A Team of Two

Published: April 16, 2019

My guitar teacher has been honing his skills as a musician and educator for about 25 years. I have been working on my chops for about 50. It has taken me twice as long to get half as good. Face it, practicing thirty-to-sixty minutes daily will never achieve the results of devoting three-to-six hours each day. Even if I step up to his pace, there aren’t enough years remaining in a human life span to learn to play at his level. This is why I selected him for my team of two. I will always have new goals that seem nearly out of reach, yet attainable with hard work. This partnership has an unspoken recipe.

Relationships, teams and organizations share the same recipe for effectiveness. Whether a twosome or a group, partnerships are defined by shared values, a common goal, a sense of connection, accountability, courage to grow and resilience during periods of adversity. To thrive, the team must be willing to travel through four stages where each of these elements get tested.

Investment (labor/conflict): 

In the Investment Stage, teams are refueling following a transition. This is labor-intensive, so frustration is a common emotion. The team wants to forge ahead but the new direction needs to be built or rebuilt. This stage is marked by role confusion and conflict until ground rules are set. The team is re-energized. In the music education teacher-student relationship, this is when the lesson seems too difficult and the practice regimen needs to be recalibrated.

Trust (comfort/safety):

In the Trust Stage, teams rise and fall together. When someone falters, the whole team suffers. The symptoms of struggle include a breakdown of psychological safety, tolerance of disrespect, and lack of accountability. When any teammate thrives, everyone benefits and connections grow. In the music education teacher-student relationship, this is when a bad week of practice stymies progress and a good week of practice propels growth.

Innovation (tension/resolution):

In the Innovation Stage, teams are ready to explore, experiment and create. Fear is normal. While everyone agrees on the destination, there may be many paths to get there.  A diversity-friendly and risk-tolerant workplace is a rich garden for innovation. The team moves from tension to resolution. In the music education teacher-student relationship, this is when discovery energizes the learning.

Distancing (depletion/healing):

In the Distancing Stage, teams are focused on coping. Teammates take a step back to gain perspective. Whether positive or negative, managing change consumes energy. It’s normal to feel depleted physically and emotionally when going through a transition. Getting some space enables healing. In the music education teacher-student relationship, this is when the partnership takes stock in what has been achieved and refuels for the next round of commitment.

In a team of two, these stages are easy to define. Each teammate owns responsibility for moving the relationship forward through good times and inevitable periods of struggle. In larger groups, multiple partnerships create complex team dynamics where it becomes difficult to know which stage and which teammate is impacting the culture positively or negatively.

When that happens, make a simple assessment:

  1. In what stage are we navigating?
  2. Why are we in this stage?
  3. What actions will move us forward?
Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst University where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.