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An Olympian’s View on Teamwork

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It’s not every day you meet an Olympian, so when I recently sat down with three-time Olympic medalist Susann Bjerkrheim, I was immediately intrigued and impressed. Bjerkrheim was the face of Norway’s women’s handball team for over two decades, competing in four Olympic Games and leading the team to medals in the ’88 Seoul, ’92 Barcelona, and ’00 Sydney games. She also captained the team when they won trophies in three world championships and two European championships.

Now, I’ll admit I didn’t know much about modern handball when we started our conversation. My playing experience was limited to a few games in gym class, mostly when it was raining, and we couldn’t run laps outside—as my sadistic PE teacher preferred. Talking with Susann, I gained a respect and appreciation for the game’s emphasis on strategy and teamwork, and I began to understand why it’s so popular throughout Europe.

A quick handball primer: the rules are fairly simple. The game is played on what looks like an indoor soccer field with seven players on each team—six field players and a goalie. Players attempt to put the ball in the opposing team’s net to score. There is a good deal of strategy involved as players can only take three steps with the ball before dribbling, passing, or shooting. It’s also not a polite, non-contact sport; rather, it’s a rough-and-tumble, physical sport where players are battered and bloodied every game.

But back to Susann. After retiring from playing, she became a television commentator and a regular on reality television shows (think: the Norwegian version of Dancing with the Stars). She is a celebrated athlete and national hero, and still generous and humble in her interactions. In Norway, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t know—and love—Susann.

Along with her television work, Susann is an organizational consultant who helps teams in the workplace elevate their performance. She was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the importance of teams and how they can work better together.

MP: You excelled in a team sport. What do teams that consistently win—in sport and in work—do differently than less successful teams?

SB: It’s one thing to win a game, have a winning season, or even win one championship, but teams that win consistently—year after year—create a culture of winning. A winning culture requires high expectations that everyone understands and accepts. It’s also made abundantly clear that everyone has a job to do and personal responsibility for doing it. When this is the case, there is a sense of interdependence that makes each person’s role critical. Even though the leading goal-scorer might be in the spotlight more, it doesn’t mean the role-player who might get two minutes of game time each night isn’t absolutely necessary to the team’s success.

Most importantly, each player must make a personal commitment to give her best every day. We had a locker room ritual. Right before we would take the floor, we would huddle, look into the eyes of our teammates, and promise that we would give our best. This created mutual respect as we knew that giving anything less than our complete effort would mean letting teammates down and violating a commitment we made. In short, we were all fully invested.

MP: How important is open and authentic connection on a team?

SB: Communication is crucial and timely feedback is essential. There are only two, 30-minute halves in a team handball game, so players have to be direct with each other, communicate clearly, and able to make quick adjustments—often while thousands of people look on. The inability to communicate honestly and effectively is often the downfall of teams.

I also want to make it clear that it’s not just the leader’s or coach’s responsibility to communicate and give feedback. Every player on the floor is responsible for providing honest feedback if something—or someone—is not working out as planned. This might seem hard to do, but if it comes from a shared common interest in being our best as a team, we simply must do it.

MP: What lessons from your 20-year playing career do you bring to your corporate clients now?

SB: There are several. First, we are dependent on each other. Yet, for some reason, people have a tendency not to share; we stay locked up in our own situations without reaching out to our teammates for input or assistance. I try to get people to see how we learn from each other and how we can make each other better through the way we interact. People working well together creates a positive, synergistic effect that a group of individuals working in isolation can never achieve.

Next, feedback must be constant—part of your daily routine. This feedback might come from a coach (or manager), but it should also come from colleagues. I don’t think people in organizations give or receive enough feedback. In part, it’s because people tend to be self-focused, but I also think there is a lack of trust. Teams and organizations can work to create greater trust and they should because without it, the feedback won’t be as full and free as it should.

Finally, every member of the team must take ownership over her individual and the team’s results. There can be no finger-pointing on a high-functioning team; instead, each person must take personal responsibility for improving their own skills, giving their maximum effort each day, and fulfilling their role on the team. We also have a responsibility to bring out the best in those around us. That’s what winning teams do.

MP: You’re a certified Core Strengths facilitator now. How would lessons from Core Strengths: Results through Relationships have helped you most in your athletic career?

SB: I can think of a couple of examples. When we were competing, members of the team essentially spent 24 hours a day together. We were at practice, in games, on the bus, sharing hotel rooms—always together. That’s not always easy. Knowing the SDI results of teammates would have given me a perspective that would have helped me live with them day-in-and-day-out. For example, I enjoyed socializing and spending time with my teammates, but there were a few people on the team that spent a lot of time alone. This caused me to try harder to include them and invite them places, but looking back, they probably just wanted some time to think and process what had happened during the course of the day. The same idea applies to watching tape to prepare for games. Some people could watch tape for hours and wanted to know as much as possible about an opponent. I preferred the spontaneity and energy of the game. People are different—and that’s okay.

Another example involved the use of strengths and how I could sometimes overdo some of mine. For example, as the team’s captain, I was always vocal at team meetings. I wanted to share my ideas and I felt comfortable doing so. One day, my coach pulled me aside and said, “Today, be quiet; don’t say anything until others have spoken. Let’s see what happens.” After a few awkward moments, some of my more quiet teammates began to share their thoughts and offered great ideas. They also took greater ownership of the decisions that were made that day. This would have never happened had I continued overusing my strengths of self-confident, persuasive, and forceful. Sometimes it’s best to choose other, less familiar strengths, to get the job done.

MP: Thanks for your time today, Susann. It was a fascinating conversation and I wish you great success with your continuing work with teams.

While it’s not every day you get to meet an Olympian, in this case, you can apply the insights from one on a daily basis.

Dr. Mike Patterson

Dr. Mike Patterson

Mike is a principal at PSP in Carlsbad, Calif. and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology.