In my work as a dental hygiene recruiter, nearly all the candidates whom I interview tell me they are "team players" and "want to work with a strong team." I sometimes wonder if these hopeful hygienists realize that in the dental practice, the word "team" has been so overused to describe a practice’s staff that it's lost any useful meaning. Its overuse has hindered our ability to define what makes an effective dental team and, frankly, is of little use for recruiters.
There is a term for words that are so overused that they've lost their meaning: semantic satiation. According to Wikipedia, semantic satiation is "a psychological phenomenon in which repetition causes a word or phrase to temporarily lose meaning for the listener, who then perceives the speech as repeated meaningless sounds." (1)
Regrettably, the words we use to describe "teamwork" have also lost much of their meaning, further hindering our efforts to define what actions are required to create and maintain an effective team or team member. "Helpfulness," "camaraderie," and "communication" are common examples of overused buzzwords that are used to describe teamwork.
Oftentimes, hygienists think of teamwork as helping other staff members with their respective duties and being thoughtful. While certainly true, I would suggest that is only a very small sliver of the teamwork pie.
While we frequently use (or misuse) the word "team" to describe a collection of individuals who work in the same location, to make the word meaningful, we need to define the word differently. I suggest using it as a verb, rather than a noun. Are you on a team? Or do you team?
To have a productive team, people must be willing to let go of their personal desires and pride—and sometimes their preferences. This is the proverbial rub, and it's much easier said than done. We all struggle to sacrifice our wants for the good of the whole at times, and each time we put our own interests first, we get a little further away from being part of the team we say we want to be a part of.
The word team, when used as a verb, denotes actions. This means that we take the action of identifying a goal, agreeing on it, and moving towards it together. This sounds virtuous on paper or from a podium, but it can be challenging for the staff to pull that together consistently, day in and day out, in real life.
In my current position, my team shares a single, overriding goal that can be summed up in one word. Our team leader introduced this word into our culture early on. In hindsight, I see it was a brilliant move. Having only one word to remember keeps us focused and out of the weeds that are constantly popping up all around us. I save that word on a sticky note on my desk. When I am challenged, it serves as a reminder that it isn't about me or how I am feeling at that moment. It's about our objective, our one word. Remembering this allows me to release any frustrations and move forward. When our whole team works toward our one word at the same time, we are powerful and the synergy is energizing and exciting!
Harry Truman said, "It’s amazing how much you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit." (2) Ego, envy, and resentment will kill a team. None of us are immune to these emotions. If, however, such mindsets are taking up too much space in the practice you are applying to work in, find ways to help neutralize them—or continue your job search.
Try not to misidentify your friendliness with co-workers as effective teamwork. Most people are friendly. If we are being honest, we can likely agree that we are all sometimes friendly to our fellows for personal gain, which is clearly not useful for the group. Most of the time, such behavior is unconscious and not intentional, but we should try to recognize and correct it when we find ourselves doing it.
Remember that teamwork is just that—work. It really is a verb and never a noun. It's the unglamorous labor of holding yourself and others accountable. That's not always comfortable or even natural. It's not always warm and fuzzy. Nevertheless, when done correctly, it does feel fantastic and results follow!
Where I live in Texas, there is a saying: "You can pretend to care, but you can’t pretend to show up." To me, teamwork means showing up for yourself, your coworkers, and your team's mission. None of us can live that to perfection, but together we can make progress. Isn’t that what teamwork is all about? Making progress together? I believe it is. If you can convince me, a recruiter, that you define (and live) team as a verb, you may be just what we are looking for!