Viewpoint: Teamwork Is a Two-Way Street

Real-world relationship management

By Alex Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP Aug 1, 2016
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Alex Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP

​Ever had one of those days when you couldn't get everything done by yourself? And a teammate or colleague stepped in to help? Teamwork made your life easier, and then—

Did you just spit out your coffee and say "What?!"

It's OK, I understand. If you're like most people, you've had horrible experiences with team projects.

Maybe "one of those days" reminds you of group projects in high school or college, when "teamwork" inevitably led to discontent. One person usually carried the load—maybe it was you—while your "teammates" goofed off or went out partying.

Team projects in the real world don't differ that much: There's usually one rock star and a whole bunch of bystanders.

Why don't we enjoy working with others? Because we give up the illusion of control. More importantly, we hate teamwork because we've been doing it all wrong (not unlike my favorite Internet meme, "Things You've Been Eating All Wrong"). Bad relationship management habits have become so ingrained that we miss the whole point of teamwork. How? By defining it as what we need from our peers, rather than asking what they need from us.

So what's the key to effective teamwork? Be the teammate you would most like to work with.

When you seek effective collaboration and coordination on a team project, ask your teammates (and yourself) the following questions. The conversation may not yield immediate success, but it will signal your desire for better teamwork. Just bringing up these questions will make you a better teammate and help your teammates collaborate, too:

  • What's our objective? Bring the team project back to the core mission. Align personal perspectives with the team's. Reframe individual efforts around the collective. This question seems simple, but it's rarely asked out loud—yet it is the hallmark of a true team player. Effective teammates think about it when others don't and say it when others won't.
  • What can I do for you? By asking this of the people you work with, you let them know that your relationship is a two-way street—that you're focused on their objectives and will help find better ways to achieve them. I have an exceptional colleague who always finishes our conversations with this question. I would work with this person for life!
  • Have you thought about it another way? Offer different perspectives and suggest looking at things with fresh eyes—but do so in an unassuming and nonthreatening manner. One of my former mentors, now a colleague, is a master of this interrogative method. She doesn't shy away from presenting additional insights. But her suggestions are phrased politely and focused on making me stronger, not tearing me down. Her aim is to help me build my case, which in turn helps build the team.
  • What haven't I asked you that I should be asking? Another hallmark of effective teamwork is striving to learn from one's teammates. Give them an opportunity to show off their expertise, and they're likely to return the favor. That same colleague who asks what he can do for me also asks me this question on every occasion, and I'm motivated to share more with him each time. Together, we make our organization better.
What questions do you ask to show your support for teammates? What else do you do to encourage better teamwork and relationship management? 

Alex Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, is senior vice president of knowledge development for SHRM.

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