Summers at the lake are very nostalgic for me. They are slow. They are simple. They instantly fuse my senses with my memories. Lazy mornings, sand in the bed, berry stained fingers, and the still air of a star soaked night.
I grew up at the lake. Literally. It was here, in the dog days, that I explored, took risks and gained an independence that only my grandparents would allow. It was also here, alongside my cousins, that I learned my most valuable lessons about Team.
My grandparents always had some combination of my six cousins at the cottage. We could not have been more different. But it was made very clear that we were a Team. Not the hand-selected elite type, but the kind of mixed bag that you inherit. The real kind of Team. My grandparents, who never went to college or read a book about leadership, knew inherently how a Team functions best. So their legacy was to teach us, one lesson at a time.
Today, as luck would have it, I find myself working with Teams from all over the world. I have observed, listened and learned. For the most part, I think we have over-intellectualized Team functioning and made it more complicated than it really needs to be. I can’t help but think my grandparents could have worked for Google’s People Operations Department and saved the researchers for Project Aristotle a lot of time.
Yes. I know Psychological Safety and Employee Optimization are real things nowadays. And they’re good things. Important things. But I’d like to just point out that my Grandparents actually said them first…well sort of.
So, in an attempt to share with you their wisdom, and tell it like it is, here are the 5 Team Maxims of my grandparents that I believe still hold true today.
Some theorists would call this ‘delayed gratification’. But for my grandparents it was just common sense. It sounded like this,
“If you want to eat from the garden, then you have to help to weed it first.”
“If you want to go swimming, then you’ll have to carry your own stuff and make the long walk to the beach.”
On this Team, we learned that we each had a responsibility and an obligation to contribute. Nobody was entitled to anything. On this Team, we were equal. It mattered not what privilege we came from before descending upon the cottage. We had to be flexible and adapt to whatever the new situation would be. That meant at times you might have to cover for somebody who was sick, hurt or busy with something else. Some days there was more to do than others. Change was par for the course. Protest was futile, and as grandpa would say “Many hands make for light work.”
2. Fair does not mean equal
My grandparents were always assessing age, experience, ability and need. They impressed upon us the importance of each doing our best. Sometimes that ‘best’ meant you may work faster, do more or be better than someone else. But, it behooved us to stop and take a look behind if we were too far out in front. We needed to help each other so that we could feast in the garden sooner and spend more time at the beach together.
We learned very quickly that single moments in the limelight were lonely and boring. Being first didn’t mean much if we were eating peas alone or skipping stones by ourself. These victories were better when shared with our Team. There was always an uneven distribution of work, affection, and praise. It never truly felt fair…because it never looked the same for each person. But that was life. In due time, we each received everything that we needed. When we were horrified by a perceived injustice, grandpa, acting as both judge and jury, would say “It’ll all come out in the wash”.
3. Figure it out
The subtext here was much more significant than the statement. My grandpa actually meant “Figure it out, because if I have to figure it out for you, it’ll be much worse.” So we learned. Most often the hard way. When we tattled, we were ignored. So we experimented with expressing our opinions directly to the source of our aggravation. That didn’t always go so well, but we were continually encouraged to compromise and find the common ground. When we tried to gang up on one cousin, in an effort to create a lopsided victory and assert our power through division, my grandpa would show us the value of multiplication. Usually with a “make work” project like cleaning the outhouse or bathing the dog. So we learned that the best way to solve an issue with a person was to speak directly to them and get it over with. Never dwell or let the anger fester. Sometimes the best option was to not say anything at all because not every small annoyance needed to become a big issue. As Grandpa said, “ Say your piece and move on.”
4. Think before you speak
My grandparents were always in a state of emotional triage. Inevitably, with six passionate and boisterous children, there was a disagreement somewhere. But they always met the energy with infinite composure and a measured response. When we tested out relational cruelty as a way to win quickly, we were met with strong rebuke. This forced us to find different ways of expressing our indignation, and more importantly to think through the consequences of our words. We held each other accountable, but we were never allowed to be mean. We were advised that if we had nothing nice to say, then we were to say nothing at all. My grandpa, a little less selective with his word choice, simply put it as “Don’t be a knucklehead.” Enough said.
5. Say you’re sorry
My grandma would not let us leave an argument without an apology from both sides. Most times, it was made reluctantly and prematurely, but she believed in this truce signal as a re-set. She could not have been more right. Grandma taught us that an apology is not a sign of weakness or admittance of defeat, but simply an opportunity to show kindness. Taking turns and listening to someone else’s opinion was a key part of the reconciliation process. You didn’t have to agree with it, but you did have to respect it. Sometimes you even had to make the first move when you didn’t think you should. Or as grandpa put it, “Be the bigger person.”
Your Team Maxims
There you have it. They’re not fancy. They’re not lifted from a best selling book. But they are real, honest, and wise. Indeed, they pass the critical test of time and are still relevant to the Teams I work with today.
As you think of your own Team, I encourage you to put these simple maxims to the test. How can these universal truths help you to build relationships, defuse tension, create compassionate dialogue and move beyond the stagnant issues that are holding you back?
Perhaps you have your own to add to this list. Or maybe you could even create some simple ones with your Team. This exercise could generate a powerful and worthwhile conversation.