Become the ultimate team player

by Matt Bochenski

Working with other people

Working with others is the essence of teamwork. What are the benefits of working with others and how can you learn to do it effectively?

We all know intuitively that working with others is a good thing. But why is it so important, and what does teamwork and team collaboration look like when you really get down to it? If you want to develop your teamwork skills, here’s how to get started.

What do we mean by working with others?

When people talk about the ability to work with others, they’re usually describing a combination of ‘soft skills’ that enable you to cooperate on a task and form productive working relationships. So what does this look like?

The Nebraska University of Law describes working well with others as:

  • Being able to interact effectively, cooperate, collaborate and manage conflicts with other people to get things done
  • Understanding the cultural background of the people with whom you interact, like clients and co-workers
  • Making decisions solo and jointly
  • Expressing opinions and respecting differing ones
  • Being flexible

What about a definition of teamwork?

Working with others is intrinsically linked to teamwork. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as: "Work done by several associates with each doing a part but all subordinating personal prominence to the efficiency of the whole."

By this definition, teamwork concentrates our abilities towards a collective goal, emphasizing that goal ahead of any individual’s desire for personal achievement. In other words, if you’re a team player, you put the team’s objectives first.

Experts agree. Eminent social psychologist J. Richard Hackman is famous for setting out a 5-factor model for team success, which outlines the qualities and conditions for working well as a group:

  1. Is the group a real team, with clear boundaries, interdependence among members, and membership stability over time?
  2. Does the team have a clear direction and purpose that's challenging and consequential? Does it focus on the ends, not the means?
  3. Does the team's structure – its task, composition and core norms of conduct – enable rather than impede teamwork?
  4. Does the team have strong social connections and interactions that help people do their collective work?
  5. Is competent coaching available to help members get over rough spots and take advantage of emerging opportunities? Is coaching provided when members are most ready to receive and use it?

Why is working effectively with others so important?

It can sometimes feel like soft skills are just nice-to-haves and that the ability to work well with others is somehow less important than hard skills like qualifications and accreditations.

But soft skills are paramount for success. According to research from the Queen's University of Charlotte, 44% of top executives believe soft skills are the most significant part of the US skills gap, and 73% feel they are more important than job-specific skills.

In the same study, nearly three-quarters of employers rated collaboration and teamwork as “very important.” However, only 18% of employees get collaboration evaluation during their performance reviews.

Working relationships matter, and not just because they make our lives more enjoyable. Gallup measures at-work relationships with the metric “do you have a best friend at work?” in its methodology for measuring great management.

When the answer is ‘yes’, markers of success tend to improve. Gallup found that women who strongly agree they have a best friend at work are more than twice as likely to be engaged employees (63%) than the women who say otherwise (29%).

In today’s world of work, collaboration has never been more important, and we spend more time than ever engaged in collaborative activities. And with an increasing need for remote team building and connecting office-based roles with frontline or deskless workers, organizations will need to find processes and tools that can enable effective business communication and cooperation.

The value of social bonds

But it’s more than just technology. As companies depend ever more on employees’ knowledge and skills, they’ll also need to understand how these employees interact and the value those social interactions bring. That process is already underway. A recent Economist Intelligence Unit report sought to understand how companies can enable better teamwork by prioritizing and supporting stronger social bonds and networks.

The survey of over 200 directors and C-Suite leaders show deep appreciation among executives of the importance of “social” in driving success. But they also demonstrate the value such social bonds can bring to individuals and teams.

  • Companies scoring themselves highly in qualities associated with strong social capital—such as closeness to peers and superiors, openness, collaboration, company-wide flow of information and trust—are more likely to see themselves as innovators and report greater current and projected revenue growth
  • Socializing workflows, such as by pairing staff on a single task, improves quality and ensures that multiple people understand decisions and ways of working
  • Organizations with higher self-reported social capital are more likely to be quicker at onboarding new hires, with 35% saying this takes less than two weeks

Learn more. Read the full Economist Intelligence Unit report here.

