One of the most important characteristics of any team, is unity. Without unity there is no team, just a group of individuals that happen to be going in the same vague direction. Unity is something that is grown over time. Unity has to be nurtured and developed between a group as they depend on each other and meet their needs. It is developed through trust over time and through experience. And trust can only exist where vulnerability, honesty, humility and acceptance exists (but I will save diving into this topic for another time). One aspect of unity that is often overlooked is that part of nurturing process is protecting it and defending it. Anything that is developing must be defended.
Over time a team’s unity should be growing stronger. From my experience, teams are always growing. Time never stops; therefore, nothing remains static. Your team is either growing closer and developing more unity, or it is growing apart as unity is being systematically dismantled. If you want your team to grow closer together over time, you have to cultivate the actions and words that develop unity, and defend against actions and words that threaten it. We often think of unity as strong in and of itself. Indeed a unified team is strong, but unity itself is very fragile and must be intentionally and aggressively defended. It doesn’t take much to errode away our unity because in our hearts we long to be important and significant, in our eyes we can only see what we see, and in our minds we tend to tell stories to fill in the gaps of what we don’t know about others.
Three Ways to Defend Unity
#1. Cling to The Vision
Every team has a goal, purpose and vision. It is a leader’s job to clarify, to proclaim, to remind, and to keep the team accountable to the vision. Remember that it was the goal and vision that brought the team together in the first place; without a unifying vision the team never would have existed. When each member of team has a strong resolve and commitment to the vision, unity grows and flourishes. In seasons where measurable outcomes are not favorable, or growth feels static, it is the team’s commitment to the vision despite their feelings that will keep them unified. If you are on a team, and the vision is still where you desire to go, cling to the vision and encourage others to do the same. If the team doesn’t cling to the vision when (not if) things look bleak, the team will start resenting each other and eating each other alive.
If you are the leader (or are part of the leadership) of a team, know the vision and drive it into your team always. Sit down and make sure you know how to express it, and do so at every turn. When you head into action, remind them of how what you are about to do is inline with the vision. After you’ve finished a task, or have taken a hill, evaluate and point out how what you did was inline with the vision. The vision should be a specific destination. You should be able to describe what it looks like and what it feels like. If this is unclear, it will be hard for your team to stay unified. The vision should always be clear to the whole team at all times: this is your job.
If you are on a team as a member, know the vision and make sure you believe in the vision. If you don’t know the vision, ask for it. Your leader will help clarify it. They should be able to articulate where the team is going and what it will look like. If you know the vision and don’t believe in it, get off the team. You can only do damage to the unity of the team, what they are trying to accomplish, and where they are trying to go. Remember that strategies are a means and can change, but the vision is a destination. Strategies do change, but the vision most likely (especially if it’s well thought out) should not. If you like the vision but aren’t sure of the strategy, you may still serve some value on the team. Always remember though, that it is your leader’s job to lead. Help with the evaluation of strategies, but don’t think that you necessarily know best. In virtually every team situation I have ever been in, the leader has always put more time into his choices then the rest of team. This is naturally the case because they are more accountable. This doesn’t mean they are always right, but it does mean that even their wrongness is rooted in more experience and thought. Tread with much respect and loyalty. Never speak about them in a critical way, but rather speak to them in order help bring perspective and clarity. It is more than alright to ask honest questions.
Remember the vision and cling to it. It’s why you are there. As you do, and encourage others to do so, your team will be able to stand up to that which seeks to break you apart.
#2. Avoid the “Us and Them”
One deceptive agent of “unity” is the common enemy. It is easy to unify out of dislike, or dare I say, hatred of something/someone. We have seen this method of unity historically and personally. If you want to see an example of this type of unity in action, just go to any place where there is a long line (I.E. the post office, or MVD). As you observe for a while, eventually someone, after moments of stewing in silence, will reach a point where they must vocalize their frustration with the lack of competence the establishment has and how inefficient their procedures are. Soon others will join in with words of affirmation (in the negative sense), by talking about the long duration they too have been waiting. They will add to the intial vocalization with an observation of how they could be more efficient: “They should open another window…” Eventually, they will start lighting their torches and sharpening their pitch forks. They will be unified, even if no real action takes place. But what happens once they have gone through the line? The common enemy is gone; therefore, unity is no longer required. They will all go their separate ways, and most likely never see each other again. Why does this happen? This type of “unity” doesn’t require any real vision or mutual purpose beyond the common enemy. This type of “unity” has a short life-span and doesn’t align people strategically because its only goal is to eliminate or endure the negative. Yes, it is easy to unify this way, but it is shallow, near-sighted, and always temporary. Your team must stay laser focused on vision rather than peripheral common enemies. A good vision will bring lasting unity, whereas a common enemy will only afford unity for a time.
