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Three Essentials for Teambuilding: Lessons I Learned from the Choir

I have been a member of a choir for literally almost my entire life. Besides just singing with my mom around the house, I started in the pre-school choir at church and continued to move up as I grew up. You might be thinking right now, “What do your toddler years have to do with leadership and why do I care? How is singing going to help me build a strong and productive team?” Hang in there with me for a moment and let me explain. I promise there is a strong connection. I moved from being in the choir to leading the choir and so I have been a choral director/teacher for over 25 years. In my time as a musician, I have learned that unity and teamwork for a choir are essential. After all, you can’t make beautiful music without harmony both musically and interpersonally. Without unity and teamwork, egos soar, competition reigns, motivation dwindles, joy eludes, and imbalance permeates. These elements disrupt the harmony and productivity of any team. If I have an inflated ego, I simply am not a team player. I am focused on myself, my job, and my own recognition. Competition within the group kills teamwork just as easily. Again, my focus is on advancing myself and my interests, one upping the next guy instead of putting the team first. This atmosphere robs me of my motivation. The strong personalities dominate, while the more reserved can get pushed aside. It breeds fear of mistakes, feelings of inadequacy, and the sense that I don’t really matter anyway. The team has no balance. It’s a dog eat dog, every man for himself arena. Dissatisfaction abounds, collaboration is awkward at best, and productivity suffers. Are you starting to see the connection? There are ways to avoid these pitfalls and cultivate strong team players. Drawing from my choral background, I have identified three key components for teambuilding to help you: “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, and don’t mess with mister in between.” Yes. I did just quote from a song. (“Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer sung by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters)


Everyone Needs to Feel Valuable

Think for a moment about your favorite concert. Now, take away the different parts one by one. Take away the bass. Now take away the drums. Take out the lead guitar. In fact, take out all the guitars, and then the keyboard. No violin or backup singers. Remove the flashing lights and the microphone, the mixing board, speakers, and even the road crew that set it all up. Is the concert nearly as exciting with nothing but one singer on stage, singing acapella? The concert falls a little flat doesn’t it? No matter how good the star singer is, it just isn’t the same without the rest of the team. The choir works the same way. Everyone is created uniquely with a unique temperament and unique abilities so that each person makes a unique contribution to the team. With my choirs, I spend a lot of time listening to each individual singer, testing his/her blend with each other voice and determining which voices best complement each other. Placement within the group is based on maximizing the unique qualities of each voice to the advantage of all. The best teams are put together the same way. As leaders, it’s imperative that you take the time to study your members, understand their uniqueness, and find the spot that will maximize their contributions. Candice Dedmon reports in an article in HR Morning that workers who use their strengths every day on the job are 8% more productive and 15% less likely to quit. That's a good reason to celebrate the uniqueness of each team member.


Then take every opportunity to enlighten the entire team on the significance of each member. In the choir, the strong solo voices are often the ones that get the attention and accolades. But if everyone is a soloist, the group is imbalanced. Individual voices stick out, and there is no cohesive blend. I need voices of all different qualities and colors to get the most unified sound. So as I’m listening, I help the choir hear for themselves how the different voices work together. Two strong voices often fight each other, but when I put a neutral buffer voice in between, suddenly the sound is balanced and compatible. As the choir begins to hear for themselves the unique value in each voice, they begin to work together and encourage each other in new ways. Not only has their sound changed, but the way they perceive each other, and themselves, also changes. They are no longer singing “You’re everything you’ve ever needed. . . ‘cause only the strong survive” (“Only the Strong Survive” Gary Richrath performed by Reo Speedwagon). The soloist realizes how much they need the non-soloist and develops a sense of humility and teamwork, while the non-soloist begins to recognize that they have something worth contributing. This builds confidence which amplifies their impact on the team. Your team will be most productive when everyone feels appreciated and believes they have something worth contributing.


