The ability to collaborate effectively within teams is one of the greatest tests of communication.
Growing up, most of our education is skewed toward individual success. We learn to set goals, take initiative, and budget our time based on our own pace and work ethic. We assume that applying the same rubric will lead to success in team settings. We believe the contribution of strong individual performance along with respect for others constitutes teamwork. Not always. In fact, it might even be a detriment.
Exceptional individual performers frequently struggle in teams. Even seasoned leaders often cite the management of teams as the most challenging part of their job. For many, climbing over the back of your colleague is the most direct path to success. Game theory breaks down when you realize the greater good may have costs in your own career trajectory. Models of effective cooperation and productive conflict between rational decision makers require an unusual blend of sacrifice and delay of gratification. Utilitarian goals (the greatest good for the greatest number) run contrary to the standard recipe for individual gain.
Communication in teams begins with a different rule book. It starts with the understanding that teams are messy. Conflict is unavoidable. Dynamics flow with the unique circumstances, mindsets, and emotions of the members involved. Graduate programs routinely teach the Tuckman model of “forming-storming-norming-performing,” yet teams often skip key stages and regress under pressure.
The human element drives the culture of the team more powerfully than theory. It only takes a couple of actively disengaged teammates to start a mutiny. One distracted collaborator is capable of hijacking the agenda of a meeting. Selfishness disguised as altruism can undermine a mission.
Communication in team settings is cyclical. As the team evolves, communication domains shift to accommodate ever-changing circumstances. The cycle is anchored in the following principles:
- Take stewardship of team norms by owning the way teammates are treated.
- Achieve alignment with the team’s mission, vision, values, and goals.
- Sponsor mature, constructive conflict to elevate the strength of diversity.
- Demand respect in all interactions, especially during stressful interchange.
- Own accountability to agreed-upon norms, mission, and goals.
- Nurture connection between teammates as collaboration fuels a greater good.
- Empower the fuel of differences to spark creativity.
- Take the smart risks that support change and growth.
- Let go of the urge to keep things the same in honor of comfort.
- Embrace the re-energizing nature of new challenges.
Communication rules change when we move from a “me” to a “we.” Goals are co-owned. Trust is a fragile yet non-negotiable requirement. The stakes are raised by virtue of the precious cargo on board in the form of teammates. Change impacts the whole. Like a family, all transactions are exchanged with a clear understanding of the effect on each member.
The drivers of workplace behavior can be both selfish and altruistic. Our personal desire for achievement can overtake our mission to advance the lives of others. When our own needs clamor for satisfaction, the greater good sometimes gets sacrificed. Few of us, however, live in isolation. Most of us are members of relationships, families, teams, and organizations where goals are shared.
A single teammate more focused on the “me” rather than the “we” can grind momentum to a halt. The team can still perform but won’t have the synergies and efficiencies that arise from true collaboration. The win that justifies “me” priorities is easier to accomplish with the advantages of a team. Usually, the benefits are elusive without a commitment to honing a set of interaction competencies. Everybody wins when the whole team is skilled at the following behaviors:
Sacrifice: placing others’ needs in front of your own.
Generosity: creating goodwill by sharing knowledge, assets, and resources.
Compromise: forging win-win opportunities.
Negotiation: balancing gains and losses respectfully.
Listening: seeing the world through another lens.
Collaboration: linking strengths to promote growth.
Coordination: conducting an orchestra of variables.
Interdependence: fusing your future outcomes with the path of another.
Team aptitudes are learned. They are not in the traditional on-boarding curriculum of most jobs. The good news is that each day is filled with opportunities to practice. Take a walk around the workplace. Check in with your coworkers. Each exchange is a new lesson.
Without exception, every team has work to do. Whether fixing something broken or fueling an opportunity, there is a conversation needed to move things forward. We all know which conversations are most important. It’s usually the ones that are awkward and sensitive. It’s often the issue not being discussed that fills the atmosphere with tension. Here are a few of the most common team conversations waiting to be initiated:
Norms: “I know we’ve always done it this way in the past. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider.”
Diversity: “If I was experiencing your circumstances, I might better understand your perspective. Can you help me see this issue from your vantage point?”
Respect: “Something you said in the meeting was unintentionally insulting. May I share with you how I heard your comment?”
Accountability: “I trusted the commitment we agreed to. Can you help me understand what changed?”
Gratitude: “In case it hasn’t been clear through my actions, I’d like to tell you how much I appreciate your contribution to our team.”
Growth & Change: “We’ve been wrestling with this problem for a long time. Are we going to stay stuck or move forward?”
These are the types of exchanges we imagine having with our teammates but have trouble initiating. It’s easier to keep it in your head than to be responsible for the consequences of voicing a concern and entering a dialogue. Ground rules help. As long as everyone commits to being mature, respectful, and professional, the awkwardness of elevating a sensitive topic is softened. What are your two or three most pressing conversations? What’s your plan for moving internal communication forward in your organization?