15 Rules for Effective Teams

By Eileen O. Brownell

“If you think it doesn’t pay to stick together, consider the banana.  As soon as it leaves the bunch it gets skinned!” – Savage: Life Lessons

The first railroad in America was created in 1829. It served as the number-one mode of mass transportation of people and goods for well over 100 years. Trains were efficient. They could move large quantities of materials and products faster and cheaper than wagons, horses or, ultimately, trucks. Many pioneers moved west via the train rather than chancing the hazardous wagons. Trains provided excitement for travelers with the ever-changing scenery and the possibility of bandits.

Railroads created jobs. Not only was there staff on the train, there were also switchmen, freight loaders, maintenance workers, stationmasters and clerical staff. All helped keep the trains running. Even though their jobs did not require them to ride on the trains, they supported the main function of the railroad.

Back in the 1800s, they never heard of teamwork. Staff came to work, did what they were ordered to do and worked long hours, usually six days a week. Decisions were made by supervisors, and nobody ever questioned the choices they made. To do so might mean instant dismissal.

Our work life will continue to speed forward into the future at a fast, never-ending pace. The creation of new technology has made some jobs easier by providing us with quicker ways to perform tasks, computerizing some jobs and providing us with more information than we ever conceived possible.

It is important that we take the time to examine effective teams and their characteristics. It will be through teams that we will continue to accomplish our major work tasks as people become more specialized and technology increases at a steady pace. We can no longer operate like the railroad companies once did, where everything was done manually.

The commonsense railroad rules that were solid and sound in the 1800s and early 1900s are worth reexamining in the context of how they affect teams today.

  1. Know your destination. There are numerous places for a train to head. Where the train will ultimately end its trip is established before the engine even revs up. Every successful team must establish its goals and objectives before they can begin to provide valuable services to the internal or external customer. An effective team has a clear purpose that includes a vision, a mission, goals and objectives. Everyone on the team is clear about where he or she is going.
  1. Turn a moving train slowly. Once a train has established its destination, it gathers momentum. To change directions abruptly without discussion and consensus can be disastrous. If it becomes necessary to alter your course after your team has already begun to create its vision, it is important that everyone be a part of the discussion process. Not everyone may agree with the final outcome. The turn, however, will be easier if everyone has the opportunity to be a part of the decision process.
  1. Successful trains stay on track. If the train jumps the track, a disaster will surely occur. Teams stay together by moving in the same direction. Once the goals and objectives are established, everyone goes about doing their individual tasks to help the train get to its ultimate destination. If it leaves the track, however, it will never arrive. If the train needs to make a detour, there are clear signs that indicate the changes that need to be made so no abrupt turns can force the train from its ultimate focus.
  1. When catching a moving train, get up to speed quickly. When you join a team already in existence, don’t stop, don’t slow down. You have a lot of catching up to do. You did not begin the trip with the team. They formed, established a destination, decided the best route to take, made assignments and established the time schedule. Your task is to get up to speed as quickly as you can without creating havoc and delaying the trip. The team can assist you in that process by providing you with a complete overview of the projects they are working on. Establish if you have the necessary experience to complete the task of the individual you are replacing. If not, then it must be determined how best to train you for the tasks ahead. Finally, they must make sure you are also involved in all future discussions.
  1. Stop when the wheels lock up. Everyone on the team must be encouraged to participate in the team process. When one or more people withhold information, refuse to be part of the discussion or fail to complete their assignments, it is a sure sign of trouble. Just as the locked wheel will hold the train back – if no one on the team is participating in the process, the team will be slow to complete its vision.
  1. Listen for a change in the rhythm. If you have ever ridden a train, you know the sound of the wheels riding the rails. There is a certain rhythm that occurs. You know instinctively when there is a change in the speed of the train or a problem. Members of a team use effective techniques to listen for the changes in the attitude of team members. To clarify someone’s input, it is important that members paraphrase, question and summarize to make sure they have received the message as intended.
  1. Keep everyone on board when the train is moving. Team members must feel free to express their opinions and feelings. They must not feel that if they provide input or make suggestions, they will be thrown from a moving train, a painful experience indeed. The effective team has no hidden agendas. Members feel comfortable communicating during and outside of meetings. Team members must not be afraid to voice their opinion for fear of retaliation.
  1. Work assignments and roles are clear. The conductor would not think of driving the train nor would the engineer come back to the passenger cars and take tickets. Work is distributed among team members fairly and according to job skills. There are specific expectations for each job assignment and team member. Everyone is willing to accept his or her part of the total team responsibility and complete the assignments on time.
  1. Everyone is a leader. There is a formal leader for every effective team. Leadership functions can shift, however, depending upon the circumstances, group needs and individuals skills of the team members. For example, I have watched the conductor jump in to help the dining car cashier when the crowds were backing up on a long-distance train ride. This was certainly not his normal task, but at the moment, his skills were needed to help keep the customers happy. Team members are not afraid to shift focus when assistance is needed.
  1. Be flexible. Trains don’t always arrive on schedule. The staff of the train kept us informed of the reason for the delays, however, and gave us regular updates of the anticipated arrival time. When tasks are not completed on the determined time schedule, the rest of the team must be informed and adjustments made. Frequently, the next step in a process cannot be started until another task is completed. An effective team member is flexible and continues to move forward on other responsibilities regardless of possible delays.
  1. Stop to refuel. Conduct regular maintenance. An effective team stops periodically to examine how well it is doing. Self-assessments are conducted regularly to establish what is interfering with progress of the team. If additional training is needed for individual members or the entire team, arrangements are made. A train cannot run without gas, and a team cannot run without nurturing, training and regular input.
  1. It takes more than the staff on the train to make it go. The engineer, conductor, brakeman and dining car staff are not the only individuals involved in making the train run. There are station managers, baggage handlers, track maintenance staff, ticket sellers, bulk freight loaders and others. The staff running the train is dependent on other individuals to help them complete their tasks. They must develop positive relationships and build credibility with important players in other parts of the railroad system.
  1. Nobody wins when there is an accident. If you have ever seen pictures of a train hitting a car or truck, you know even though the train may still be standing, nobody wins. Team members must be prepared to have disagreements, confront conflict and feel comfortable enough to resolve issues as they arise. Failure to resolve issues and compromise on challenges as they arise is a surefire way to create an accident further down the track.
  1. Celebrate when you arrive at your destination. Whenever a train arrives at its destination, there are always people waiting for the passengers. It is fun to watch people greet each other. Usually, there is much excitement and happiness. Effective teams take the time to celebrate the completion of their goals. They pause to recognize individual as well as team accomplishments before moving on to the next task.
  2. The tracks don’t end at your destination. A team extends its vision beyond the current task. An effective team knows it has an obligation to future passengers to provide a safe, well-maintained and clean train. Members realize their attention is not just on the tasks immediately at hand but also on the future success of the total railroad.

Although the railroad may not be as popular as it once was for rapid mass transit and the transportation of goods and products, it still provides us with a clear picture of how important teams are in the workplace.

About the Author

Eileen O. Brownell is president of Training Solutions, a firm based in Chico, Calif. For over 25 years, Eileen has been noted as a ‘high-energy’ speaker and trainer who captivates her audiences and makes learning a lasting experience. Her expertise is in the areas of customer service, conflict resolution, communication and team development. She is licensed to use the Carlson Learning Products that enhance the learning process. Cable television stations have shown Eileen’s educational programs. She can be found in Who’s Who in California, American Women, Professional Speaking and Outstanding Young American Women. “We cannot choose the challenges that confront us. Nevertheless, we can pick our attitude and how we react,” is her philosophy.

Copyright© 2015, Eileen O. Brownell. All rights reserved. For information, contact FrogPond at [email protected].

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