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Are You a Real Team Player?

We talk about collaboration today more than teamwork. Teams are relatively stable groups but there is more need now for temporary teams, collaboration between disparate individuals who work together, even remotely, on short projects.

There is also collaboration between strategic partners, the sharing of information and other resources to achieve common aims but which would not normally be considered a team.

The workings of close-knit teams and loose collaborative efforts are not identical. In a close-knit team, you may have to live with personality clashes while in a loose collaborative effort you can, at least partially, ignore difficult characters by rationalizing that you won’t have to put up with them for long.

Still, there are important similarities in what it takes to achieve success for all forms of collaborative effort. We could explore this topic from the perspective of how a team leader might foster teamwork. But, in an age of empowerment and shared ownership, it may be more useful to ask what each team member can do to enhance collaboration.

Let’s ask how individuals typically view their contribution to teams. Many see it along the lines of helping friends push a car out of a ditch. They contribute their time, energy and strength to getting that car moving. In other words, teamwork in their eyes is a simple sum of their joint efforts. Such team members act as individual contributors who add their input to that of others to achieve a shared goal.

In today’s knowledge driven world, however, it is not often physical effort but ideas that are contributed to a team’s joint efforts. Now we have two problems: 1. This is a very narrow way of thinking about an individual’s contribution to a team and 2. Individuals inevitably have conflicting ideas about how to achieve shared goals.

Fortunately we can address both of these issues by exploring the first one, by expanding our view of how individuals can be better team players. To move beyond the limited focus of contributing content to a team’s effort, try seeing yourself as a catalyst, facilitator or coach as well as an individual contributor. Why bother? Contributing great content – solutions to problems is like scoring goals in sports. You’re a hero by scoring critical goals so why would you want to just help others score goals?

It’s a potentially exciting challenge, for experts in any field, to push themselves above that level to become more of a catalyst or facilitator. This is a way of learning how to be a leader, not just an individual contributor. As an expert, you want to score goals, which means being right more often than not. But this is limiting your influence to the content at hand and you’re choosing to remain within a rather narrow comfort zone.

If you don’t think you’re limiting yourself to being a goal scorer, think about recent meetings you attended. Wasn’t everyone arguing about the best solution to a problem? Weren’t team members advocating their preferred solution, trying to be the goal scorer? It feels good to win those arguments and it’s annoying to lose them. So, when you lose, you try harder next time, striving to offer better solutions. You might alter your approach by over stating the positives of your solution or dismissing the negatives. Or, you might simply talk louder and more forcibly, trying to intimidate others to accept your solution. These tactics, however, are all about YOU winning, not about helping the team to be more effective. A win-lose attitude destroys teamwork especially if all team members are similarly infected.

Becoming a Catalyst

Think about the way you make individual contributions in a team: you make statements about the content at hand. The option, if you want to be more of a catalyst or facilitator, is to switch to an equal, or greater, emphasis on questions.

Now, there are two kinds of questions – requesting facts versus asking for opinions. Wearing your individual contributor hat, focused on generating solutions, you ask factual questions to gather information so you can develop your own solutions. Such questions are not engaging because you’re treating people as databanks. The second kind of question is engaging because you’re asking what people think, not just what they know. In fact, the most engaging, collaboration-fostering question you can ask is: “What do you think?”

If you’re ready to be more than an individual contributor in your team, start asking others what they think more often. There are a million variations on the “What do you think?” question:

  • What do you see as the issue here?
  • What do you see as some potential solutions?
  • What are the pros and cons of your preferred solution?
  • How do you see implementing your solution?
  • How would you address obstacles?

If you disagree with a solution that emerges through your questions, you can fall back to individual contributor mode by saying something like: “No, that won’t work. X is a better way.” Or, you can stay in catalyst/facilitator mode by saying: “I like A, B and C aspects of your solution but I don’t see how it will work if we do D. If we do D and x, y or z happens, how would you avoid those outcomes or mitigate their potential damage?” Here, you are helping to foster collaboration in two ways:

  1. You’re trying to minimize team member defensiveness by first stating what aspects of their solution you like.
  2. You’re expressing disagreement by asking further questions around how the proposed solution might address possible obstacles or be modified rather than with a statement that is usually perceived as more confrontational.

This approach means that you’re not taking over the debate with your own proposal. Clearly, if the other person is totally off track, you can ask “How do you think X would work?” This is your solution but at least you’re proposing it as a question rather than stating “I think X is the best solution in this situation.” Proposing your solution as a question is more engaging and collaborative than simply stating your opinion, but offering your idea with a request for feedback should only be used when a more engaging approach doesn’t work. The main decision criterion here is how much you want to encourage input from others to foster greater shared ownership, engagement and commitment.

