9 ways to improve your organization’s team working skills

by Matt Bochenski

Team Working Skills

Effective teamwork was a challenge even before the global pandemic. Lockdown made it even harder. Now, as some people return to work, organizations need to renew their focus on enabling teamwork.

How well were your teams working together before lockdown? What about when they had to work remotely? Finding the right answer to these questions won’t be easy. Even defining teamwork is tricky.

Having good team working skills isn’t simply being able to get along with others. It’s also the ability of people to work well with others - and it’s important in every industry, from financial services to retail. In fact, Australia’s Edith Cowan University found that businesses believe team working skills are one of the most important for graduates1.

As people in some parts of the world return to work, and as organizations try to strike the balance between remote work and working on location, how can you ensure teamwork is more effective than it was before?

What are team working skills, and why are they important?

Team working skills are vital to a team’s success. And enabling people to be successful when they collaborate is a critical part of the broader Employee Experience. As a leader, you’re responsible for putting teams together and making sure that they do succeed. So, how do you do it?

First, it’s essential to acknowledge that team working skills don’t always come naturally to everyone. People can learn them, although working well in a team is not something you can easily learn on a training course1. Mercedes Benz found team working was one of the only skills not improved by outside training.

People can hone their skills on the job though, so you can't underestimate the importance of demonstrating good team working skills. This is empowering for managers, as you stay in control – you can influence and be the role model your team needs.

Second, team working skills don’t develop in a vacuum – the team environment needs to be right. Back in the 1970s, social and organizational psychologist Richard Hackman defined three ‘enabling conditions’ for teams to thrive, and they still stand firm today:

  • A compelling direction
  • A strong structure
  • A supportive context

Team working skills in the COVID-19 landscape

But that was before lockdown. What effect has the shift to remote working had on people’s ability to collaborate? What does that mean for businesses?

In short, “what now?”

As some parts of the world begin cautiously reemerging from lockdown, that’s a question on the lips of business leaders. But even in the midst of so much uncertainty, one thing hasn’t changed at all. COVID-19 has forced almost every organization to double down on its people.

It’s already having an impact. According to a recent study, 90% of companies believe their culture improved while working remotely. As remote work becomes return-to-work, people will expect this level of commitment to Employee Experience (EX) to continue.

And one way that organizations can positively influence wider EX is by making sure employees are empowered to work together in highly collaborative ways. But with remaining uncertainty about the global pandemic, organizations will need to solve this challenge for those employees working full-time on location, full-time at home, or a hybrid version of the two.

Tips for improving team working skills

There are several tips for improving team working skills that were important before the shift to remote work and remain important as some parts of the world begin returning to work.

1. Set out your team’s mission and purpose

Oxford University Press defines teamwork as “the ability to operate collaboratively in pursuit of a common objective.” For a team to work, everybody needs to understand and buy into the shared mission and then put it above their own individual goals. Carlos Valdes-Dapena, from global brand Mars, recommends getting teams on board with this by asking them to consider, “Why is your working together, as a team, more valuable than just the sum of your individual efforts?”

It’s a leader’s responsibility to set this clear and compelling direction. Without it, a team stands less chance of success. Is setting targets for individuals still important? Of course. But for maximizing teamwork success, everybody needs to commit to a common goal. Think of some of the most successful rock bands in history; when someone’s ego gets bigger than the shared purpose, it all starts falling apart.

2. Be clear about roles

Team members should be clear about their roles and responsibilities, and everyone needs to understand, and feel confident about, the particular strengths they bring to the team.

Team size and structure are important and you need to decide them pragmatically. It’s no good relying on a few key personalities and a bit of luck. If a team is too small, you won’t have the right mix of skills, thinking styles and behaviors. If a team is too big, people can get lazy and more prone to groupthink. Of course, you need an element of flexibility after you form your teams so you can respond quickly if a team structure isn’t working, but it helps to set a few boundaries. For example, you may decide to be strict about team numbers, so if a new member joins, someone else has to leave to stop the team from becoming unwieldy.

Diversity is vital, too, so try to get a mix of ages, socio-economic backgrounds, ethnicities and genders. The American Psychological Association found that diverse teams can offer greater innovation and creativity, and a competitive advantage. You might need to give it time, though - they say it “can take longer for a diverse team to find its groove than a team with similar backgrounds and mindsets.”

