Playground Perspectives: Teamwork (January 2012)

Driving home with Thea from the grocery store recently, we engaged in our typical playful banter.

"Who is going to help me carry these groceries inside?" I plead.

"Dad, I will carry my guys," she says, referring to her armful of stuffed animals. "You can get the rest."

"But they are so heavy," I complain.

"Then we will do teamwork," she says, not missing a beat. "I'll get one handle and you get the other, and you will be okay, alright?" 

Teamwork is a lesson I hope she learns faster than her dad.

My resistance to teams comes naturally - a collision of DNA, terrible youth sports experiences and my Generation X psyche.

I'm genuinely terrible at collaboratively working with others, and spend a lot of energy trying to rein in my instincts to go it alone - or solve the problem before I invite new perspectives.

As she nears her fourth birthday, I think I'm pretty lucky that she even slows down long enough to perceive that other people might benefit from her help. Those rare moments when she's not focused exclusively on her own immediate needs, or testing the law of "cause and effect" have started to increase in recent months.

Psychology aside, it is fascinating to watch Thea begin to reshape her own sense of the world, and understand that she can help shape it. Impulse remains a big driver, but she increasingly slips into these lovely moments of unintentional altruism - whispering sweet nothings into Nikole's ear at unexpected moments, gentle hugs on the playground, offering up teamwork when the groceries are too heavy.

In times of transition and uncertainty - say, moving toward a fourth birthday, or entering a fourth year of economic uncertainty - we all have opportunities to resist our impulses, and to explore the "we" in our work. A wise person in my life once told me that there can be no "we" without a "me" - that effective relationships require all parties to have a clear identity and strong self-awareness. That's true at work, and at home.

But the other thing an effective relationship requires is trust and acceptance of the identity and perspectives embraced by others in the relationship. In other words, meeting people where they are, not where you want them to be. Thea's not there yet. Too often, neither am I.

That, perhaps, is the gap between teamwork and collaboration. It's one thing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with someone holding back the tide, or carrying groceries. It's quite another to give your trust and respect into the care of another person with the belief that they will treat it gently, and return the favor.

Watching my daughter grow toward Grace is a reminder that my own journey is an important one, that the collaboration, trust, respect - and love - Nikole and I demonstrate on a daily basis shape everything. For now. At some point our lessons will carry much less weight, which makes it all the more important for me to be in the moment now - and to let my child help me carry the groceries.