Back in the day, I used to run track for my high school’s girls 440 relay team. Even all these years later, I can close my eyes and feel it:  legs churning, heart pounding, as I round the curve, ready to pass the baton. I’m reaching my right hand out to place the baton in my team mate’s waiting, outstretched palm.

Most days, the hand-off went smoothly, but once in awhile we botched it and the baton would fall to the ground with a sickening thud. A dropped baton in a relay race nearly always assured defeat. I felt horrible when it happened, thinking, how hard can it be to pass off the baton? My guess is plenty of spectators (and perhaps, even my coaches) thought the same thing.

It’s actually harder than you might think. It takes a lot of practice to get the mechanics down. The person passing the baton has to run full force towards her awaiting team member, who must take off running at just the right time to gather momentum. The baton receiver can’t accelerate too fast, or she’ll run out of the zone for baton passing. If she’s too slow, she gets nearly run over by her approaching team mate.

Teamwork and relay races are similar in that way. Every day at the office, there are dozens of hand-offs that need to occur. And, just like on the track field, not every single transition is a smooth one. If you’ve been part of a rough hand-off, perhaps you too have wondered, how hard can it be? And, like me, you’ve probably felt badly. It’s tough to let your team down.

Here’s what running a sprint relay race has taught me about teamwork: when people make mistakes, a good team will work together to correct the problem. There won’t be finger-pointing about who was running too fast, or who didn’t have her hand out quickly enough. What will happen is that the team will huddle and figure out how to address the problem. Most likely, that team will have a good coach too—one who will work on tweaking the relay line up to suit the strengths of the runners. (That’s why I never ran anchor; I wasn’t fast enough. But I was a fairly decent lead-off runner.)

The next time you’re in a situation at work and “how hard can it be?” crosses your mind, take a step back. There probably is more to it than you (or the spectators) know. The key is to move beyond the judgment and towards the resolution.

Turn how hard can it be? into this is what we can be.

Drawing on over 25 years’ management experience, Jennifer Miller helps emerging leaders “master the people equation” to navigate interpersonal interactions with professionalism and character. Read more of Jennifer’s work at The People Equation and the Lead Change Group blog. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

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