Putting the Team Back in Teamwork

Posted on November 5, 2013.

I wasn’t surprised to see an article by Brain Amble on "Why we're challenged by teamwork". When I watch reality shows like Top Chef or Project Runway the cast members react to team challenges like they're facing a cholera epidemic. As the article points out, 80% of the people they surveyed find working with others a challenge.

Much as we’d like to be left alone, most of us have to collaborate at some point in time. After all, the reason these shows make them work in teams is that’s reality.  So how can we set aside our differences and create effective teamwork?

·      Plan team outings.  It doesn’t have to be a formal team-building exercise. It’s often helpful just to get everyone together and take them bowling or out for pizza. Letting people see each other in a social, non-work setting helps build relationships.

·      Limit electronic communication.  One of the reasons cited by the article for resistance to teamwork is the excessive use of electronic communication. People today actually prefer to converse via text or email. Phone calls are intimidating to many and actually walking to the cube next door to share information seems unheard of today. So as a manager, you need to lead by example. If you call people vs. email and walk around to engage others, you establish a culture that makes interpersonal contact a priority.

·      Establish roles for team members.  Often, when people are asked to work in teams, there’s no clear leader established ahead of time.  If you’ve got a pretty seasoned staff, everyone wants to be the leader and you have instant conflict.  Take the time to define the roles ahead of time and rotate them as you move from project to project. 

·      Give the team time to complete the task.  On Top Chef and Project Runway, these teams have something like a nanosecond to create and cook a menu for hundreds or make three designer outfits. Of course they’d rather work alone. It takes longer to work in a team as different ideas and opinions need to be vetted.  Coordinating everyone’s activities adds time to the task. According to the article, feeling overworked is another reason people dread working in teams. Accept that teamwork adds time to any task so make the deadline realistic.

How would you like to be thrown in with a group of people you don’t really know, asked to complete a task in half the time it should take and have no pre-established leader? Add to that the fact that the majority of your communication with anyone up to then has been through text and email and you have a recipe for disaster.

It was disappointing for me to read that 80% of the survey responders find teamwork so challenging as I always found it to be one of the most rewarding parts of my career. I learned from others and enjoyed the camaraderie that was created.  Hopefully we can get back to putting the team back in teamwork.