As much as this is true in the macro sense of the team (finding enemies outside of your team), it is also true in the micro sense within your team (finding enemies within your team). Your team must not band together in smaller cell groups “uniting” against itself. The use of the word “they” should raise a flag in the your team’s ears. The moment fingers are pointed at the “them” you now have two factions and unity is threatened: us versus them.
One way to avoid this is to make sure that you are always uniting over vision and not a common enemy. It is easy to unite over a common enemy that’s why we fall into all the time. It is much harder to unite over mutual purpose and vision. The former needs only to take advantage of an emotional reaction to circumstances, while the latter requires dedication to a vision, despite feelings or circumstance. Uniting over enemies aims for destruction. Uniting for a cause and vision takes courage and creativity. Would you rather be a part of something life-taking or life-giving?
Another way to avoid the “us and them” is to take extreme ownership of all that happens. If all that’s wrong in the world is “them” or “they” or “that” than you can’t do anything, and let’s stop talking. But if you instead take ownership of everything, even if it wasn’t really you that was accountable, then maybe there is something you can change or do. Ask, what can we do, change, communicate or stop doing? This is a lens that puts you into position to do something of benefit. Let’s put it this way: if it is us or them, than it is us for them. How can you sacrifice? This is the leadership style that Jesus proclaimed and exemplified. Jesus said that to lead is to serve and that we are to love one another (John 13:3-16). Jesus described love as one willing to lay down their life for another (John 15:12-13). Instead of pointing at them, ask: how can I give myself and take ownship for the things that aren’t even my problem in order to bring the change that is needed?
#3. Avoid Telling Stories Where Possible
We can only see what we can see. This sounds very obvious, but we often forget it. We judge motives (which are unseen) instead of evaluating actions and trying to discover motives. When we don’t know why someone is doing what they are doing, we tell stories. Or worse, we vocally tell stories to others, and we can be very elaborate story tellers. Motives are complex. Even our own motives are more complex than we ourselves realize and we know what’s going on in our heads. Why do we think we know what’s going on in others’?
One way to avoid story telling is to always push things into the light. If you are unsure of something, ask. Rather than making up an elaborate story, go to the main character of your soon to be latest fictional work and ask about what you don’t know. This takes some humility, vulnerablity and tact (don’t forget the tact). Don’t let your thoughts hide in the dark and grow into elaborate dragons that need ot be slain, but rather shed light on them so that they can be seen for what they are. When you speak to them, remember your relentless cling to the vision and extreme ownership. Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit.
“Turn away from evil and do good: seek peace and pursue it.” -Psalm 34:13-14
If you have to tell yourself a story, make it a good one. Sometimes you have to fill in the gaps because you just don’t have the information, and you cannot sit around until you do. If you can’t see the motives of another team member, assume they are good ones. Tell a story that puts them in the a kind and compassionate light. All the while, you need to be praying for this fellow team member. I have learned that when I pray for someone that I am unclear about, it changes my heart and helps me to see them as an individual rather than a “them” to be judged and blamed. When you pray for someone, I mean really pray for them, you have to think about their needs, and you have to try and see them how God sees them. God loves them and has given his life for them.
Unity is threatened by unclear vision, creating enemies, and assumptions concerning others. We hedge against these threats by clinging to a clear vision, avoiding a “us vs. them” mentality, and by refusing to make up bad stories about the motives of others. Unity is fragile and must be intentionally and aggressively defended. Like a watchman, you need to be alert to cues of danger. You must make your ears sensitive to language that shifts blame, creates uncertainty, or promotes gossip. Out of mutual purpose and love, always look to be nurturer and defender of the unity in your teams.
- Cling to the Vision
- Have Desperate Unflinching Faith in the Vision (faith despite feelings)
- Leaders Clarify Vision
- Members Know and Believe the Vision
- Avoid Us and Them (If it is “us” or “them” it is us for them)
- Extreme Ownership (ask what you can do and take ownership of problems)
- Sacrifice and serve
- Don’t fall into the trap of the common enemy
- Avoid Telling Stories Where possible
- Push things into the light
- If you have to tell a story, tell a good one
For further study: Crucial Conversations (Kerry Patterson), Next Generation Leader (Andy Stanley), Podcast #206 Extreme Ownership (artofmanliness.com), Read John 13-15. It is kind of funny that I am telling you to read a passage on unity where shortly after the disciples scatter in the biggest example of disunity with a vision. Be these are the words, commands and vision later unites them to the point of death. It is here where Jesus says, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples (followers of his vision), if you have love for one another.” Wrapped up in their love for one another is their unity.