“Do you work better on a team or on your own?”
You’ve probably been asked this question, or some variation of it, during a job interview before. How did you respond? Your answer reveals your propensity for teamwork and collaboration, skills you need in fast paced, results-driven professions.
Where you land on the spectrum from “I always work better alone” to “I always work better with others” is probably less clear than you think it is. For most people, it’s not going to be one or the other. It’s all relative.
On one hand, working by yourself can be less complicated; it’s often faster and more efficient because you have 100% of the executive decision-making power. But the easiest or fastest way to work is not always the *best* way to work. The most important metric should be the quality of the work; how much of an impact it makes.
When you’re on a team, your ability to collaborate to create effective solutions and meaningful results will directly affect your success.
If you’re not good at working with others, it’s time to learn how. The more you’ll do it, the better you will be at it. It’s like exercise; the more you build up this muscle, the stronger it will be.
- cooperation with others
- managing conflicting opinions, styles, methods, and personalities
- willingness to navigate dissonance to work towards mutually agreeable solutions
- bringing out the best in those around you
In today’s post, we take a look at how you can flex your collaboration muscles.
The impact of team structure and leadership
The composition of a team plays an important role in how successful that team is, no matter the size. Researchers Lynda Gratton and Tamara J. Erickson studied the makeup of teams today and learned that they’re more diverse in terms of backgrounds, age, education, and are larger in size.
Diversity is a good thing; it leads to more effective solutions since you have the benefit of multiple viewpoints. However, it can also lead to more conflict, since people with shared interests, similar personalities, likes, and backgrounds do have an easier time meshing together.
The less you have in common with someone, the harder you have to work to fall into a mutual understanding where great work can happen. However, there are traits of great collaborators who can work with just about anyone.
From Gratton and Erickson’s study:
“..a number of skills were crucial: appreciating others, being able to engage in purposeful conversations, productively and creatively resolving conflicts, and program management.”
Another important factor in the ability of a team to successfully collaborate falls on the team leader and their style. This includes the leader’s ability to define goals, guide progress, and encourage discourse without dictating the exact strategy the team must employ.
Gratton and Erickson’s study found the most successful managers were flexible. They excelled in relationship- and task-oriented leadership, not just one or the other:
“Some people have suggested that relationship-oriented leadership is most appropriate in complex teams, since people are more likely to share knowledge in an environment of trust and goodwill. Others have argued that a task orientation—the ability to make objectives clear, to create a shared awareness of the dimensions of the task, and to provide monitoring and feedback—is most important.”
Someone who can do both will help the members of the team both feel heard and stay focused on the goal that unites them.
The type of project itself can also play a factor in a team’s ability to collaborate. A project involving a challenging client can derail a team’s progress and collaboration if the team’s collaborative efforts are continually rejected or criticized. Likewise, aack of internal resources or support for an expensive or unpopular project faces an equally uphill battle.
In other words, when a project seems doomed, morale drops and people start to feel defeated. The collaborative mindset takes effort, and if it feels like the effort is being wasted, people won’t bother. The team needs to be reminded of their purpose, or of the value of their efforts and collaboration, if they are going to be able to keep working together.
But when you are assigned to a team, without control over team members, the leader, or the project, is all hope lost? We think not. When you are a part of that team, with the right skills and mindset, it still has a chance to succeed.
Building collaboration from within
Even if you are not the team leader, you can be an influential team member and can build collaboration from within.
Being on a team with team members who continually butt heads,can get tiring pretty quickly, frustrating even the most patient of us. Personality clashes and ego are big hurdles. But where there is conflict, there is an opportunity to refocus.
These suggestions will work whether you are personally involved in the conflict, or if you are just an outsider wanting to help the conversation move forward.
First, acknowledge both proposed ideas or strategies. Ask for a moment to articulate and summarize each team member’s idea, so they can both be clearly understood. There’s a two pronged effect in this approach: the pause in the back and forth tamps down on any escalating emotions; the summary or restatement of each team member’s idea back to the team is an orderly, fact-based and less antagonistic way of laying the options out on the table.
