Teamwork Wins in Real World, But School Teaches the Opposite

Imagine if your high school diploma listed not just your name in big italic font but also the names of the specific classmates you allied with to achieve academic success.

Unfortunately, it’s a far-out scenario, because we have an education system that rewards individualistic achievement and teacher-pleasing, not teambuilding and broad collaboration—essential skills in almost every professional field.

In school, there’s only one relationship that matters: the one between you and the all-mighty teacher.

Accordingly, it pays to be a teacher’s pet. Raise your hand constantly in class. Ask for extra work. Tell the other students to quiet down when the teacher enters the classroom. These things might cause classmates to sneer behind your back, but they don’t decide whether you get an A+. You might have no one to sit with at lunch, but you’ll be laughing all the way to the Valedictorian seat at graduation.

In the real world, however, if your officemates sneer at you behind your back, you’ll be falling all the way to the bottom of the company org chart. At work, you only get ahead by completing projects that require more than one person; the most important projects are always group efforts. Teamwork rules. You produce impressive accomplishments by collaborating with others, by forming alliances, by mastering the politics of the office.

In Ender’s Game (one of my favorite books growing up), there’s a bracing example of the military commanders testing Ender’s ability to be a leader. When Ender arrives at Battle School, the head commander praises him relentlessly in front of his peers. By exalting Ender as a true genius out in the open, the commander intentionally makes Ender’s ultra-competitive peers resent the special attention, thereby making it more difficult for Ender to form alliances. The commanders test Ender in a way that school never does: Can he negotiate rivalries and partner with his peers to build a team and accomplish something great?

Now, while it’s true that at work you usually have a single manager who determines your bonus or promotion, that manager’s perception of you is shaped by many sources.

This is not the case at school; there’s little opportunity for a fellow student to sabotage your reputation with your teacher. Did you ever sit around with your teacher in high school and BS about how your classmates are doing academically?

At work, though, this happens all the time. Those you work with whisper quietly to your boss.

Boss: “By the way, how’s it going on that project for the big client?”

Your colleague: “Oh it’s going fine. Yeah, you know, [Your Name]’s working hard, though I’m not sure he’s really a natural at this kind of work. The client has told me it can be hard to work with him at times. But it’s not a big deal, and overall, things are going well, thanks for asking.”

When I meet with really successful professionals, they frequently reflect on this disconnect: in school they thought it was an individual game, in life they realize it’s a team game, and team games require skills they never developed in school.

For example, I had dinner the other week with an accomplished doctor in his 60’s. He told me that in the first half of his career he thought what mattered for standing out in his field was possessing superior knowledge. If he memorized more than the next guy, he thought, he’d get ahead. Today, he realizes what matters is his ability to persuade others—to convince other researchers to partner with him projects, to convince hospitals to adopt his ideas, to convince students in residency to follow his leadership, etc.

And it turns out, memorizing organic chemistry formulas was a whole lot easier than learning to read a room, interpreting human motivations, and building teams who will follow you.

When reflecting on how the education system does or does not prepare students, we should pay special attention not just to areas where school under-prepares students for the real world (more statistics! more engineering!), but where school actively misprepares. Where an entire framework of “how to be successful” has to be unlearned and replaced by something else. These are the most consequential breakage points in formal schooling.

[This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.]

5 comments on “Teamwork Wins in Real World, But School Teaches the Opposite
  • Definitely think there’s merit to this post; however, I think it over-simplifies the phenomenon.

    In fact, Steve Wozniak (a relatively sharp dude) seems to thinks the exact opposite:

    “Artists work best alone where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

    Which isn’t to say that after Woz creates X,Y, Z that he doesn’t need a Jobs to wrap it in a pretty package (and story) and sell it to the world. I just think that a lot of times the best work *is* done by an individual in an office and that it ultimately boils down to accepting and even encouraging differences in the workplace.

    I actually did TON of tasks that required teamwork and school. What I learned during those tasks, is that one (or two) people typically do most of the work anyway. If we’re going to talk about school as broken model, I don’t necessarily think teamwork is a big gap.

    Heretical thought, divergent thinking, leadership, and how to solve hard problems are things we should be focused on infusing back into the classroom.

  • In my experience, there weren’t many team tasks in high school, but in college, there were a ton, especially in my business classes.

    This article is less about actual teamwork and more about being well-liked by your colleagues and convincing them that you’re contribution is important. Whether you’re actually important or not, doesn’t matter. If you’re congenial and shrewd at playing office politics, you’ll go far. I agree with the author about this, but let’s not call it teamwork.

    Essentially, the same things that were important for being popular when you were 6 were the same things that important for being popular when you were 15, and 25, and those things will probably decide how far you go in your career.

    Humans suck.

  • Interesting and somewhat counterintuitive point: It’s especially hard for the most intelligent and capable to develop teamwork skills. When I was in school, I despised group projects because they meant relying on others (whom I didn’t trust) as opposed to my own skills (which I did).

    It took me far too long to learn the importance of working with others, largely because my own skills allowed me to get away with going it alone for so long.

    • I agree, Chris. However, I also think that perhaps grading things not on a “how did your team do” scale, but instead on a “how did the individual use teamwork to achieve his/her aims”, could solve that. If you’re grading one project, we run into the problem you described. If you’re instead grading an individual on how well they use alliances and connections to do well on a variety of projects, then I think the teamwork approach very closely mirrors the one we see in the real world.

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