When Teamwork Isn’t Quite Making the Dream Work

I have two children that are now teenagers. When they were smaller, ages three and four, they played peewee league soccer. It was a mixed team of boys and girls and all of them were absolutely clueless about the game, or the rules, or how to work as a team. They just did their individual thing with all of the enthusiasm of a young child and having fun on their terms was all that mattered.

During one game my daughter spent nearly half the game standing in the middle of the field picking dandelions and blowing their fluffy seeds away. On another day, my son, who wanted to be a rock star soccer player, spent a good deal of time on the sidelines because he wouldn’t stop pushing other children out of his way so he could have the ball. He wanted that ball, on his terms, and he didn’t care what the rest of his team wanted.

Why am I telling you a story about three and four-year-olds playing soccer? Well, if you’ve read the title, then you probably have a little bit of an idea. Just like my precious children, sometimes as adults in the workplace we can lose sight of our purpose and inadvertently make waves within our team. We can get focused on our work and trying to do the best job that we can do individually, with little regard for what the rest of the team may need from us.

You never know what a person is going through when they’re not working. It could be that your coworker, the one who appears apathetic or disengaged after the weekend isn’t fully present because they experienced something difficult at home. Whatever it is that’s troubling them is presently interfering with their desire to interact with others and their ability to concentrate in the way they would normally. This teammate’s actions alone may not cause a lasting rift in the team, but how the rest of the team responds to them has the potential to do real damage.

I remember an online course I attended that was geared for leaders dealing with difficult employees. One of the things that that the facilitator brought up was that when we feel we’ve been slighted or wronged in some way, we instinctively have a tendency to start building a case against the other person. This case-building, over time, subtly builds animosity and resistance to working with the individual. It’s crucial to get to the bottom of these things as quickly as possible when we recognize that case-building is happening.

You may be thinking it’s the leader’s responsibility to keep everyone in line; that the leader has to make sure everyone’s working in harmony. While this is certainly true, I contend that each individual teammate also has responsibility.

Here are a few things I’ve personally found helpful when working with a team:

1. Take the time to get to know each teammate on an individual level. By making a personal investment in each of your fellow teammates, you may be able to more easily break down barriers when they begin to arise. Because this person is aware that you are personally interested in the success of the team and not just your own success.

2. If you notice some friction within your team and are not sure your manager is aware of what’s going on, see if you can find an opportunity to have a discussion with them about your concerns. Be honest, and never go in with selfish motivation, this is about what’s best for the team. If you raise the concerns before they become complaints, it gives the leader the opportunity to guide what’s happening in the group as opposed to what they may have to do if the situation escalates. Most leaders will be thankful to have the heads-up so they can handle the situation before it becomes a real problem.

3. Check yourself. Like it or not sometimes the source of a problem between you and a teammate is you. Ask yourself if you’re feeling stress. Assess what’s happening in your own life and how it may be affecting your work relationships. If you find there’s an adjustment you need to make in your own attitude, make it.

None of these suggestions will fix every situation and sometimes a team needs to make larger changes to make things right. That’s where the leadership may have to step in and do their thing. My experiences have taught me that sometimes teamwork doesn’t quite make the dream work but if teammates are willing to work on that whole teamwork thing, anything is possible.

Lisa Menke is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. She is a digital media developer who is passionate about the intersection where opportunities for professional growth and participatory culture meet. As a training specialist for the State of Nebraska, Lisa is currently responsible for the creation of digital media in support of agency training & development, and communications. Read her posts here

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