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Main Content

Strengthening Your Teamwork Ability

When you're strong at teamwork, you're able to cooperate with others and work well as part of a group.

For example, you easily pitch in on a project where people need a helping hand. At work, you're comfortable participating on a team whose mission is to develop a new product feature or design a compelling marketing campaign.

In any such collective effort, you readily navigate group dynamics — such as identifying the team's leaders, dividing up the work, setting and working toward goals, resolving conflicts, and assessing the team's performance. You don't have to control the show all the time, and you don't always have to get your way.

Employers increasingly look for teamwork ability when making hiring and promotion decisions. Why? The output of a team is greater than the sum of its parts. To use an analogy from sports: No basketball team would succeed if the individual members each took as many shots as they could during the game. Rather, they each play a specified role on the team, and they orchestrate their talents so that the individuals in the best position to score can do so.

With good teamwork, members support one another by optimizing the group's collective talents, rather than trying to optimize their individual strengths. Each person's ego thus takes a back seat in successful teams.

How to strengthen your teamwork ability? These suggestions can help:

  • Read a book on the subject. Potential useful titles include The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization by Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith and The Discipline of Teams: A Mindbook-Workbook for Delivering Small-Group Performance by Jon R. Katzenbach.

  • Take an online learning course. Examples include the "Working with Teams" e-learning program offered by Harvard Business School Publishing and similar courses in group dynamics and teamwork skills provided by National Training Laboratories. Your company may have purchased a site license for such e-learning programs. Or, you may be able to buy a CD containing modules of interest as well as participate in them online or download them from the developer. Some developers charge a fee for participation in the courses they offer; others offer modules for free.

  • Consult an expert. Find someone who you view as particularly good at teamwork. Ask this person how he or she has strengthened this ability.

  • Attend a workshop or course on this subject. Your company may offer such learning opportunities or may be willing to reimburse your tuition if you take such a course through another organization. Local university extension programs, as well as continuing education programs, may offer such workshops and courses.

  • Get feedback from a colleague. Ask a trusted colleague to give you feedback on how you behave in teams. For example, he can comment on whether you have a tendency to steamroll over others, get impatient with the process of building consensus, have trouble supporting decisions that you oppose, or have trouble expressing your viewpoint. By gaining a clearer picture of your teamwork tendencies, you can target unproductive behaviors for change.

  • Get first-hand experience. Participate in a casual, fun, team-based sport or other activity, such as your company softball team or a volunteer community action group. This sort of experience can teach you a lot about how teams function — or don't.

  • Interview successful team participants. Identify a successful team at your company, either a longstanding group or a onetime, short-term task force. Ask one or two people from that team to describe how the team worked together. What was it about the members' individual behavior that led to its success? This exercise can reveal a lot about the dynamics behind successful teamwork.

  • Get help. Consider finding an executive coach who can observe you in team meetings and give you feedback and suggestions for change.

Working well as part of a team is important at any stage of your career. However, it becomes especially crucial if you move up to a level where you need to collaborate with other senior executives. Some people think that if they can only get to the top then they won't have to deal with this "team" nonsense. This is almost never the case!

For many of us, our elementary, high school, and college educations prepare us primarily to work as individuals. So, don't be surprised if teamwork isn't your strong suit. But do take responsibility for developing this important skill. The above suggestions can help.