One of the great side benefits of wearing a facilitator hat is that the same questions can be asked over and over again, regardless of the content. Individual contributors often lack confidence because their confidence is solely based on their ability to provide answers to other people’s questions. It is actually much easier to be the question-asker than just the answer-giver. And it is easier to base our confidence, at least partly, on our ability to manage a process rather than on being just a solution generator.

OK, so you’re shifting your focus by seeking to balance your individual contributor role with that of a catalyst or facilitator. How else can you show team leadership informally to help foster greater collaboration and team effectiveness?

Creating a Team Charter

A team charter can combine clarity about a team’s goals with ground rules that codify how a team should work together. With your catalyst hat on, you can help the team come to agreement on such matters by asking process questions. So, now you have two areas to question: content and process.

Here are some useful process questions:

  • What is our team’s objective; what do we want to achieve by collaborating?
  • What should teamwork look like for us to be effective as a team?
  • What team values should we set ourselves and how can we ensure we live up to them?
  • What success criteria should we establish to help us achieve our goals?
  • How can we invest our individual talent, time and energy to get the best return?
  • What form and frequency of communication do we need?
  • How can we best deal with conflict?
  • How should we monitor our team effectiveness, over and above getting results?
  • How often should we review how well we’re working as a team?

These questions should be asked and re-asked at regular intervals. When a meeting goes off track, you can ask how this debate relates to our team objectives, for example. It may help to remember that good management is like investment. We want to get the best possible return on whatever it is we’re investing, whether it’s money or our personal time, energy and talent. This means that team effectiveness includes making the best possible use of all resources, not just achieving results.

Obstacles to better teamwork

When did you last take the initiative to help your team function better as a team? You reply: “That’s the boss’s job?” Yes, you can take this line but you’re effectively disempowering and disengaging yourself by doing so. It then becomes easier to blame the boss for a poorly functioning team. Again, however, resorting to blame is another way of disempowering yourself. This creates a vicious circle of blame, disengagement and further blame.

The main benefit for you of taking initiative to help your team improve is that doing so can give you a greater feeling of pride, achievement and job satisfaction. By taking more personal ownership you should then feel more motivated and positive generally, less inclined to blame others and more prepared to take action yourself to address team related problems. The option is to let yourself feel like a victim, not a fun place to be.

Whenever your team encounters obstacles, say lack of cooperation from other teams, it is easy to play the blame game. A more positive approach is to ask yourself or your team: “OK we have a challenge. What can we do to surmount this challenge? What can we do differently to improve this situation?” You might add something like: “We’re going to remain stuck in a negative mood if we just sit here complaining. We’ll feel more upbeat, empowered and good about ourselves if we find a way to work around the obstacles we’re facing.”

Your personal identity could be an obstacle to effective teamwork if you so strongly identify with your technical function or profession that the sole source of your job satisfaction is being able to offer compelling solutions, to score goals in effect. It’s worth bearing in mind that being an individual contributor was essential to get yourself promoted to the level you are now at. And, there is no question that, in an age of increasing specialization, experts are even more in demand than ever. Still, if you want to contribute at a higher level, you may want to work on striking a better balance between being an individual contributor and a catalyst/facilitator.

In conclusion

The big question remaining is: “What’s in it for me?”

Teamwork and related forms of collaboration are essential in a complex, fast changing world. With this reality in mind, how do you want to contribute? It might help to bear in mind that growing complexity breeds greater specialization, which in turns forces specialists into ever narrower boxes. Do you want to remain in such a highly specialized box? Here are some questions you might like to ask yourself:

  • What do I want to achieve in my career?
  • Can I achieve more through my individual contributions or by fostering better input from others?
  • Can I find as much satisfaction from being a catalyst/facilitator as from being a solution generator?
  • How can shifting my emphasis from one to the other create more personal growth for me?

Becoming more of a catalyst/facilitator doesn’t mean never offering your own solutions. It’s a matter of striking the right balance and using your emotional intelligence to recognize when to wear which hat.

A typical objection to making this transition is that being a catalyst/facilitator doesn’t feel like making a real contribution; it’s not as much fun as scoring goals. Hence the importance of asking yourself what you really want out of your career.

This discussion has not revolved around the best organizational conditions to foster collaboration. That’s another issue. However, the “right” environment is never enough if individual team members are set on pursuing their own agendas. It is hence much more empowering and engaging to put the onus on individuals, making it clear how they can change their focus and what’s in it for them in doing so.

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