Despite all the talk about teamwork, it's not always easy to get teams working the way you want them to. Teamwork just doesn't come naturally to some of us. After all, look at how we've been raised. "Be independent," we're told. We compete with other individuals to get ahead, whether at work or at play. Remember, "Nice guys finish last." A win-lose, me-first mindset is promoted by everything from the grades we get in school to salary promotions at work.

Teamwork is the theme of my next three articles. This month I'll review some of the ways we must change our perspective in order to achieve high-performance team results. Next month I'll address specific requirements for productive teamwork in industrial safety and health. The final article will detail the different stages teams go through on the way to producing synergistic results.

The power of paradigms

Learning to work effectively as a team takes patience. Teamwork calls for different approaches to work than most of us are used to. Sometimes policies or procedures get in the way, and we can modify them to remove a teamwork barrier. But often we need to change our perspective or expectations regarding teamwork, and then adjust our behavior accordingly.

We're talking about changing paradigms here. Paradigms are powerful personal perceptions, or biases, if you will. Whatever your attitude is toward a particular experience, or your expectation of how things will work out, that's your paradigm. Paradigms influence how we view a situation, and what we take from it. As a result, we often experience what we expect to happen, and learn what we expect to learn. It's like a self-fulfilling prophesy. We act a certain way to be consistent with our paradigm, and so increase the likelihood that what we believe will actually occur.

The American Heritage Dictionary (1991) defines paradigm as 'an example or model.' Similarly, more than 30 years ago the research reports I wrote in graduate school included a 'Paradigm Section' which described the specific methods I followed to conduct an experiment. There's a lesson in this shift in meaning of the word "paradigm" from example or method to perception or expectancy. Simply put, what we do -- our method -- influences our perspective on how we view a situation. In other words, our behavior influences our perceptions. We act ourselves into new ways of thinking.

Consider this principle of human nature while reviewing the following five paradigm shifts needed for high-performance teamwork. We can literally act ourselves into becoming a better team player -- if we follow these interconnected paradigm shifts.

1. From individual to team performance Traditional work holds people accountable for their own behavior. Effective teamwork, though, requires mutual accountability. It's not, "What you do is what you get," but rather, "How you collaborate with others is what the group gets." Effective collaboration nets performance results greater than what individuals can do by themselves. This is a synergistic outcome.

2. From individual jobs to team tasks This synergy occurs when each team member contributes individual talent and effort to improve team performance. Team members receive task assignments from each other, and carry out their responsibilities to support the rest of the team. This is much different than traditional work, which has us completing individual job assignments to please a supervisor. Teamwork requires a shift from working exclusively to achieve personal goals to working to achieve shared team goals. This takes a belief in the power of teamwork, a commitment toward the team's mission, and trust that every team member will do his or her part to meet team objectives.

3. From competitive rewards to rewards for cooperation It takes a special mindset to revel in the accomplishments of a team effort. When team members value their mutual purpose and believe teammates will cooperate to achieve shared goals, they put forth their best efforts. And when they see cooperation pay off, they develop a unique appreciation for teamwork. They feel personally recognized when their team is rewarded. Then they cooperate more to fulfill their team's next objectives. But experiencing the rewards of cooperation is benefited by the next paradigm shift.

4. From self-dependence to team-dependence We come into this world dependent on others to take care of us. As children we depended on our family for all of our basic life needs. As adolescents, however, we looked for opportunities to be on our own. It seems, in fact, a primary mission of most teenagers is to resist dependency and assert independence. This reliance on self rather than others is promoted and reinforced throughout our culture, from high school and college classrooms to corporate boardrooms. But high-performance teamwork requires a dependency perspective. This might seem like regression, but it's really progression. In fact, it's more appropriate to consider this a paradigm shift to interdependence rather than dependence. That's because the dependency between team members is reciprocal. While you depend on team members to complete their task assignments, others depend on you to do your part. We're moving from independence to interdependency here. The more you trust the ability and intentions of the other individuals on your team, the more you will depend on your teammates for their contributions -- and the more you will feel obligated to complete your own task assignments. 5. From one-to-one communication to group interaction Trust and interdependency are developed and supported through interpersonal communication. Some of this certainly happens through one-to-one interaction. But the synergistic power of teamwork is more readily realized through effective team meetings. For example, I can assess the individual talents and motives of my students and research associates during one-to-one conversation, but I learn much more about our team's potential to meet a challenge during group meetings. Through group interaction, individuals see how their diverse talents can combine to produce synergistic results. This leads to greater feelings of self-esteem and self-effectiveness, and it increases personal commitment to meet team objectives. It also cultivates group cohesion and feelings of belonging, which in turn motivate high-performance teamwork.

I presented strategies for getting the most out of group interaction in my ISHN column last May. Actually, productive group communication can facilitate each of the paradigm shifts reviewed here. Effective group discussions build trust in the abilities and intentions of team members. Trust leads to cooperation. This strengthens a paradigm of interdependency, and increases personal motivation to work harder for the team. As a result, team members appreciate the real meaning of TEAM -- Together Everyone Achieves More.