5 Lessons in Teamwork from "Avengers Assemble" (contains spoilers)
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
I find that stories are a great way to illustrate concepts, and perhaps it's a hangover from my drama teaching days that I still enjoy exploring potential subtext. Here are my thoughts on what "Avengers Assemble" teaches us about teamwork.
Tuckman (1965) proposed the "Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing" model of team development and behaviour, and in Be A Great Manager Now I look at how teams are best if they are task-focused, with friendship as a bonus rather than a necessity (although respect for differing skills is essential). The Tuckman model is pretty much the basis of assembling this disparate group of heroes each a superstar in their own right (and in their own movie) against the "uber villain". And, as you watch the film, there are little nuances which offer further ways in which high profile individuals become an even more successful collective:
1.Captain America leads from the ground
Steve Rogers becomes the de facto leader due to his experience in military combat, but is immediate in both employing the strengths of each hero appropriately, while he fights from the ground as that is where he is of the most use.
There is no room for ego in teams, and there is also not always the capacity - nor the need - for the leader to be "on point". I often liken this in my training sessions to the captain of a football team tending to be either striker or goalkeeper. Personality traits aside, it is a fair question to ask if the most effective leader is up front in the thick of the action, or observing from behind with a clearer view of the whole pitch.
2. Personal agendas take second place to the main objective
Although Thor joins the party because of the prior involvement of his brother Loki, he appreciates that the fight is bigger than said prior belief, and is willing to set that aside until the larger consequences of Loki's actions are resolved.
In any team there may be many reasons why people join, and why they stay, but the goal must take precedence (Shapiro 2002). It is helpful therefore to ensure the full team understands the importance of the main objective as well as their own and each other's roles (or skills) and importance of those abilities in attaining it.
3. Success helps but redemption takes effort
Black Widow's main (and personal) motivation for joining the team is to "clear her ledger" of the behaviours she is not proud of. She learns through the film that one good deed is not enough and commits to the long haul.
It is not unusual for someone in an established team to slip up, and trust is hard to win back. Neuropsychology has shown that when trust is broken, there is a physical change in the brain, and often it is only restitution that can help to rebuild the (literally broken neurological) bridges ie. you steal from me, I will only begin to trust you again if you return the coveted object to me undamaged. Unfortunately it is not always possible to restore missed opportunities, or "undo" mistakes. What may be more achievable however, is being able to recognise the behaviour which caused the issue and work on demonstrating changes there. If what led to the negative outcome was under-delivery, then work on reliability; if it was lack of communication - take steps to address it that suits all those involved.
4. Trust is essential
Trust to do what you said you will, trust that others will help you if you get stuck, trust that you are not alone is key. Lencioni (2002) identifies "trust" as one of the key elements a dysfunctional team lacks. The Hulk embodies trust as much as he does rage. Bruce Banner wants to contribute as a scientist, the Avengers need him as a fighter. They trust that he will respond to their instruction as Hulk, and in return that faith has helped him trust that not only are they supporting him when he lacks control, but that they - especially Black Widow - can "bring him back".
But how does one establish trust?
Unfortunately, trust, as with every communication is something which is only as good as the way it has been received. Therefore integrity, ethics and values are essential not simply as words in a mission statement, but as behaviours you seek to embody every day. (Spoiler alert for Thor: Ragnarok - when Hulk also turns up on the planet Thor finds himself on, in his clumsy way, Thor tries to repeat Black Widow's "Sun's getting low" lullaby, with a constant "sun's setting big guy" to the point where it irritates Bruce Banner...although the sentiment is appreciated. We don't always get it right with our actions, but when our intentions are pure (through living our values of which integrity and ethics are often part), this helps.
5. Praise and acknowledgment is important
Love the self confessed "...genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, hero." or not, Tony Stark is a businessman who knows that praise is nonetheless part of his role. On regaining consciousness (albeit as much for comic effect) after a particularly tough battle his response to Captain America's comment "We won"...was "Oh, right, yaay."
How often do we forget to praise? Praise is recognition that you made a difference to me, that your action made my world a little better. It's an extra boost for gratitude - which is hopefully more readily expressed. It's not just a "Thank you" - but a "Well done" too - and they are different!! If nothing else, "Thank you" can sadly often be dismissed as "Oh it's nothing" (I've got an article on that here), but "Well done - because you did x/y/z..." is much harder to ignore. Try both next time.
Stephen Covey (2004) said "Strength lies in difference not in similarities", to me The Avengers is an excellent example of how the light of one does not diminish that of others, and instead contributes to shine brighter as a whole.
Dr Audrey Tang (R) is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience For quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt