I remember my first team project in college. It was awful.
Between trying to keep the team on task, finishing my own work, and tracking down my teammates for their contributions, I quickly felt drained. Teamwork is about collaborating with a group of people to meet a shared goal, but “teamwork makes the dream work” did not apply to this team. For the remainder of my college years (and early on in my career), I was resigned to the idea that teamwork simply was not for me.
Today, although I still consider myself a “lone wolf” at work, I have been a part of a few great teams that were both pleasurable and productive. And quite honestly, I’ve found that a team of people who work well together can move mountains! Here are a few early signs that you’re part of a solid team:
Everyone is on the same page (or willing to get there)
Each member brings a unique background, skill set, or perspective
Each person wants to be there
How to achieve better teamwork and your goals
Over the years, I’ve worked on teams that have varied by location (distributed vs. remote), structure (functional vs. cross-functional) and type (working vs. special purpose). In each experience, I’ve found that there are no shortcuts to achieving better teamwork. I’ve also learned that you don’t have to be the team leader to improve teamwork. Regardless of the role you play on the team, you can promote positive team dynamics and exceed the overall goal using five guidelines.
1. Recalibrate as needed
Fine-tune any part of the teams’ work that seems to be drifting off course. Depending on the timeline, you may need to do this every week, every month, or on an as-needed basis. Either way, it’s important to check in with your team to address changes and overcome obstacles.
2. Use conflicts as teachable moments
Good teams avoid conflict; great teams embrace it. Use conflict as an opportunity to improve teamwork. For instance, while recently serving on a team of two, my teammate and I disagreed about how to help a client. Instead of talking around it, I set a time to speak with my teammate directly. Ultimately, we agreed that our goal to help the client was the same, we were just approaching it differently. By merging our feedback, we were able to provide the client with comprehensive advice. In the process, we learned that our conflicts can be used for good.
3. Create a team Slack channel
Sure, you could email back and forth, but creating a Slack channel streamlines communication. You can also explore other collaboration tools—some of which have free versions—such as Asana, Basecamp, and Trello. According to a study by digital consulting firm McKinsey & Company, 80 percent of company executives use social collaboration tools, citing “real-time interactions” as one of the biggest benefits. I second that, having had experiences in which I needed to reach my teammates to ask a quick question or share a thought. Using Slack helped me to do so quickly and efficiently, which is a big part of improving teamwork.
4. Establish a culture of respect
All team members must agree from day one that respect is vital to team success. Here are a few ways I have established a culture of respect in my teams:
Call out disrespect the moment it happens. It’s easier to institute a zero-tolerance policy for disrespect or intolerance if you address it in the moment.
Schedule team meetings around cultural and religious observations. I’ve made it a regular practice to ask my team members directly about any important dates to add to our team calendar. Pay special attention to holidays that your team members observe, even if you don’t celebrate them yourself.
Be mindful of the groups’ time. On one team I worked on, our weekly meeting almost always went over by a half hour. Unfortunately, our team leader didn’t realize that our team had personal and professional obligations that required more mindful scheduling. Try to consistently stick to the scheduled meeting time. If you need more time, ask if everyone is able to stay longer. If they are not, offer to pick up the discussion at the next meeting or via Slack.
Include everyone every time. Brainstorming with individual team members is fine, but any major planning or decision-making needs to happen with the entire team present. I’ve had experiences in which one or two team members failed to show up, and we had to work without them to meet our deadline. Still, we were sure to brief them on what happened and encouraged them to attend consistently. Inclusion starts with giving everyone a fair chance to voice their opinions.
5. Embrace diversity
Team diversity should be the norm, but it’s not. We already know that diverse teams are more innovative, engaging, and equipped to resolve problems, but McKinsey & Company have also reported that diverse teams are more financially successful as well. By actively uplifting the voices of Black and Brown team members, women, members of the LGBTQ community, individuals with disabilities, immigrants, and other marginalized groups, you enable your teammates to learn from each other, promote allyship, ensure that everyone is heard, and increase your chance of team success. Until we achieve greater equity and diversity in the workplace, it’s imperative that you help make it a cornerstone of your team.
Ultimately, I’ve learned that there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to improving teamwork. I learned this while working on a remote team of contractors all working on multiple projects that were related. When we came together to finalize our joint project, we realized that, although our team wasn’t traditional, it worked really well. And I realized that I didn’t hate teamwork—it was actually the poor team dynamics, excessive meetings, and lack of diversity I wasn’t crazy about. It turned out that I enjoyed teamwork most on a non-traditional team in which me and my teammates offered our own ideas without dismissing others. We all genuinely wanted to be there, were respectful of each other’s time, and embraced our differences. You can promote positive team dynamics for your team as well; it all starts with you!