As physicians, we know, and have been taught, that success comes from being smart and answering questions correctly. By doing so, we excelled in school, scored high on standardized tests, and confidently raised our hands in class. As a result, we were chosen for plum assignments like class officer, yearbook editor, and team captain. Success bred success and we were initiated into honor societies, accepted into prestigious internships, and allowed to work on important research projects.
These achievements guaranteed further success in medical school where the tradition of competition continued as we positioned for the attention of those who would someday write our letters of recommendation. This model of individual success served us very well until we joined a hematology group to begin our practice.
When we join a group of physicians, we join a team. The team might organize around diagnoses, laboratories, or geographic location, but it is a team nonetheless. The team, of course, includes more than just physicians. As a team member, we are expected to fulfill a role that advances the mission of the team and the larger organization. That mission may include some combination of academic, educational, and clinical productivity.
As physicians trained to compete with other individuals, teamwork does not come naturally. We might think that so long as the team consists of more and more high-achieving individuals of superior intelligence and insight that the team will function better and better with time. Experience and sociologic research proves that this is not so.
As Margaret Heffernan brilliantly points out in “Margaret Heffernan: Why it’s time to forget the pecking order at work,” aposted on YouTube, teams consisting of those skilled in interpersonal relationships are much more effective, efficient, and productive than are teams consisting of those skilled in problem-solving with superior IQs. The teams that function most successfully are those that create a culture of trust and helpfulness no matter the individual talents of those on the team.
As a department chair, I try to see past the thickness of the CV to ensure that I see into the person’s ability to relate with other people. If the CV is thick and the emotional intelligence high, then that is the person I want on my team, but I would rather have the latter than the former, and so would teammates and patients.
Research has shown repeatedly that no individuals can hope to achieve on their own what a good, functional team can achieve as a group. Yet, the academic hierarchy rewards individuals, not teams. Hopefully, the rewarded individual will recognize the support and effort of the team, but that is not always the case and not always done adequately.
How can academic departments develop social capital in their teams and reward them, in addition to individuals, for their successes? Social capital grows when the relationships between people become stronger. Those bonds develop though informal interaction outside the work environment. The more the team knows each other, the more they trust each other, the more they are willing to help each other, and the more they are likely to be civil to one another. Teams of friends are much more likely to solve problems quickly for less cost than teams of strangers.
Reward and recognition for a team is not as easy as it sounds. Everyone wants individual recognition for their work, not just as an integral member of a team. The world loves All-Stars and MVPs as much as they love their teams. We do not need to change the way we reward individuals, but we do need to also include teams for reward and recognition. How can a leader determine which teams are most deserving of the highest reward? Many institutions measure employee engagement through surveys. High-functioning teams are likely to be highly engaged and high scores on surveys should be recognized and rewarded. Teams with low employee turnover help reduce training costs and should be appreciated.
Successful implementation of continuous improvement projects are an often overlooked opportunity for an expression of gratitude. I am sure there are other ways to acknowledge a team’s efforts and I hope readers will write to us with their ideas for all to share. Perhaps by doing so, we can accelerate the cultural transformation of academic medicine from one of personal achievement to one of team success.
Dr. Kalaycio is editor in chief of Hematology News. He chairs the department of hematologic oncology and blood disorders at Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Institute. Contact him at.