Have you ever stubbed your pinky toe? When that little toe, a very small and seemingly insignificant part of the body, is injured it makes it really hard to walk. The human body is made up of many unique parts but all the various parts function as one body. There are no unimportant or useless parts of your physical body. Every part can’t be the very noticeable mouth or ear or beautiful blue eyes. Even the smallest or most unnoticed body part has a valuable function. Likewise, all the parts of your team are unique and even the seemingly smallest member has something worthy to contribute. And just like your non-functioning pinky toe, it hurts the team when any member is missing or not pulling their weight. For my choirs, this has certainly proven true. As each member begins to see their value and comes to understand that the person standing next to them is counting on them, they also understand that it would hurt the team if they were missing. This motivates each member to work to increase their effort, competence and attendance. The choir begins to work as one, in harmony with each other. A team is most successful when everyone feels that they are valuable to the organization. Effective leaders instill this sense of value by celebrating the uniqueness of each member, showing that everyone has something worthy to contribute and helping each member believe that “If I’m not there, it hurts the team.”


Everyone Needs to Feel Ownership

Now that everyone has a sense of value, they need to develop a sense of ownership. Ownership is a feeling of having a vested interest in the success of my team. This starts with the leader. Winning leaders must demonstrate humility, integrity, and a good work ethic. If I want my choir to be comfortable singing boldly and even making bold mistakes, then I must model humility and readily admit my own mistakes. I need to let the group know that I didn’t get that job done this week or that my conducting threw them off in that spot. Your team will not feel safe offering up suggestions, making independent decisions, or innovating if they fear reprimand or embarrassment from an unforgiving leader. As leaders we must instill the concept that mistakes are opportunities to learn and will not be judged as failures. The team is much more apt to follow this kind of servant leader. One who, when necessary, is not too lofty to do any and all jobs required of the team and who regularly serves alongside them. Servant leadership does not hinder your authority as the leader. In fact, it enhances it. The team perceives the servant leader as someone who understands the issues they’re all facing because you’re in the trenches with them, and you’re in touch with your people. There is respect for and confidence in the servant leader.


Another method of increasing ownership is developing leaders from within the team. In my choirs I always have choir officers. I have sole discretion in choosing the President, VP and Secretary. I need people that are not just popular, but those I know I can work with, who will step up to the responsibility, and who have the desire and potential for personal growth. I also have section leaders, voted into office by the choir. I delegate responsibilities to those officers and let them run with it. Not only does this relieve me of some of the burden of organization and innovation, but it also helps to ensure the support of the group because they feel ownership. Your group becomes—MY group. When workers know they have influence in the group and that it would not work as well without them, the concept of value is reinforced. When each member feels valued, they also are more prone to feel a sense of ownership. And when they feel ownership, the success of the team equates to their personal success as well.


In each of my choirs, I make a point to meet with the officers and section leaders to plan, identify and resolve issues and innovate to make things better. I know there is nothing revolutionary about a leadership meeting. But far too often meetings are times for managers to disseminate information and assign responsibilities while the other participants take careful notes and give status reports. Remember the points already made: Everyone needs to feel valued and feel ownership. This means everyone needs to feel heard. As effective leaders we must listen to our team members. Plan some time in each meeting to just fellowship. Take time to get to know each other, laugh, ask about the family. This builds the comfort level that helps create safety. There is a saying, “No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” Create an atmosphere of caring and the time and space to bond. Train your team leaders to care for the rest of the team. These meetings are also another chance to celebrate their uniqueness and accomplishments. Also give lots of opportunity for members to share their ideas and concerns. Encourage and validate everyone’s contributions. Let them brainstorm. Not to be cliché, but two heads really are better than one and four, five, or six is better yet! Whenever possible, take appropriate issues to the entire team for their input. Encourage team members to take problems to the team leaders. Convey that you want to know about problems in order to address and resolve them, not squash them. Since one of your goals is to solve issues and create a happy workforce you must tackle problems head on in order to solve them. Camille Preston-PHD points to compelling research in a Forbes article which shows as much as a 20% increase in productivity from a happy workforce. That number jumps to 37% in salespeople. The same article also correlates stock price to happy workers. In Fortune’s list of “100 Best Companies to Work for” stock prices rose 14% every year for eight consecutive years while companies not on the list only rose 6% on average. So it pays to create a workplace which is pleasant, open, and solves problems by listening to the team.


