How to improve your team-player skills

Teamwork is prerequisite to the success of any organisation, and to the success of the individuals who work there. It’s vital you keep developing the skills that enable you to collaborate well with colleagues and clients

You may already feel you are a good team player.

‘Many of us see ourselves how we want to be, rather than try to be objective,’ says Alex Carroll, careers and student welfare manager at the London School of Business and Finance. But have you ever actually worked in a team?

Many young accountants studied at school and university more or less on their own terms, having been taught little about communication and interpersonal skills as the focus was on academic achievement, says John McLachlan, accountant and career coach at Monkey Puzzle Training.

‘A work environment may be their first real experience of working for a more collective good – the starting point is to be aware you are in a team and that, in most cases, working both for yourself and for the team will be beneficial to all,’ adds McLachlan. 

Teams vary in size and structure but everyone has a role to play. In many cases, especially at the beginning of your career, your manager will impose your role on you, either based on your strengths – perhaps you are good at planning – or on your weaknesses – you may, for example, get to be the evaluator, if your manager thinks you should work on your critical reasoning skills.

‘Many people are happier when working in roles that match their personal traits,’ says Carroll. However, it is important that you are flexible and willing to assume roles outside of your comfort zone and that you develop traits that are equally vital for working in a team and which you, as yet, do not possess. Both your career and your future teams will benefit if you learn to be a well-rounded team player.

Pay attention

You will also learn by watching those around you, and by asking questions. 

McLachlan suggests that you observe the people in your organisation who have a reputation for being good team players: ‘What can you notice about them? What do they do? How do they communicate?’

Ask your team leader for some tips, too. ‘You are not meant to know everything so ask what is expected of you, and what you are doing or not doing that needs to change,’ says McLachlan.

When you speak and interact with people in a team situation, pause and think – how do they react to you and why? Do they look taken aback by something you have just said? Could it be because your style is very direct and loud, and your quiet and introverted colleagues find you overwhelming? If so, you may have to adjust your behaviour to make your colleagues more comfortable when working with you.

‘You cannot expect everyone to adapt to you – you have to adapt to them,’ says McLachlan. That’s what good team players do.

There will always be times when you don’t agree with someone and your instant reaction could be to challenge them, says Carroll. ‘Even if you refrain from saying something like "You’re wrong", your facial expression or body language may indicate that you disagree,’ he says.

Rather than ‘shoot down their idea’, adds Carroll, appear to go along with it and sort of stumble upon what you think the negative consequence would be, giving them the opportunity to realise the mistake for themselves.

‘Small gestures like this help people to "save face" and you won’t be seen as someone who didn’t give the idea a chance in the first place,’ says Carroll.

This is not the same as watching someone make an obvious mistake – the situation that you could or should have prevented – and then making sure that your team leader knows exactly who the culprit was.

‘Trying to promote yourself by pointing out another’s mistake may work for a bit, perhaps until you make a mistake yourself. Don’t play this game or it’ll come back to bite you,’ says McLachlan.

Mutual support and respect

When you pay close attention to those around you, you will notice who on your team may need your support.

‘If a colleague seems to be uncertain about how to proceed with a task that you are clear on, offer to help them,’ says Carroll. In fact, many people prefer to have a task clarified by a colleague and not by their supervisor, fearing the latter might doubt their competence for the role, adds Carroll.

If another of your colleagues is having difficulty meeting a deadline – again, offer to help. Ultimately, teams succeed only if everyone puts in their best effort.

‘"All hands on deck" seems to be an increasingly common set-up in many work environments and getting bogged down with who is responsible for what, and whose fault it is if something isn’t working, is counter-productive,’ says Carroll. But don’t worry, your individual effort will get noticed.

You have to support the leader of your team, too, even if you think they are ill-equipped for the job, says Heather Townsend, executive coach and author of upcoming book Go-To Expert: How To Grow Your Reputation.

‘Your role as a team member is to do your utmost to help the leader succeed,’ says Townsend. ‘At some future point you may be that team leader, and you will then know the value of a team member who is openly supportive.’  

Get picked, every time

As your professional development progresses, there will be occasions when you will want to get on a specific team, especially when the project is a good opportunity to further your career. To make sure you get picked, work on developing precisely the kind of reputation that will get you there, says Townsend.

‘This involves being mainly positive and optimistic (no-one likes working with a whinger), being open, honest and helpful, willingly making sacrifices for the team and volunteering, and also becoming known as someone who is reliable and who gets on with things and meets all their commitments,’ she says.

Become known as a great communicator, too.

‘If in doubt, over-communicate, rather than under-communicate, to make sure you avoid misunderstandings,’ advises Townsend. ‘Never assume that things are obvious or other people know what you mean – people are not mind readers.’

"Trying to promote yourself by pointing out another’s mistake may work for a bit, perhaps until you make a mistake yourself. Don’t play this game or it’ll come back to bite you"

John McLachlan - Monkey Puzzle Training