

COVID is the ultimate teamwork challenge - ranging from the societal and global corporation level down to small businesses in a broader ecosystem. Teamwork ultimately requires that the team members see themselves as being responsible for what the team must accomplish. Team players are concerned more about the team meeting its goals than “their” metrics looking good, “their” resources being protected, and “their” bonuses getting paid. Yes, everyone has to pull their weight and do their job, but team players bring in equal measure a sense of shared responsibility. They step in and they offer help - whether it is part of job description or not. Earlier this week I talked to a senior operations executive in Europe who had just joined a new senior leadership “team.” He was glad he had made the move because, as he said, he had joined a true team. In his previous company he was part of a culture where fellow executives were primarily looking to make sure their department was OK. He summed up the culture succinctly and pointedly: “Nobody would help you.” Yet wanting to help was part of his DNA and so he just didn’t fit any more. Team culture is a culture of both individual and joint responsibility. As Katzenbach says, “team players are trying to accomplish something bigger than themselves.” For them, doing their part to get their organizations and communities through the COVID crisis is not a job, it is a responsibility.


This blog is designed to inform readers and stimulate discussion. It is shared with the understanding that it does not constitute legal, accounting, securities or other professional advice to be relied upon. If such advice is needed, the services of a competent professional person should be sought.