Everyone Needs to Succeed

I know of choirs and bands that never succeed in growing a significant or vibrant group. It’s not because the directors aren’t skilled musicians or good teachers. I believe that it is because they settle for “less than.” Being “less than” the big choirs, giving “less than” a “real” performance, and playing “less than” real music. That’s not to say that there are not many obstacles to overcome as a smaller organization or startup. But people are generally drawn to quality. Quality is key. People want to be part of high-quality organizations delivering high-quality products, using high-quality personnel. With my choirs, we always dress like a choir, act like a choir, sing solid chorale literature and strive to do it all with excellence, no matter our size. This developed a reputation of excellence in the community and was a draw for new members and audience alike. It feels good to be selected as part of a high-performing team. It makes you feel valuable, creates a desire for ownership, and instills the motivation to rise to the set standard of excellence. It is unusual for anyone to stand up and cheer “Hey look what we did. It’s mediocre!” It’s the reason sales for team gear soar after a championship game. Everyone wants to be identified with winners, so maintain a high standard of excellence.


In every organization there are the daily mundane tasks that are necessary but not particularly difficult. The easy win. Then there are those tasks that provide a moderate challenge but still bring sure success. With my choirs, I choose at least one piece each year—sometimes more depending on the group—that is somewhat over our heads. The one piece that is going to challenge us beyond what we thought possible. We will drill and drill and drill. We will struggle. We will worry about getting it done on time. The group will groan every time we pull it out at rehearsal. However, after much encouragement and praise of their great effort, a successful performance ensues. Inevitably, that is the piece that the group talks about for years after and is listed among their favorites. Why? Because mastering a difficult challenge and receiving the positive rewards of success creates feelings of pride and competence. Again, not a ground-breaking idea but one often underutilized in the workplace. Both together and individually, the team begins to believe in their own abilities to accomplish hard things and that there is a comparable reward for their efforts. Your team is realizing that they each have value in this group of high achievers where they are appreciated and needed to succeed, and they are proud to take ownership of a winning team achieving such high quality. To borrow the motto of the navy Seabees-it develops a “Can Do” attitude. Because they see the growth in their individual abilities, they are now motivated to take on the next big challenge, and most importantly believe that they CAN.


Who doesn’t get a rush from the thrill of a win? We all do the happy dance under the goal post of achievement. And the benefit of this high is that success creates a hunger for more success. That is why it is important to recognize and cheer even small achievements while casting a vision for larger ones in the future. After experiencing the thrill of conquering the difficult music, the choir is always much less whiney the next year when I present the new challenge piece. The group, at least the veteran members, want to experience that exhilaration again. This motivation spills over onto new members, encouraging them to tackle the challenge with the support of the rest of the team at their side. That is a compelling advantage to team building. The camaraderie carries the group along; strong members motivating weaker ones, veterans building into newbies. In this kind of team, personnel continue to grow and develop, new leaders are identified and mentored, collaboration is comfortable, problems are creatively solved, and workers are satisfied and happy on the job. This creates less turnover and greater productivity which makes the team and company as a whole more successful. Help your team to perceive challenges as “opportunities to succeed” so that their “can do” attitude breeds even more success.


For my choirs, the members themselves and the quality of the performances have been my primary marketing tool. One friend telling another and bringing them on board. The majority of my choristers come to me with little to no musical experience, but the vast majority return year after year. They have been mentored into choir officers and section leaders. They have increased their skills, grown in their competence and enjoyment, and many choose to continue their musical pursuits after leaving my choir. It is incredibly satisfying, years later, to hear students reminiscing about events or songs from their choir days. These team building principles are one significant factor in this success. So, you are convinced of the advantages of strong teams. You want to create a culture of satisfaction and cohesiveness in your workplace. You want your employees to want to come to work. This is by no means an exhaustive list of team building strategies, but it is a good place to start assembling a harmonious and accomplished team. The advantage to this approach: cost of implementing—nothing; the pay off—enormous. So be cognizant of the uniqueness of your workers and make sure they know that you value their talents and contributions because everybody needs to feel valued. Give employees influence over what transpires in the group so that they all take ownership of it and cheer your team on to success knowing that success breeds more success for everyone. Your team will be singing, “Who knows what miracles you can achieve when you believe, Somehow you will when you believe.” (“When You Believe” Stephen Schwartz, performed by Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston)


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