No ‘I’ in ‘team’ Featured

7:00pm EDT February 24, 2008

What does being a “team player” really mean? The phrase has been worn threadbare in corporate America, but nonetheless, it is an important characteristic among employees in order for a business to run smoothly and successfully. While the term refers to, essentially, honoring obligations and being supportive to co-workers, the aspect of meeting deadlines appears to be the most important characteristic according to a national poll conducted by Accountemps, a temporary staffing firm for accounting and finance professionals owned by Robert Half International.

“Today’s workplace requires a high level of collaboration and cooperation among employees,” says Lisa Schneider, branch manager of Accountemps in St. Louis. “It is important for managers and employees to understand what playing on a ‘team’ really entails.”

Smart Business spoke with Schneider about the definition of “team player” and how businesses can achieve more productive collaboration among employees.

What can professionals do to become better team players?

Our survey showed that 40 percent of the executives polled said ‘meeting deadlines’ was the most important characteristic of a team player. For individuals, being part of a team means having accountability for your own responsibilities while putting the team’s goals first. Professionals need to realize that they may have individual goals, but they need to see the bigger picture and support the collective interests of the group in order to achieve the ultimate goal the team is working toward.

In our competitive culture, it is often difficult for employees to realize that what may work for them, personally, may not work for the good of the entire team. Adjusting your work style may be a compromise you need to make for the group to be effective. For instance, if you normally prefer to wait until the last minute to complete projects, you may need to change your work style to avoid hindering coworkers’ progress. Lastly, it’s important for all team members to have a clear understanding of the team goal.

Is it the team leader’s job to make sure that everyone is on the same page regarding the team goal?

Yes, the team leader needs to establish the group’s mission early in the process, discuss the project’s strategic implications, and define the role of each team member. The manager must be open to communication and encourage the same among team members. Managers should also be aware of the feedback they give to team members. Certain tasks require praise for the whole team, while other times, it is more appropriate to recognize an individual for his or her work in a particular area. One of the single most important things a manager can do for its team is lead by example. Since employees take their cue from their managers, they should be the first to dive into a project and express their enthusiasm for the team’s efforts.

What are some other characteristics of a successful team?

A strong work ethic among team members and individuals. The ability to be flexible — team members need to know when to switch gears when a project is not going the right way. This decision, again, should not be made by the individuals on the team, but should be for the betterment of the group as a whole. Also, team spirit — most successful teams have good camaraderie.

Is it a good idea for managers to coordinate social events outside of work to help build team camaraderie?

Yes, since it helps people get to know each other and bond. These social events can be team-building exercises, such as bowling or other sports events. Managers can be creative. For example, our company had a team-building exercise that involved getting groups together to assemble children’s bikes for charity. It was a lot of fun. We had 12 groups of four assembling 12 bikes in 20 minutes. At times, it was frustrating because some of us didn’t even know how to use a wrench. But we ended the project with a lot of takeaways about working as a cohesive team. The exercise was a microcosm of what can happen in a real group project situation, and often communication among team members is a sticking point for groups.

How can managers best deal with communication problems among team members?

Managers need to play the role of the mediator — not judge. Pay particular attention to how information is relayed to each member and to key individuals outside the group. If there are weak spots in the system, you’ll soon see them. Once you’ve identified problem areas, share your insights with the team. Be careful not to place blame. Instead, frame the difficulty as a group dynamic that needs fine-tuning. Suggest options and encourage everyone to brainstorm practical solutions.

Managers must trust that people can work out their differences and encourage team members to discuss their issues. Ideally, employees should come up with a solution that will be best for the team. The bottom line is that successful teams run smoothly when responsibilities are clear, team members get appropriate credit, the project is done on time, and there is strong communication.

LISA SCHNEIDER is the branch manager of Accountemps in St. Louis. Reach her at (314) 621-8367 or