3. Communicate effectively

Thanks to the recent explosion in remote working, communication has never been so important as a team working skill. And more challenges and opportunities are on the horizon as some people start to return to the workplace and some stay working from home.

Being separated geographically can have an impact on communication as we get fewer non-verbal cues. Harvard Business Review confirmed this in their piece on the secrets of great teamwork: “In face-to-face teams, participants can rely on non-verbal and contextual cues to provide insight into what’s going on.” Richard Hackman described this as ‘incomplete information’ and highlighted it as one of the key issues preventing successful team working.

Famous teams from bands to sports teams credit good communication for building a sense of camaraderie. The 2018 England women’s football team famously set up team Whatsapp groups to keep communication fluid and organic. And it’s not the content of the communication that matters. As Mike Schoultz, president of Digital Spark Marketing, says: “The manner of communication — how freely and frequently team members communicate – determines the effectiveness of the team.”

4. Manage conflict

All teams experience conflict from time to time. The key to success is the way it’s managed and resolved. Again, you can lead by example here by promptly and empathetically dealing with conflict as it arises. It’s useful to remember the shared goal/s of the team and use this to refocus and bounce back after conflict.

Recognize and reward teamwork

It’s crucial teams know when they’re doing well. You can recognize good performance with extrinsic rewards – like a bonus – and intrinsic – like praise from senior leaders. If you make it clear the rewards are for the whole team, this will reinforce the sense of team cohesion.

6. Encourage openness and trust

Whether it’s putting up a tent blindfolded or getting people to stare into each other’s eyes, many traditional team-building activities focus on trust. There’s a good reason for this, as trust is the vital ingredient in team success. Without it, your teams won’t communicate effectively and solve problems together.

Trust will begin to build when you encourage people to speak freely without fear of a snarky or angry response. You’ll also find the insights and creativity starting to flow as people are less afraid of speaking up.

And if you’re considering spending money on a team-building day, bear in mind that the American Psychological Association found it better to focus on improving interpersonal relationships, clarifying roles and improving problem-solving.

7. Give constructive feedback

Giving effective feedback is a skill in itself. But it’s not one that comes easily to many of us. The good news is that it gets easier with practice. Teams will grow and develop much faster when given constructive feedback than when left to wonder how they’re doing, or only being criticized.

8. Take responsibility

Want your team members to take responsibility for their roles in team projects? Show them how it’s done. Be clear about what your role does and doesn’t cover, and be prepared to take responsibility for mistakes as well as successes. Remember, if your people see you blaming others, they’ll do it too.

9. Make sure everyone’s accountable

Accountability relates back to having clearly defined roles and knowing the part you play in the team’s success or failure.

Team leaders can model accountability by both accepting where things haven’t gone as well as planned, and celebrating team successes. Accountability helps team members feel they can take risks and be vulnerable. Show that you value differences of opinion and support those who challenge the status quo.

Additions to your team working skills resume

So what are some more examples of teamwork skills? Some recommended secondary skills for team working include active listening and empathy.

You may consider yourself a good listener, but are you a good active listener? Active listening means that you demonstrate verbally and non-verbally that you're listening. This may include paraphrasing back what you’ve heard, asking for clarification, and building on your team member’s points. Active listening makes the other person feel valued and respected, and builds connection which facilitates good collaboration. The importance of good listening as a team working skill can’t be overstated.

Top tip: If you want to practice, try listening twice as much as you speak, and leave a pause after someone has spoken to see if they want to add anything else.

Empathy is another important skill for team working, particularly now many of us are working remotely and teams are ever more diverse and/or geographically disparate. Without empathy, factions can begin to form within wider teams, which can prevent communication and affect collaboration.

Looking for common ground can help form a shared mindset within the team which is vital to avoid “us versus them” thinking. This doesn’t mean you expect everybody to get along all of the time, but that you understand and appreciate where your teammates are coming from.

Team working skills aren’t just something you put on a resume. They’re crucial for team success and they’re also transferable to other areas of life. But they need to be learned and developed. Model the behavior you want to see and you and your team will learn together.

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