The "I" in Teamwork

Added on Nov 17, 2015

By Diana Mahoney, Editorial Director


Contrary to popular expression, there is an “I” in teamwork. In fact, there are multiple of them. They can be found in the individuals who contribute their unique strengths and abilities to the mission of the team and who are essential to its success.

On a recent Southwest Airlines flight from Orlando to San Antonio, the combined efforts of a group of individuals—none of whom had previously met—saved a life, providing a persuasive testament to the power of teamwork.

In his second flight-related emergency response in as many weeks, Dr. Thomas Lee, Press Ganey chief medical officer, answered a flight attendant’s call for a doctor just as the plane was taxiing for takeoff. When he reached the back of the plane, he joined a team that had already begun delivering lifesaving care to a passenger in cardiac arrest.

Dr. Andrea T. Esch, an anesthesiologist in Buffalo, New York, was delivering oxygen to the nonresponsive patient via a bag valve mask while passenger Monte Young of ​Carlisle, Pennsylvania, was delivering “hard and good chest compressions,” according to Dr. Esch, who recently described the events.

“One of the flight attendants brought the defibrillator, we attached it to the gentleman and we got the message, ‘shock recommended,’ which honestly I’m not used to hearing. In training simulations with the AED, you never get that message,” she commented.

The compressions and oxygen delivery were stopped so Dr. Lee could defibrillate the passenger, Dr. Esch said. “We got a pulse and continued to bag the patient with just room air, and then he began to cough.” By that time, the pilot had stopped the plane and EMS had arrived to remove the passenger.

“As he was being wheeled down the center aisle in the narrowest wheel chair I’ve ever seen, [the passenger] was thanking everyone and apologizing,” Dr. Esch said.

From start to finish, the “code” lasted just 20 minutes. “The teamwork was nothing short of inspiring. It was the smoothest code I’ve ever been part of,” according to Dr. Lee. As a practicing cardiologist in one of the nation’s leading health care systems, this is no small accomplishment.

Dr. Esch agreed. “It was seamless. Everyone did everything they had to do, without stopping to question,” she explained. “When I said the patient had to be laid flat for chest compressions, one of the passengers reached around and quickly unbuckled his seat belt and Monte picked him up from under his arms, laid him down and started compressions. The flight attendants were phenomenal, getting us everything we needed as soon as we asked. Passengers moved away to give us the space that we needed. It was amazing.”

Although not all instances of teamwork have such dramatic life-or-death consequences, every successful team—including the one formed within minutes among strangers on that flight to San Antonio—shares fundamental characteristics:

  • Commitment to a shared purpose

  • Clarity of members’ roles

  • Effective processes

  • Trust

  • Communication 

When all of these are present, the “I’s” that contribute their unique attributes to the group effort become the “we” that moves the team forward, allowing it to gain strength and develop the cohesion and momentum needed to meet challenges and overcome obstacles in its path.