Teamwork Makes Tree Work Work

Trusted leadership is absolutely essential on any highly functional team, but “leadership” only scratches the surface. Photos courtesy of the author.

We have all likely heard the cliché “teamwork makes the dream work.” Like most clichés, there is truth to that surface-level statement. Let’s take a practical, in-depth look at teamwork, the team itself and how the two affect our day-to-day reality as arborists.

Without teamwork, what may be called a team is merely a collection of individuals at the same place at the same time, individually working toward a common goal without cooperation or collaboration. Unity of effort allows the team to become more, to do more and to be greater than the sum of its individuals. Teamwork is the foundational skill that allows such a unified effort to take place. What is it, then, that makes teamwork work? Trusted leadership is absolutely essential on any highly functional team, but “leadership” only scratches the surface.

Trust is not earned through demonstrated competence alone but also through the relationships we build with co-workers. For the team to work well, there must be at least a level of familiarity among the team members, while at best there’s a familial relationship. Solid relationships among the team members allow an understanding of levels of competency among teammates that is needed to circumvent the necessity for “blind trust.”

For a climber to blindly trust a groundworker can be dangerous; as a result, the climber often may adjust his plan, rigging smaller pieces or not rigging at all. These changes may sacrifice the productivity and quality of a job for the sake of safety. Even worse, it robs the groundworker of valuable learning experiences and opportunities to build trust. Lack of trust also prevents crew leaders from delegating tasks or, if delegated, forces the crew leader to supervise the task, which may build trust while slowing production. On the other hand, delegating tasks to a new climber that he or she is not ready for may erode the new climber’s trust in the leader. Trust can be fickle and fleeting – it is built over time but lost in an instant.

For a climber to blindly trust a groundworker can be dangerous; as a result, the climber may often adjust his plan, rigging smaller pieces or not rigging at all.

Ego is a complex subject and all too often a powerful force that prevents the team from working together as they should. Egos among the team members can be mistaken for trust, or the lack thereof, when the ego protects its position on the team by not sharing its knowledge. Sometimes the ego will delegate tasks that it feels are beneath it when, in actuality, no member of the team is above any task. Other times the ego will take on tasks it associates with glory when that task could have been a valuable training opportunity for another team member.

One’s uncontrolled or unrecognized ego is all too often the root issue beneath many leadership and teamwork failures. However, the subordinated ego coupled with humility is a powerful driving force behind self-improvement and the improvement of the team as a whole. This seemingly contradictory statement may be more easily understood in these terms: if everyone on the team puts the needs of the team ahead of their respective egos (subordinate the ego) and accepts the fact that there is much to learn and always room for improvement, while maintaining the attitude that all are capable of learning and improving (beneficial aspect of ego), then the team will build upon its strengths, buttress its weaknesses and learn from its failures.

Ignorance is excusable, refusal to learn is not. We can’t expect people to know what they have never been exposed to, but it is not unreasonable to expect someone to take advantage of learning opportunities and utilize the educational resources at their disposal to improve their competency and capabilities. At no time has educational material, in general and for our industry specifically, been more readily accessible, especially now in the COVID era. Online resources and virtual-learning opportunities offered by industry organizations, suppliers and universities, as well as companies and members of the arboricultural community, are plentiful and continue to expand and evolve with the evolution of technology. Not only should these resources be utilized by companies for training and education, but self-directed study and sharing of resources by employees should be encouraged.

Expectations are a good thing, and they should be set high enough that they have to be reached for, but setting unreasonable expectations is detrimental across the team. As a leader, setting unreasonable expectations is a good way to set yourself up for constant disappointment and resentment toward, and from, the ones you should be leading. On the other end of the spectrum, you may or may not realize that your leader’s expectations are unreasonable. Either way the result will be negative; basically, it causes you to call into question your leader’s judgment, your own adequacy or both.

In order to maximize the potential of the team, effort should be made to find and utilize the best and highest purpose of all personnel. There are many jobs to be done and responsibilities to be had, and there are multiple people with various skills and abilities to help get things done. It is a constant endeavor to discover the interests, talents and strengths of your team members and figure out how to utilize them to maximum effect for the greater good of the team. Over the long term, this can, and probably should, change as individuals grow and learn and as the needs of the team change and evolve over time.

Planning is an art in itself and requires, among other things, everything we have discussed up to this point. The best plans take into account the people involved, their levels of training and education and their strengths and weaknesses. Care should be taken to ensure that opportunities for training are taken advantage of when practical. Obviously, any specific hazards on a job warrant hazard-mitigation plans to control or eliminate said hazard. Beyond these specific considerations, planning the entirety of a job can be challenging and sometimes futile.

There’s an old military adage, “No plan survives first contact,” or as Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan, until they get punched in the face.”

Tree work, too, is a dynamic situation where plans change as the job progresses. A rigid plan can lead to confusion, and possibly inaction, when the plan inevitably has to change on the fly to meet the needs of the job. Incremental planning is a useful tool to avoid the consequences of a failing plan. For incremental planning to work, you need several things in place, including:
• intent, both implied and overt;
• allocation of resources;
• division of labor; and
• some limitations on actions to be taken.

Implied intent is a product of company culture, core values and mission statements; it is what guides the actions of the crew without being stated as part of the job. Overt intent is generally spelled out in the work order – which tree to remove, pruning specifications, leave firewood, etc. Allocation of resources is simply how the available tools and equipment can best be utilized on a particular job, while division of labor is who will use those resources and what they will be using them for. Limitations should be in place to keep the crew from physically spreading out too far or to keep crew members from deviating too far beyond the plan without communicating with the rest of the crew.

The concept of incremental planning also requires foresight and communication. Simply stated, foresight is the application of situational awareness and proactive anticipation. It’s the ability to know what’s going on around you, what’s happening next and how to help move the process along. Without clear and fully understood communication, relationships can’t be formed, expectations can’t be established, plans can’t be made or altered effectively and execution will be inefficient at best. Foresight and communication can improve safety, efficiency and productivity, but most important, it allows the team to function like a well-oiled machine.

Rounding out the formula for a highly functional team is a vision of the future, an idea of where all the training, education and hard work of living up to expectations leads. Let’s face the truth, arboriculture is physically, mentally and emotionally demanding. There are not many industries that require the degree of physicality needed to climb a tree and the mental acuity to keep everyone safe while solving complex puzzles and problems, all while overcoming one’s own innate fears.

Without a vision, there is no “light at the end of the tunnel,” there is only “now,” this moment, this day, this week. If “now” should suck, then everything sucks, and the foreseeable future sucks. However, if one has a vision of the future and can see beyond “now,” then one could embrace the suck as part of the path to a better future. A vivid vision of the future is an antidote to the burnout that can, and will, come from long hours and endless days of grueling challenges.

There is much to learn in life and always will be. This is the beauty of knowledge; it always leads to better questions that lead to deeper understanding. Learn about yourself, learn about your job and learn about your team. Take this attitude into your personal life and embrace being a lifelong learner – it will serve you well.

Bill Hickman, CTSP, ISA Certified Arborist and TRAQ credentialed, is a crew leader with Heartwood Tree Service, LLC, an accredited, 25-year TCIA member company based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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