Teamwork and individual work

Here are just a few of the benefits of working as part of a team:

Idea sharing and innovation. With multiple brains on the job, you don’t just get more ideas – you get the benefit of one person’s thoughts sparking off another’s and the ability to develop ideas through discussion.

Spreading the workload. Many hands make light work. When you’re able to effectively divide up tasks and assign each person work that best suits their abilities, it’s quicker and easier to get things done.

Identifying and working to each other’s strengths. When team members know each other’s skills, experiences, strengths and weaknesses, they can operate as a unit and adapt to different tasks by putting the right person in the right role.

Mutual support. Being part of a team is a shared experience that can create a supportive bond between individuals. With the mindset of ‘team first’ in play, team members naturally want to support and celebrate each other.

Learning from other people. Working alongside other people helps you learn new skills and styles of thinking. Good habits you pick up from your team members get embedded when you work alongside each other every day.

Productivity gains. A well-functioning team is more than the sum of its parts. Being in a team helps provide energy and a sense of achievement that you might not get on your own. Doing it for the team, rather than for yourself and your own goals, can be a powerful motivator.

How do you work effectively with others?

Some people are just naturally good at working well with others. But what if you’re not? Is it something you can learn? Happily, the ability to work well in a team comprises a set of highly learnable skills.

Listening

Listening – especially active listening – is a skill people often overlook. But it can be genuinely transformative when you learn to do it well. To listen effectively, you need to concentrate on everything the other person is saying and resist the urge to get carried away with personal thoughts or ideas.

Find ways to feedback to the person speaking so they know you’re listening, using eye-contact, affirmative nods and verbal acknowledgments or by asking questions and summarizing what you’ve understood.

Speaking

Spoken communication is essential whether you’re face to face or communicating remotely. Practice articulating your ideas out loud and speaking in a clear, confident voice.

When you speak, look out for habits like using filler words – such as um, uh, or like – and rushing or mumbling your words. Remember that pausing can be powerful in underlining your meaning and gives your listeners time to process and reflect on what you’re saying.

Empathy

It's not just a work skill, it's a life skill. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and to feel what they might be feeling in a given situation.

You can practice empathy by devoting time to thinking about someone you care about each day. What is happening in their life and how are they feeling? What would an appropriate response be, and what role do you play in what’s going on for them?

Flexibility

Working with others means taking on board ideas and beliefs that are different from your own and allowing them to influence an outcome you care about. If you’re someone with strong ideas, or you’re used to working alone and having total control, this skill may take some building up.

Make a habit of focusing on the present and future, not the past. Look at solutions and outcomes rather than assigning blame or dwelling on whether another method would have done the same job. Another useful habit is to ‘default to yes’ – to treat every idea as viable until proven otherwise.

Patience

Work can be frustrating at times. Patience is one of the most valuable skills to mitigate stress, avoid team conflicts and stay focused on a goal.

Building patience is all about knowing what you can control and what you can’t. If you can’t do anything constructive about a frustrating situation, your next step should be to shift your focus onto your reaction so you can minimize your response and your stress-levels. Can you reframe the situation? How much does this matter in the grand scheme of things?

Negotiation

The ability to negotiate can help you get through potential conflicts at work and reach a positive conclusion. To do it, you need to focus on your goal while remaining flexible and open to other possibilities, and stay calm and pragmatic – even when the topic at hand matters a lot to you. Listening and empathy are also important.

Humor

Okay, maybe you can’t learn to have a sense of humor, but you can practice being open to other people’s humor in the workplace and make a point of looking for the lighter side in adverse situations.

Valuing the individual

Teamwork is all about people, and no two people are the same. Learning to appreciate and value the different experiences, perspectives and philosophies that your colleagues bring to the table isn’t just a teamwork skill, it’s one of the most enriching benefits of working with others.

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