Being able to successfully work with a group of people toward a common goal is a necessary skill in everything from sports to Math 115. The ability to work well with others requires perception, diligence and reliability. In sports, it’s easy to measure success in wins and losses — you can live and die by numbers and relish in the lack of subjectivity. On the volleyball team, we crunch numbers all the time to obtain black-and-white explanations for problems with our play. Our “side out” percentage was either above 60% or it wasn’t. Our execution, or lack thereof, translates directly into a win or loss, and the numbers clearly tell us how well we played.

But there are some games where numbers can’t tell the whole story. What has always sparked my curiosity are the improbable games that, statistically, just don’t make sense. Stats can tell you who’s winning or which hitter is hot, but they don’t explain how team “chemistry” affects a game. Chemistry is difficult to explain, incredibly easy to feel and often hard to come by. But there’s little consensus on what this abstract concept is and how it helps so many teams, especially the underdogs, win. There’s even less agreement on how it affects the way non-athlete groups work together. I’m no expert, but I have my theories.

A necessary precursor to chemistry is trust, which is earned through the repetition of consistent behavior. In volleyball, this might be digging a tip. In class, it could be doing your assigned problems. Either way, you’re performing to a consistent standard, and your teammates (or classmates) associate you with that task. You earn expectations and fulfill them, and this creates a dynamic and interactive atmosphere. If I had to worry about someone else performing your job, it would distract me from my own, causing the whole team’s performance to suffer. Instead, I know where they’re going to be because they’ve demonstrated that they’ll always be there.

The goal of any group working together is to produce. Constant management is needed to consistently cut down on error and continue to pursue perfection. This particular aspect of chemistry allows your team to maintain focus, which is one of the crucial tools needed to achieve your goals — be it winning a game or completing homework.

Effective leadership is another fundamental component of chemistry. It guides those raw tools your team worked so hard to cultivate toward one collective vision. Being a leader demands constant re-evaluation of goals and direction based on the current situation. Where management is focused on the process, leadership is concerned with making sure you’re aiming toward the right end result. Warren Bennis, known as the pioneer of “leadership studies,” identified this difference between leadership and management in saying, “Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right things.”

In every successful team I have been a part of, every member has had one of these clearly defined roles: managers, leaders and producers. These are all essential to a group’s success, but each role has different requirements. Be it the volleyball team or a student organization, personnel may change but there are always people specializing in each of these duties. The leader makes sure the team is focused and inspires them to stay that way. The manager looks for ways the group can better itself. And producers get through the legwork by concentrating on their own individual responsibilities.

Being a good teammate means looking at your team and figuring out which of these roles it needs, not which one you want to fill. If you are newly joining the Olympic team, your main focus should be on your own efficiency and production, since it’s expected that everyone else will already be performing at a high level. If you join the ranks of a student organization that isn’t performing, maybe you lead and delegate management. Success as a team relies on each role functioning and balancing out the other two.

Lexi Zimmerman can be reached at lexizimm@umich.edu.

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