Once both arguments have been clearly laid out:
- Ask for the other team member’s opinions and perspectives, trying to open up the discussion. That could mean going around the table one by one so everyone has a chance to speak.
- Suggest making a pros and cons chart for each idea that encourages the group, as a whole, to probe to a deeper level.
- Make a list of the items, concepts, or points that are necessary to move forward on the project and use a ranking system to identify the top 5-10 priorities. This refocuses the group on what is important and whether the ideas being considered meet or achieve the most important of those on the list.
The goal in overcoming conflicting ideas and strategies is to steer an out of control debate towards a purposeful and more objective discussion with cooperation and input from everyone on the team.
Remember that your goal should be to be part of a winning team, not that you should be a winner yourself. If you can help other people succeed, by fostering collaboration and supporting/executing the best plan (even if it wasn’t your own), then you will be seen as a key player on a successful team, which will take you much farther in your career than anything else.
Coordinate different methods and styles
A diverse team has many strengths from which to draw. But the varied work styles and methods that make a team diverse also come along with varying abilities to do the following:
Share information willingly and comfortably. More dominant communication styles and engrained mindsets clash with those who are less experience, have low confidence levels, or who hesitate to contribute. To create a space that encourages ideas and collaboration among everyone, bookend meetings with a few minutes of open discussion for concerns, questions, or ideas.
The consistency of having this time free during meetings encourages those that hesitate to contribute, without calling attention to them directly. And if you notice team member A shares an idea that gets shot down by team member B, return to person A and ask them to elaborate or clarify if what B countered with is accurate. If it’s a good idea or just needs to be expanded on, you can support the person and their idea by saying “I think you have something there. What about…”
Map out, agree to, and work with deadlines. Some people work well on a looser schedule while others need the motivation of a deadline to stay on track. You want everyone to feel that they are contributing equally and everyone is pulling their weight.
Sticking to deadlines requires everyone’s buy-in; with everyone actively engaged, they’ll feel more connected and involved to the set deadlines. In a post on Medium, Kat Boogaard shares some great insight into managing this problem:
- Each deadline should have a statement attached to it with the implications for not meeting the deadline. Clearly, there’s a reason the date was agreed on, but the reason can get lost in the shuffle and forgotten.
- And what happens if there’s a delay? Who will be impacted and what are the consequences? This creates a bit of fear and motivation among team members.
- When you have meetings or circulate team emails, highlight and remind the entire team or certain team members that a deadline is coming up and ask for a check in.
- Make sure you actually meet the deadlines. A pattern of regularly missing or changing deadlines de-values the deadlines and makes future ones meaningless.
Work through personality clashes
If things turn petty or become personal, it’s time for a reality check. Ask the team to remind you/everyone, what is the big picture? Who will this project benefit? What deliverable will result at the end of this project? What is the goal that everyone will achieve together as a team?
Identify all of the progress that the team has made so far, shifting the focus towards positivity: list it, draw it, encourage others to share it with the group. Resetting the team’s perspective, and creating a visual of what the future will be like with this goal or project met, is motivational.
Building collaboration among multiple teams
Whether two teams are coming together into one, or multiple teams have to produce a part of the same project together, working with outside/external teams has its own set of challenges, including less trust and rapport.
But the idea is the same: work together to accomplish a common goal. Focus on the end result, not whose idea or viewpoint won along the way.
- Reduce perceived or real secrecy. Ensure everyone on each team is included in correspondence so no one is left out or overlooked. This could be through a centralized communication app, program, or filing/document preparation tool. Documents should be easily shareable, editable, and findable to encourage collaboration among everyone involved.
- Utilize video conferencing or meet in person so that there’s as much face-to-face communication as possible. At a minimum opt for conference calls instead of emails to resolve an issue.
- Suggest or volunteer to coordinate social events for team members to meet in person, especially if the teams work in different buildings or cities and might not otherwise run into each other.
How have you successfully built collaboration and when have you seen it work well? We would love to hear what you have to say. Share with us in email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Facebook or Instagram!