Stop your dream team from turning into a nightmare

How to handle group work - 6 tips

When talking about the importance of teams, the wise words of one of the greatest basketball players in the world, Michael Jordan, come to mind. “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.” Today, being a team player and/or having what it takes to manage a group is seen as an indispensable professional skill. How many times have you listed “great team player” or “strong communication skills” as qualities on your CV?

Despite its coveted status, teamwork is not as easy as it might seem.


Why teams work better

Group work is usually praised as an efficient way to get things done. It helps you to develop collaborative and communication skills, and to assume different roles in a professional setting. American economist and sociologist Grace Coyle, who studied the principles of organised groups in the 1930s, concluded that groups provided “an opportunity for developing social attitudes and the ability to adjust to others in mutually enriching ways, opportunity for the development of new interests, the broadening of knowledge and the acquiring of new skills.”Teamwork fosters flexibility, creates synergy and a working environment with less hierarchy.

In today’s business culture, your success as an entrepreneur is also judged by your ability to build and inspire a team. Your job includes motivating your team members to work well together. Steve Jobs, late co-founder of Apple, often emphasised that Apple’s success lies in the fact that it’s a collaborative company. “Teamwork is dependent on trusting the other folks to come through with their part without watching them all the time,” he said in an interview.

Explore more in our section: Workers

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Dream teams that become nightmares

Group work can also cause friction, trigger stress and raise anxiety levels. In his article for Harvard Business Review, Dr Chidiebere Ogbonnaya, a senior lecturer in organisational behaviour at the University of Sussex Business School, noted that in teamwork, “conflicts arise, people become too dependent on each other, and some don’t get their fair share of credit.” He goes on to suggest that most of the stress during group work seems to stem from the pressure that managers put on employees.

“When employees were faced with the shared responsibility for specific products and services, they were more likely to feel tense and compelled to put in very long hours at work,” he wrote. This is why many people tend to perceive teamwork as a negative experience…

..but it’s not just the fault of overbearing managers.

A 2017 Dropbox research on the state of teamwork within businesses in the UK, found that teamwork isn’t working. Less than half of British workers enjoy group work. The reasons for this include:

  • Freeloading colleagues
  • Colleagues looking for their personal benefits
  • Time and effort put into balancing egos
  • Time lost during arguments among the team
  • “Being held back by others”

The study further found that “being averse to disagreeing with others—often seen as a typically British trait—is a key issue holding back UK teams.”2/3rd of UK workers don’t feel comfortable sharing a disagreement.

Differences within groups

Feeling frustrated with other team members isn’t specific to British employees. Frictions within groups happen everywhere and are largely due to our different perceptions of work, different relationship to deadlines and lack of communication. If you have a type A personality—you are highly organised, ambitious, and well aware of time management—you might lose patience with colleagues who need to be constantly reminded of details and updates. If you are constantly connected, you might feel resentful of colleagues who avoid all online communication, don’t read their emails or shun instant messaging. If you are a more relaxed, creative type who loathes deadlines, constant reminders and mail updates might distract and annoy you.

How to work better as a team

Good teamwork in the workplace means satisfied employees and, luckily, learning how to become a better team worker isn’t really a rocket science. These six simple tips will make it easier for you to work in a team.

1. Define a role for each member of the team from day one

Science can be of help here. According to the work of Dr Meredith Belbin, researcher and management consultant, an effective team should have nine key roles. This doesn’t mean that every team should be composed of nine people, but rather that the people within the team should have the competencies of all the nine roles:

  • innovator (or ‘plant’)
  • implementer
  • completer/finisher
  • evaluator
  • investigator
  • shaper
  • team worker
  • coordinator
  • specialist

If you are a practical person with attention to detail, you might be cut for the role of implementer or finisher; if you are a creative soul and a curious cat, you might be a good fit for the role of innovator.

Even if you don’t follow this role distribution, dividing tasks from day one and setting clear expectations about what each of the members should be doing is essential. In group work, the “everyone does everything” principle is usually a bad idea.

2. Set a clear timeline and choose a coordinator

Some people like to get the work done as soon as possible, others only work well close to a deadline. It is good to be aware of these differences from the start, so that you can set a clear timeline of goals.

In her step-by-step guide for cross-border journalism, Brussels correspondent and investigative cross-border journalist Brigitte Alter noted that in order to effectively manage a project involving a team of journalists based in different countries and often different time zones, it is essential to appoint a team coordinator.

The coordinators remind other team members of multiple ongoing tasks, they manage the workflow and day-to-day updates and keep track of deadlines. They also facilitate the communication within the group and make sure everyone is in the loop and on schedule.

3. Hold regular review meetings

Regular meetings will help you bring a particular task or issue to be dealt with into focus and to open the discussion. If members of the team have clearly divided roles and/or work in different departments, getting together every once in a while will bring everyone into alignment, strengthen the feeling of belonging to the group and working on a common goal.

4. Be transparent

Within a team, it is extremely important to communicate about any major changes in your schedule or availability. You might be experiencing health issues, going through a rough patch in your private life or maybe you’ve got a side hustle—all of this could not just impact your work, but also jeopardise the work of other team members.

You are not expected to discuss your private issues with other team members, but should let them know if personal changes make it impossible for you to meet the deadlines. The earlier your team knows that you might not be able to finish your part of the work, the more time they’ll have to regroup and adapt.

5. Be assertive, not aggressive

A case study on successful teamwork, conducted at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia, stressed that open communication and positive feedback are one of the essential skills of thriving teams. According to the researchers, these teams considered it healthyt to discuss problems or difficult issues and try to offer constructive help/criticism in trying to resolve these.

Group discussions mean that you’ll need to find a way to express your frustrations and ideas in an assertive way.

In their research on the advantages of assertive communication, the experts from the US-based non-profit medical centre, Mayo Clinic, emphasised that it is not only the content of the message that matters, but also its tone. “If you communicate in a way that’s too passive or too aggressive, your message may get lost because people are too busy reacting to your delivery,” they noted.

6. Learn and adapt your communication

Finally, learning how to communicate within a group can also help you realise what your communication flaws and biases are, as you get exposed to different viewpoints and working styles.

Maybe you feel like you’re managing most of the work. But what if you are actually micromanaging others? Or do you feel your creative spark has made an important contribution to the group work, and now the others are just nagging you with deadlines and reports? Maybe you are actually avoiding direct confrontation and you hate your ideas being questioned by others. Be respectful of others, but also ready to learn from your colleagues’ feedback and criticism.

When done right, teamwork is beneficial not only in the professional environment, but also in boosting our personal performance and can help our personal development.

Photo: WTTJ

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