Teamwork is a Skill. It Takes Practice!

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Everyone wants to lead, or be a member of a high-performing team. That’s why you’ll see organizations putting a lot of effort into defining roles, setting goals, and hiring the right people. But not every team engages in teamwork, and throwing together a great bunch of people offers no guarantee that they’ll work together productively.

“There are a whole set of skills to being a part of a team,” says Ann Quiroz Gates, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of the Computer Science Department at The University of Texas at El Paso. “Our education typically does not include frameworks for learning and practicing how to work in teams. We are expected to know how to do it.”

In a recent women’s leadership webinar, I interviewed Gates, who has researched how effective scientific and engineering teams are built, and asked her to describe some common barriers to teamwork.

Here are four reasons why teamwork breaks down.

1) Team members are in it for themselves.

One pitfall, according to Gates, lies in not recognizing that one’s success is dependent upon the success of other members of the team. High-achieving teams understand that “we’re in this together” but teams fall apart when people are in it for themselves.

When team members approach their work with a “me-first” mentality, Gates says, “You are not building positive interdependence and recognizing that the success of the project is dependent upon everyone contributing.”

To create a team culture that fosters high performance, remind people that they’re a part of something bigger than themselves, and that driving toward team success is more important than individual wins.

2) The team does not acknowledge each member’s contribution

“You have to know and acknowledge what everyone brings to the team,” says Gates. “And there are so many skills that make a difference.” Teams break down when there’s no recognition of the ways in which team members contribute.

It’s important to notice, understand, and acknowledge each individual’s contribution. “Ask yourself, ‘How do I acknowledge what people bring?’” advises Gates. ‘What were people doing that made the team effective? How do I recognize their contributions?’”

3) People don’t listen to each other.

Another behavior that adds to a team’s demise is not listening. In high-performing settings, Gates observes, there’s often someone who is truly listening to the other team members. “Perhaps, they’re paraphrasing what someone says or validating what they have said,” says Gates.

Gates discovered that training in listening skills can have a big impact on a team’s effectiveness. “Encourage the group to take time to think about what a person is trying to convey, before coming up with reasons why that won’t work or why that’s not an appropriate approach. Also, asking questions while seeking clarification is another very important listening skill,” she says.

4) Team members reacting negatively to constructive criticism.

If a person feels like they’re being critiqued, what typically happens, according to Gates, is that they react to that criticism by withdrawing their cooperation. “They may say, ‘I’m going to stop contributing, because I’m feeling like I’m providing input and no one is validating it,’” Gates says. ‘They’re going to do what they want anyway so why should I invest any more time in the team?’”

The solution, says Gates, is twofold. Firstly, one needs to know how to provide constructive criticism, i.e., phrasing the critique so that it is not personalized or directed at the individual. Secondly, one needs to know how to accept critique. Learning and practicing the skill of constructive critique will create an environment in which team work improves and team members continue to contribute.

Teamwork Takes Practice

Is your team suffering from any of these breakdowns? Then use the above list of reasons why teamwork breaks down as a guide to pinpoint areas for improvement. As Gates likes to say, “You cannot become more effective if you do not reflect on what’s working and what’s not.”

Jo Miller

A leading authority on women’s leadership, Jo Miller is a sought-after, dynamic, and engaging speaker, delivering more than 70 speaking presentations annually to audiences of up to 1,200 women. Her expertise lies in helping women lead, climb, and thrive in their corporate careers. Jo has traveled widely in Europe, North America, Asia Pacific, and the Middle East to deliver keynotes and teach workshops for women’s leadership conferences, women’s professional associations, and Fortune 1000 corporate women’s initiatives. Jo is founding editor of Learn more about her speaking engagements at and follow @Jo_Miller on Twitter.

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