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A group effort: how to achieve successful teamwork

18 February 2021

By Dr Christine Phan

You couldn’t lose.

The US Men’s Olympic basketball team has always been a safe bet for any punter.

The reasons were obvious.

Basketball was invented in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1891, giving the Americans 113 years to perfect the sport prior to the 2004 Athens Games. Throw into the mix the NBA with an estimated $15 billion worth of funding, an almost limitless pool of domestic talent and you have a sporting weapon of mass destruction.

Other countries pitted against the Americans were hoping to lose gracefully. Heading the US Men’s team was Larry Brown, a revered name in basketball coaching history. The player roster was lined with remarkable talent.

LeBron James. Tim Duncan. Dwayne Wade. Similar names peppered the Athens team roster. The bookmakers tipped them to win gold by a clear margin.

But they didn’t.

In their opening game against Puerto Rico they were demolished by a 19-point difference. Noting the lacklustre performance, other teams smelt blood in the water and attacked. In the end, the US barely scraped by Lithuania in their last match to limp home with a bronze. It was the most disappointing international basketball result in American history.

Critics were stunned. Audiences shocked. How could the Americans with their history of unrivalled Olympic dominance, with the most professional league of players to cherry pick from, come back home with a bronze? It was a disaster the US would recover from in Beijing. But the stain of shame proved impossible to remove.

Like all disasters, there is always a post-mortem operation performed by the experts. Improvements are built upon the corpses of mistakes. Following the analysis, sports officials dissected the team and exposed the flaws.

There were three major problems. All centred on teamwork, or a lack thereof. And though the dental arena may seem far removed from international sport, the lessons learned apply not only to Olympic level competition, but businesses small and large alike.

Problem #1: Poor leadership

Larry Brown was an excellent coach. So good in fact, his portrait hangs on the Hall of Fame wall in the Naismith Basketball Memorial in Springfield.

He is also a famous narcissist.

Despite having a successful career transforming losing teams into winners, Brown was publicly seen berating his players, the referees and the selection panel throughout the competition. His selfish nature and inability to put the team first before his own ego allowed personal feelings to get in the way of better judgment. This showed when he refused to allow star players, such as LeBron James, to get more court time as punishment for showing up late to team meetings.

While clinicians reading this article no doubt understand the importance of punctuality, sometimes we need to see the view from where our patients and staff stand. It is understandably frustrating when your assistant hands you the wrong instrument in the middle of a difficult procedure. At the same time your receptionist wants you to answer an urgent call and your patient in the chair is gagging.

Bad things happen and it gets stressful.

But for good or ill, dentists are leaders. The difference between great and poor leadership revolves around attitude. We can’t dictate what will transpire in a clinical environment. But we can prepare our equipment and ourselves to anticipate the situation.

Poor leadership reflects upon the individual. Following the disastrous Olympic performance, Brown was vocal in criticising everyone but himself. He was never made head of another international basketball team again.

On the other hand, good leadership reflects not only upon the leader, but the entire team. Keeping a cool head when things are falling apart keeps staff morale up and makes a difficult day easier. Your staff are in the trenches with you. When all hell breaks loose in battle, a good platoon leader won’t shoot subordinates out of frustration.

Neither should you.

Problem #2: Selection of individual skill over team cohesion

US Men’s Olympic basketball teams have been historically filled with superstars. The 1992 Barcelona games saw the Dream Team with names such as Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley.

The 2004 Olympic team did not lack talent. They lacked cohesion.

To say the 2004 team was hastily assembled would be an understatement. Cobbled together at the 11th hour in the lead up to the games, the players barely got a chance to play with each other before they were pitted against international teams who train for this type of competition for years.

In addition, key positions were substituted with players unfamiliar to the role. Although the individual player talent was outstanding, team members didn’t complement each other’s skills and egos clashed.

While interviewing staff is not as glamorous as Olympic team selection, practice owners need to evaluate how new staffing arrangements will impact team dynamics. Tempting as it may be to hire the most talented candidates, practice owners must question how well they will gel with your team.

Individual talent only goes so far. If a talented associate dentist does excellent clinical work at the expense of your staff’s happiness, will you still portray the image of a cohesive team to your patients? If the answer is no, then maybe counselling is in order. Failing which, it may be easier to hire someone of lesser talent but a better attitude.

In a team environment, talent is overrated. Clinical work can always be improved with time and diligence. A poor work attitude heavily etched in even the most talented individual is unrestorable.

Problem #3: Individual agendas

If the famed management guru Meredith Belbin analysed the 2004 Olympic roster, he would describe them as a group, not a team. A group is a collection of people with individual agendas working towards an outcome. They will be uninterested in sharing rewards or responsibilities and will work together only when necessary.

Belbin describes a team as a collection of people with a shared purpose who work together for the common good. Outputs of individual members are hard to define due to the high degree of collaboration and sharing between members.

The failure of the 2004 Olympic team due to individual agendas was twofold. The first was because each individual was more concerned about their own personal careers. The second was due to their poor attitude to Olympic team membership. Most players treated their place on the team as a nice addition to their resumes, and not as an opportunity to represent their country.

The promotion of individual agendas in dentistry is a major issue at the professional level. In today’s litigious society, being careful with what you say to staff and patients can go a long way. While individual practices may feel like isolated islands, it is important for members of the dental profession to realise they are part of a bigger community. Your colleagues are your team. Though disagreements between individuals is a story older than humanity, throwing another clinician under the bus when there is a patient complaint reflects poorly not only upon the accusing dentist, but on the profession as a whole.

Being on the winning team

We have seen why teams fail. Even with exceptional talent, funding and coaching experience, the US failed to win gold at the 2004 Olympics against mediocre opponents. And it all boiled down to attitude.

A poor attitude in leadership trickled down to the players. A poor attitude in the players led to egos clashing and a higher valuation of individual agendas over teamwork. The failure of team cohesion led to a sporting disaster.

As clinicians we have a responsibility to put our best foot forward when serving our communities. We need to accept our roles as leaders inside and out of the surgery. The attitude we carry to work will reflect not only on our team and patients, but ultimately on the profession.

And while the mission of rebuilding the teamwork within our profession may sound daunting, miracles do happen – if you are prepared to work for it.

Before the 1980 Winter Olympics, coach Herb Brooks had the unenviable task of leading a group of amateur college ice hockey players against Russian professionals. The Russians were renowned for their prowess and were undefeated in their last six Olympic performances.

The players Brooks chose were not superstars. But they worked hard. They wanted to be on the team. They wanted to represent their country.

They wanted to win.

Coach Brooks made the players train together for months. They became family. His dedication to the team was unrivalled.

On 22 February 1980, the impossible happened.

The US won.

A bunch of college amateurs managed to deliver an unprecedented victory over their professional rivals.

Such is the miracle of teamwork.

This article was published as 'A Group Effort' in Issue 17 of Dental Student Australia.

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