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Turning a Team Orange: What a 350,000-person study can teach us about building a high-performance team culture

January 21, 2011

Great teams share a belief in their own ability to write the future. After all, it is people in the trenches, not senior leaders, who are the true force behind any sustained change in a company. Great teams universally reject the long-held view of individual genius or charismatic CEO changing an organization, and instead place their faith fully in themselves and their ability to achieve. 

It’s a big leap of faith for a group of regular people to make, even on a good day; but it was this very type of belief in themselves, rather than their leaders, that saved the lives of one breakthrough team in the middle of the Indian Ocean seven years ago. 

Like most crises, no one saw it coming. And yet when water started rushing through the submarine’s hull, Able Seaman Geordie Bunting of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) knew enough to realize that he was probably going to die. 

Like most crises, no one saw it coming.

Bunting had spent his shift working in the small, lower motor room of the HMAS Dechaineux. As he worked over heavy machinery, he was constantly aware of his 54 crewmates above him—everyone within a few feet of each other at all times. Bunting knew these people like his own family. He knew their birthdays, their middle names, their kids’ names, their habits and histories. And when he heard the ear-deafening bang and saw the water pour into the motor room, he immediately knew they were in serious trouble.

As fate would have it, on February 12, 2003, the Dechaineux dove to its maximum depth in an attempt to test its systems under full pressure. And that pressure had proved to be too much. A flexible sea hose burst. Within ten seconds, enough seawater had poured into the motor room to toss Bunting around like he was in a washing machine.

“It was coming in so fast, I thought it was all over,” he said. With water up to his neck, and nearly unconscious, Bunting immediately understood that so far under the ocean surface, there was no one to save him and the rest of the crew but themselves. 

Meanwhile, outside the motor room, the crew instantly sprang into action, triggering an emergency override, which shut down all the external valves and stopped the water intake. Other crew members rushed to the flooded motor room, fished Seaman Bunting out by his lapel, and slammed the door shut. They all knew that at this depth, the amount of water they had taken on could very well send them to the bottom. 

Twenty seconds. That was the difference between life and death. 

Working quickly and with precision, the crew adjusted the controls to increase speed and the rate of ascent. At the same time, they blew out the ballast and lightened the load. Then they held their breath and waited.

Fortunately for Bunting and crew, after a short hesitation the Dechaineux began to slowly respond to the crew’s frantic efforts. Working every tactic, the crew began to inch the craft upwards. Soon, the submarine was rising at twice its normal rate of ascent. A few men laughed nervously as they heard cups sliding off tables in the mess hall and clattering to the floor. 

“It was pretty bloody close, mate,” said Bunting. And he wasn’t exaggerating. Investigators later determined that had the Dechaineux continued to flood for just a further 20 seconds, the sub and its crew would have sunk to the bottom of the Indian Ocean. 

Twenty seconds. That was the difference between life and death. 

In the midst of the crisis that threatened their lives, the Aussie crew acted like a real team, the kind that makes us tear up in movies and throw our popcorn into the air at football games. No one argues with that. But let’s examine that statement more closely. What did they do, exactly, that proved their teamwork? In the face of disaster, the submariners responded quickly and protected each other. They rescued those in immediate danger. They thought creatively to solve a problem. They functioned as a support for each other, keeping cool when things looked bad. 

On the technical side, they adjusted controls to right the situation. They jettisoned the ballast and lightened the load with the hopes that the sub would respond. Certainly they were following their training. There was no time to consult the sub’s owner’s manual. Twenty seconds were all they had. They acted and then crossed their fingers. 

Lessons Learned

Here’s something they didn’t do: call the commander and ask what he thought. That’s something worth mentioning. It’s what makes this story revolutionary as an example of teamwork. In the wake of the disaster, the sailors of Dechaineux did not resort to a hierarchy of leadership, no coach on the sideline calling the final play of the game.

“I was proud of them the day before, and I was proud of them the day after,” said Commander Pete Scott. “On the day itself, I did nothing, the ship’s company did everything. They identified the problem, they reacted to the problem, and we got to the surface.” 

Leaders can do a great deal to build such highly functioning teams.

According to the commander, the men didn’t wait for him to give orders or save them; they saved the ship. And they were ready to do it. Each member of the crew was extremely proficient at his job, and each trusted the others implicitly, and each was ready to sacrifice for the whole. 

Now, we’re not saying that the managers of teams don’t make a difference—or even that top management doesn’t play a vital role. In fact, leaders can do a great deal to build such highly functioning teams. But that fact is that people in breakthrough teams report their highest loyalty is their relationship with one another—the other team members. 

Over the last few years, our series of business books has focused on “carrots,” our catch-phrase for employee recognition. We even created a system to help managers understand and implement the powerful tools of motivation, engagement, recognition, and appreciation. Since then, our research has come to show us that the same practices of appreciation and camaraderie that create revolutionary leaders also contribute to the success of breakthrough teams. Since carrots are a foundational part of the formula for team growth and achievement, we use the term “Orange” to describe the overall characteristics, rules, and behaviors of great teams.

Breakthrough teams understand that important work relationships require effort. In the interest of the greater good, team members agree to set standards for their interactions. Rather than feel restrictive, team members report that a code of personal and team conduct kicks the door wide open to possibilities, where success and rewards inevitably follow, unfettered by petty interpersonal problems. In a breakthrough team, each member agrees to follow a set of rules or values. We’ve put the most common we found in our surveys of 350,000-people into what we call the Rule of 3: 

  • Wow—Breakthrough Teams commit to a standard of world-class performance.
  • No Surprises—All team members are accountable for openness, honest debate, and each knows what to expect from the others.
  • Cheer—Team members support, recognize, appreciate, and cheer others and the group on to victory.

The most important thing about teams that follow these rules are that it takes only the lightest touch by a leader to maintain success. 

Still, skeptics remain; and, really, who can blame them? The hype about teamwork through the years turned out to be much ado about nothing. If you harbor some doubts yourself about the value of team-building efforts, let us introduce some eye-opening findings captured during our fall 2008 global study by Towers Watson. Look what happens to employee engagement when teamwork is more than lip service, when we make commitments to interact and work differently, when we let go of the old way of seeing things and view our role at work in a new way. 

At the left, the 64 percent engagement number shows us that today, some 36 percent of the global working population is not personally invested in their work. In short, they don’t care. But see how the number of engaged workers increases when employees are organized into motivating teams, increases again when members of the team cheer and recognize each other, and increases to 75 percent when team members understand the big picture and how their work impacts it? Feeling part of an authentic team that cheers for each other and has clear goals leads to higher engagement wherever you are in the world: from Brazil to Germany, Singapore to Mexico. 


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