Some time ago, I spent a few hours in a dusty field watching a local school have their sports day. Sitting in the shade of a large tree, I sipped my diet coke and watched several different teams, divided up by ages, take the field for competitions against each other. My eye was drawn to the middle of the field where two teams of older kids were getting ready to face off in an event that I recall well from my childhood. The event was the classic ‘tug-of-war.’

There was a flag tied in the middle of their rope, hanging about six inches above the ground. About six feet on each side of the middle point of the rope was a line in the grass. On the whistle, both teams would pull in their own direction and a battle of strength and will would ensue until one team would overpower the other, dragging that team in their direction until the flag had crossed their own line, making the glory theirs.

I heard a whistle and with a large groan the teams went into action. The tension on the line was clearly evident, and both sides were yelling encouragement to each other. Suddenly one team begin to yell “PULL!” in unison, and as one, the team suddenly surged backwards. The other team seemed not to expect this and immediately started giving up ground. The last person on the rope of the losing team sank low into the ground, and summoning all the power in their legs, continued to press hard until finally the flag moved slowly over their line. Game over.

Immediately following, I saw that the smallest kids from the school were now preparing to take their place in the pantheon of tug-of-war combat. They lined up seemingly randomly among the line and prepared to follow in the footsteps of the larger kids. As the whistle blew, they also jumped into action in an effort to win this competition, but I noticed a few distinct differences going on in this ‘war.’

First, almost immediately one child in the front fell down, and became suddenly more interested in the dirt they had gotten on their knees. Letting go of the rope, they stood up to dust themselves off, and spying someone they knew, went to tell them that they had gotten their pants dirty. Secondly, whereas the older kids pulled in unison, these youngsters were simply gritting their teeth, and pulling with all their might randomly. The flag barely moved at all, even after two minutes of pulling. Lastly, the older competitors pulled in a straight line. As I watched the younger combatants, some of the kids started pulling sideways, and the line started to move away from their alignment. Not only were the kids not pulling together, they weren’t even pulling in the same direction. As a father of three children, I have witnessed these types of competition before myself, and so I was not surprised, but rather chuckled watching the event play out.

When it comes to teamwork, there are a million books, blogs, podcasts, and lectures out there, so this blog post will not be a definitive work, but I would like to identify three critical commitments that I look for in a productive, high-functioning team.

  1. Productive teams commit to the same direction. A group of people that work for the same company or organization might call themselves a team, but in a real team, I look for clear vision or direction. What are you working towards? What is the single point that draws everyone together? Your vision is what you are striving for—it’s what draws people together and becomes a foundation for commitment. Without a clear vision, how can you attract the right people to your passion or cause? If you don’t know which direction you’re pulling, you will be beaten.
  2. Productive teams are committed to interdependence. In the Bible, Paul presents this beautiful metaphor using the human body. Each of us in our uniqueness is like a body part. We have a specific gifting that God has given us to bless and support the rest of the body. With this in mind, productive leaders and managers need to steward people in such a way that their gifting is well-utilized. With the winning tug-of-war team, the largest person on the team was in the back, while the closer they got to the flag the smaller they became. The person with the loudest voice was the one guiding the chants, and the person in the front who could most clearly see the flag continued to call out where the flag was.
  3. High functioning teams commit to pulling together. Many companies or organizations want to arrive at the same place. What separates productive teams from the rest is found in how they get there. To be a good fit on a team is not simply to want to arrive at the same destination, but to want to get there together. I’ve been on teams that all agreed on the goal, but as soon as that whistle blew, everyone started pulling in different directions. This is a lack of unity. To win, you need not only unity of vision, but unity of strategy. You must want to pull together.

If you know the game tug-of-war, then this probably all seems simple. In the game of teamwork though, these are often some of the biggest pitfalls. Is your team committed to a unified goal? Is your team committed to working out of their God-given gifts? Is your team committed to working in a unified strategy? If not, while you may be exerting a great amount of energy, there is probably a good chance that you’ll feel the ground start to slip beneath your feet.