3 Teamwork Lessons from a Tube of Toothpaste


It's an age old question: Is there a right way and a wrong way to squeeze a tube of toothpaste? This debate has surely caused the rise and fall of empires. It is probably to blame for the extinction of the dinosaurs. And it is most certainly the topic of many a heated exchange between spouses in the morning or in the evening at the shared bathroom sink. In my own life, toothpaste tube squeezing etiquette has been the subject of a few tense discussions, but more recently I've found in it a bit of playful insight into teams, teamwork, and management.

The toothpaste tube question is one of those silly things in life that has the ability to create a strong reaction depending on one's opinion. How much more important, then, is it for us to evaluate how working together with others might have similarities to this dental debate?

1. More than one method works.

As much as it pains me to say this, the simple fact is that more than one method works. No matter how many times I tell my wife that it is ridiculous to squeeze the toothpaste tube in the middle, she continues to get toothpaste out of the tube onto her toothbrush using this method. Several of my children use this same method and for the young ones with chubby, clumsy hands, it's probably the best way to approach the task.

At work, sometimes there is a best way to do something, but sometimes varied methods achieve the same result just as effectively. As team members (perhaps this is of higher importance for leaders) we would do well to remember that each person may have a different approach to a problem, but if the end result is the same, then we shouldn't meddle. Meddling in the specifics of a task or work is a good way to increase tension, degrade trust, and create more work for the entire team. In film making this is especially true. On a set, each individual member of the crew is expected to execute a task or series of tasks. If each other member commented or corrected the method used for each task undertaken on a shoot day, the team would fail to achieve anything efficiently and the shoot day would likely end as a failure.

A really cool thing happens when you begin to trust your team members. Your stress level goes down. Their stress levels go down. You start to achieve more. And your clients begin to perceive you as a well oiled machine that works well together to create awesome stuff!

2. Who's quirk is it anyway?

I stole this one from a book. Early in my relationship with my wife, I read a book called Don't Sweat the Small Stuff: In Love and there was a chapter titled "Who's quirk is it anyway?" The chapter asked a profound question: Is the issue with the way your partner uses the toothpaste? Or is the real issue the reaction you have to the way they use the toothpaste? Well, the book's example may have been something about leaving a towel out in the bathroom, but the point was the same. Even if you really prefer a different method to achieve a thing, perhaps the real issue is the amount of anxiety you have about this whole thing. Wow! Talk about a look-in-the-mirror moment. I haven't always remembered this concept in practice but it remains one of the most humbling and profound principles I've read to date.

Again, remember that this isn't the same as evaluating the end result of a project. In business, we need the product or service we deliver to be high quality. If we don't achieve that, it is up to the management or the other team members or the debrief meeting (whatever your structure) to call that out and seek improvement. But the methods followed by an individual to achieve a goal, assuming the time and effort is relatively equal to your preferred method, don't really matter in the end if the same result is achieved.

3. Let's face it, there probably is a best way.

Although the main thrust of this article is about extending your team members the autonomy to achieve tasks their own way, there are times that the "best method" may be required. But if you've been working together respectfully, not meddling in every task throughout a project, your crew may have more open ears to listen when it is time to call for a specific action.

When you reach the end of a tube of toothpaste, what happens to all of the squeeze-the-tube-in-the-middlers? Do you just throw away the unused toothpaste in the end? Or do you find yourself kneading the toothpaste from the bottom toward the opening? Is there another way at this point in the process? I supposed you could cut the tube open like a psychopath, but we'll leave that topic for another blog at another time. Chances are, all toothpaste users find themselves migrating in the end toward the perfectionists' preferred method. Sometimes, there really is a better way to do a thing.

But not always.

Happy Brushing!