In the 2004 Summer Olympics, the Australian Women's Eight rowing team stood in fifth place, three seconds behind the leading Romanian crew team 500 meters from the finish line. When the Aussie’s were inside 400 meters one of the eight women quit rowing. She dropped her oars and laid back resting her head on the lap of the rower seated behind her.

The Aussies finished dead last, 10 seconds behind the next closest finisher.

Ever feel like one of your teammates isn’t pulling their weight in your company?

How do you feel when company leaders continue to look the other way and fail to hold team members accountable to their performance? Or worse, they call a meeting to preach to the group about teamwork, working together and supporting one another to get the job done?

Well, it even happens at the Olympic level of teamwork.

As a matter of fact, this was not the first time this woman quit on her team. She did it just two years earlier in the World Rowing Championships.

There are few athletic events where one person can make such a dramatic difference in the team’s performance by not “pulling their weight.” Rowing is certainly one of them (my wife reminds me of this fact every time we get into a two-person kayak) and offers a great example of what happens in business when employees do not work together to help their company, department or division achieve its goals.

The challenge in business is that few company leaders really understand “teamwork.” That’s because the concept of teamwork is amorphous. It’s much "pornography" as defined by Justice Stewart in Jacobellis Vs Ohio (1964) when he said, "I can't define pornography, but I know it when I see it."
Teamwork may not be easy to define, but we know it when we see it. And, it provides a tremendous sense of fulfillment when we experience it.

Teamwork, in a business sense, just like an Olympic crew team is about everyone "rowing together" with every individual pulling their own weight fulfilling their individual, and sometimes unique, team role. It is the synergistic effect of individuals doing what is required of them, individually, that results in desired outcomes being achieved and goals being met.

So where does teamwork come into it then? Does it exist? In a sense yes, if we define teamwork as the result of necessary individual unique efforts combining to achieve a predetermined goal. And no if we define teamwork as a group of people who spend time together in the work environment in meeting after meeting to discuss their "team goals" or to create that sense of "team spirit".

In today’s global economy individuals may not even come into contact with each other. Daily communication may be limited to one email. For example, a sales person in one country can forward an order to production in another, then production hands let transport in another city know the finished product is ready for delivery of the building materials to a building site. These people don't even work in the same department, the same city, and some not even in the same country. Teamwork? They may not even have met one another. Yet, it doesn’t matter if teamwork is redefined to get it right.

That’s why it's vital for business leaders today to understand and define “teamwork” in a much different manner than they may be used to.

This is why an off-site “team building” activity such as low ropes courses, and the like, fail to provide much of a return on investment. They are great activities to build a camaraderie, to a certain extent, but unless the foundation of individual performance expectations with specific measurable accountabilities that are managed to, are in place, they actually do more harm, than good.

Therefore, the key to great teamwork in business, and athletics, is to have everyone knowing what is expected of them and fulfilling that responsibility to the expected standard of performance. It is the successful result of fulfilling their job description, combined with everyone else in the department or company fulfilling their respective job descriptions, that results in these combined efforts achieving company goals.

That is "teamwork."

Looked at in that perspective, you can see every employee as a "rower". If one person drops their oars, or fails to follow through when others are counting on them, it means those relying on them can't complete their own tasks… it has a domino effect.

To apply our earlier example of the building materials manufacturer, the transport department wears abuse from management who has fielded complaints from unhappy customers who did not receive their expected orders. Transport failed to do what was required because they didn't receive the instructions on the goods to be delivered from Production. Production didn't know anything about it because Sales did not send the information through. Sales didn't do that because they took an unauthorised extended lunch break that day to celebrate a colleague's engagement. In not pulling their weight and doing what was required of them, they let "the team" down.

Most all of us have experienced something similar at some point in our life when working on a team.

That is why I always say…Teamwork never fails, individuals fail teamwork!

Author's Bio: 

Skip Weisman is The Leadership & Workplace Communication Expert. Skip works with the leaders and teams in small to medium sized businesses and not-for-profits to improve communication, collaboration and teamwork in a way that delivers champion level results. To get started on improving your organization’s communication download the free report “The 7 Deadliest Sins of Leadership & Workplace Communication,” available at