Spontaneous Human Teamwork

I was tuckered out. I had just flown back from the NAFCU annual conference, and was at baggage claim, waiting for the fine folks at Southwest Airlines to hoist my suitcase onto that magical carousel so that it could snake its way toward me. It had been a quick trip for me; I had just flown out the day before. But even though it was a quick trip, by the time I was standing in the baggage claim area, I was super tired. And you know that little bit of crankiness and/or impatience that you sometimes feel when you’re waiting for your bag to appear on the carousel? Yeah, I had that. (I’m only human, right?)

As you know, waiting for luggage can be an interesting thing. There are at least a couple different types of people, whom I’ve labeled according to the strategies they take. There are Crowders and Lurkers. Lurkers are the folks who sort of stand back while the Crowders scramble for position in the front. They’re content to wait their turn, confident that their luggage won’t turn into a pumpkin if it’s not immediately snatched off the carousel on the first pass.

Crowders are the ones who finnagle their way right to the edge of the carousel, nudging fatigued travelers to the side and mumbling a weak “excuse me” on their way. Crowders have to be right next to the carousel, as if they only have one shot to get that luggage before it passes by into oblivion after one trip around. Crowders are annoying creatures, wearing their impatience on their sleeves and thinly veiled frowns on their faces.

And this day, I was one of ’em.

After nudging aside a small child and elbowing an elderly lady so I could get to the front (I kid, I kid), I stood strategically at one end of the carousel. From this vantage point I could see all the luggage as it lumbered down toward me. I was sure I wouldn’t miss my bag this way, and my crowding technique would pay off. Lurkers were suckers.

But there’s this curious thing that happens sometimes in baggage claim areas. As the bags slowly make their way around their predetermined course, almost inevitably a moment arises wherein someone can’t quite hoist their bag from the carousel. Then the strangest thing happens, and it appears to happen almost instinctively.

While I stood a fair distance down the carousel from her, an elderly woman (no, not the one I didn’t elbow) reached toward the carousel to claim her two-ton, floral-printed suitcase. For all I know, there could have been a small adult in that suitcase; but I digress.

The thing is, she couldn’t get it off. And you know how that goes. She was wrestling with the bag, but the carousel waits for no man. Or elderly woman. So it became a mobile wrestling match as the carousel continued to tug her luggage away from her, try as she might to pull it off. I was afraid we were about to witness a shattering pelvis.

And then it happened.

Additional sets of hands entered the fray, grabbing for the woman’s luggage. These Crowders–these aforementioned self-absorbed and single-minded Crowders–dropped everything to help this woman retrieve her luggage from a seemingly-unwilling-to-cooperate carousel. These Crowders didn’t care about their bags in that moment. They ignored their traveler’s tiredness and worked quickly to pull the woman’s bag from the carousel and make sure the woman herself was OK (it was quite a struggle, I tell you).

Now granted, my mind works in weird ways, but I immediately thought about what I had just seen within the context of teamwork in organizations. You see, in that moment, there were no silos anymore, no politics, no turf wars, no political power plays, no heated conversations. It didn’t matter whose suitcase was whose, or whether or not it was someone’s particular, written-in-their-job-description duty to help the woman. There was a singular focus: those people wanted to get that suitcase off the carousel for that woman. It wasn’t about money. There were no performance bonuses given out after the fact for their daring rescue of the woman’s bag. There was no announcement over the intercom lauding their bravery in the face of a particularly stubborn carousel. Nothing.

It was just a snapshot of the way humanity is supposed to be, and of the way teams and organizations are supposed to be. Individuals put the good of another before the good of themselves.

It was spontaneous human teamwork, and it was beautiful.

2 thoughts on “Spontaneous Human Teamwork

  • Great observations, Matt. This happens at work too – just as rarely as in the airport. A team has to recognize the full effort one single person is putting in, that that effort is just not enough, and that the task needs to get done. Rare, but so special in those moments when you’re truly part of a team.

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