Posted October 03, 2013 by

There’s No “I” in Team: How to Truly Become a Team Player

Business team looking above with hands piled together

Business team looking above with hands piled together. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

We’ve all heard about the importance of being a team player, but what does that really mean in the workplace?

To really understand what being a team player means, you must first understand the nature of teams in the workplace. Generally speaking, a team is a group of about three to 12 people who work together toward a specific long- or short-term goal — like organizing a holiday party, overseeing a software upgrade, or handling an organization’s customer complaints. In some cases, it’s fairly easy to adjust to working in a team environment because it’s made up of people within a department who already have a history together. Other times, teams are interdepartmental, which can make them a bit more challenging.

“Each department has its own sort of mini-culture — the way they do things, how they make decisions, what they value in the workplace — and when you’re in a cross-departmental team, you have all these mini-cultures representing themselves in this team environment,” said Debbie Ritter-Williams, an associate faculty member at the University of Phoenix and expert on group dynamics. “As a result, it takes some time to get a feel for how each person operates, based on their own departmental culture.”

No matter what the makeup and goals of a team are, research shows that there can be a number of organizational benefits for creating teams in the workplace — including boosting the morale of workers and allowing team members to develop professionally by stretching them outside their comfort zones. In addition, a team environment can be extremely beneficial when it comes to organizational decision making.

“Anytime you include more than one perspective on something, you’re getting the benefit of looking at something from multiple angles and viewpoints, so that just means you have more information upon which to base your decisions,” said Ritter-Williams.

How to work in a team environment

Working in a team environment can have a number of rewards, but, depending on your job, it may be an adjustment — especially if you’re used to working on projects alone. These do’s and don’ts can help you work well in a team setting and get the most out of the experience.

Do contribute to discussions. Input from multiple people is what really makes teams work, so be sure to contribute as much as you can without dominating the conversation. And if you feel like your contributions are not being considered, Ritter-Williams says to speak to someone about it, rather than shutting down your participation.

“If you’re putting ideas out there and they’re not getting full consideration, or not being listened to very well, either ask the team or the team leader at some point to assess the ideas you’re offering, and give you advice on aligning better with what’s happening in the team,” she said.

Don’t stay inside your comfort zone. Although working in a team environment can be a great opportunity to showcase your strengths, it’s important to use the process as a vehicle for growth. If the team needs help in an area that’s unfamiliar to you, that’s a good way to learn something new while helping the team meet its goals.

Do be careful when offering criticism. Healthy conflict can lead to the best decisions, but only if team members are respectful. If you do have any criticism you would like to share, be sure to only discuss it in terms of a team member’s ideas — otherwise it could be construed as a personal attack.

Don’t put your needs ahead of the team. Everyone in a team has their own needs and their own ideas about what they would like to get out of the experience. However, it’s important to make sure your personal needs do not get in the way of what the team is trying to accomplish. And if you feel like your needs aren’t being met, be sure to talk to the team leader about your concerns.

“A good leader will work with each team member individually to try to link the team member’s own individual needs and goals to the overall team goal, so that they have a unity of purpose,” said Ritter-Williams.

The importance of team building exercises

Whether a team is made up of people who have worked together for a long time or strangers, team building exercises can go a long way toward strengthening the team because they help you better understand each team member. Team exercises can reveal information such as how team members view the process of working together, problem-solving styles, and individual strengths and weaknesses.

For teams that are just beginning to work together, Ritter-Williams suggests an exercise where each member of the team shares something unique about themselves — which doesn’t have to be work related — with the group. This is a non-intrusive ice breaker exercise that allows people to get to know each other.

When teams have been working together for a while, Ritter-Williams says a good team building exercise is to create a human sociogram. During this process, everyone in the group stands up and allows one person to rearrange their position based on that team member’s feelings about the group.

“They’re building a human picture of how this one individual feels they work with each of the other people on the team,” she said. “During the process, you start to see differences in people’s perceptions in how they’re working together. So that can lead to a deep understanding of yourself and other people in the team.”

By Kenya McCullum

About the Author:

Kenya McCullum is a freelance writer based in California.

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