How to Improve Teamwork in the Workplace

Many companies have come to realize that groups can accomplish more than individuals, hence the growth in office teamwork.
Many companies have come to realize that groups can accomplish more than individuals, hence the growth in office teamwork.
Terry Vine/Getty Images

Japanese writer Ryunosuke Satoro once said, "Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean" [source: Gschwandtner]. This beautiful metaphor describes a very simple and practical idea: By working together, people can accomplish far more than they could alone. It's a sentiment increasingly being shared by the corporate world.

Teamwork has become an integral part of the modern workplace. No longer are companies sticking to the old-fashioned hierarchical structure. They realize that their staff can be more productive when they work together. Studies confirm this idea, finding that teamwork improves innovation, enhances problem-solving and boosts productivity [sources: Stanford Graduate School of Business, Journal of Managerial Issues].

As another saying goes, "There's no 'I' in 'team.'" Teamwork requires collaboration. It involves a group of people who bring together their different skills, ideas and work styles for a common goal. Yet teamwork doesn't mean that individuals have to set aside their personal goals for the good of the group. The best teams enhance each person's abilities and encourage all members to grow personally and professionally. Team members support one another through challenging tasks and difficult periods.

As rewarding as the team approach can be to both corporations and employees, fostering a team environment can be challenging, especially in a culture that places a high emphasis on individual performance and competition. As economist Lester Thurow put it, "In America, halls of fame exist for almost every conceivable activity, but nowhere do Americans raise monuments in praise of teamwork" [source: Osborn].

If you do want to try a team approach in your office, there are a few best practices to help you make it work. This article will show you how to build effective teams, combine the right mix of people to reach your goals and deal with team conflicts as they arise.

Building a Team Environment in the Workplace

Do you like the idea of the team approach but don't know where to start? Here are a few simple steps to help you launch a successful work team:

  1. Choose your leader. Pick a manager who you know your employees trust and will be willing to follow. Ideally, you want someone who is visionary, but not egotistical; someone who can delegate and keep the team focused, without turning into a tyrant.
  1. Find the right team size. Some studies have indicated that larger teams are more effective. Big teams do have the advantage of drawing on more skill sets, but a larger group of people can also have more trouble reaching a consensus [source: Cohen and Bailey]. Small teams can foster closer working relationships. Consider the goal when selecting the number of team members. For a small project, you might only need three or four members. Larger, longer-term projects may require a dozen or more members.
  1. Pick your team members. Members should bring a diverse set of skills and personalities to the table, each of which complements the project and helps the group reach its goal. All of the team members should be competent, efficient and able to work well together.
  1. Set roles. Clearly define each person's position, and what he or she needs to accomplish within the team.
  1. Determine how the team will fit within the organization. Will it be self-managed or overseen closely by corporate management?
  1. Establish a collaborative environment. Teamwork is built on trust. All employees should feel comfortable asking questions, expressing their opinions and making suggestions. Each person's input should be highly valued. No one in the group should be so self-driven that they're willing to undermine co-workers to reach their personal goal.

Give the team time to get to know one another and develop a relationship and style that works for them. It can take several weeks for members to become accustomed to their roles within the team, and to become comfortable enough to share their ideas.

Even though teams can improve productivity and morale, they don't work for every organization. First, not every corporation has the right structure to support teamwork. A strict hierarchy in which management is unwilling to give up the reigns might not be the best place for a team approach.

If you've tried establishing teams and it's being met with resistance, or your teams just can't work together, don't keep pushing it or blame your employees. You can try bringing in a consultant who is experienced in team building or go with another approach.

Setting Clear Goals to Improve Teamwork

Workplace teams should always have clear goals in mind.
Workplace teams should always have clear goals in mind.
Alistair Berg/Getty Images

A team without a goal is like a house without a frame -- it will simply fall apart with the slightest nudge. Every company, whether it produces cars or television shows, should have a clear goal in mind. Individual teams must understand what that goal is, and know their role -- both individually and as a group -- in accomplishing it.

Keep all goals posted somewhere highly visible in the office. Refer back to them whenever team members start losing sight of what's important.

To accomplish your goal, the team must have the right tools. At the beginning of the project, create a list of everything you'll need -- in terms of both staffing and resources.

Set up a results-oriented structure that encourages the team to achieve its goals. For example, the goal of an IT team in an advertising agency might be to upgrade the design equipment so the agency can launch a new social media campaign. The goal of an architectural firm might be to design and complete a new office building. Set up a list of tasks that will lead you to your final goal, with specific deadlines to accomplish each of these tasks. Make sure each team member commits to finishing each task on schedule.

Accountability is important in a team goal setting. Members need to understand that each of them will be personally responsible if the team succeeds -- and if it fails. Members who slack off need to bear responsibility, and those who excel should be recognized. Have a clear and obvious method in place for measuring the team's success.

Communication and Workplace Teamwork

No team can exist in a vacuum. In order to work effectively, team members need to communicate effectively with each other, and with the company's management.

Management should make every effort to provide teams with accurate and timely information about the company's plans, goals, concerns, and accomplishments, and how the team fits into each of these areas. It's also important for management to recognize, support and encourage the team's efforts. After all, motivated teams are productive teams.

Within teams, effective communication is equally important. Members should be encouraged to do all of the following:

  • offer new ideas and suggestions
  • share information about their progress
  • request information from other team members about their progress
  • listen carefully to what others are saying, hearing and acknowledging the other team members' insights and offering encouragement
  • build on suggestions offered by other team members
  • keep a record of everything that is said during team meetings, as well as the team's overall progress
  • solve problems and resolve disputes

Conflicts can arise in any group setting; workplace teams are no exception. Constant infighting can have a detrimental effect on the team if it's allowed to continue. However, if conflicts are resolved effectively, they can actually strengthen the group and enhance its compatibility.

Here are a few simple ways to prevent and resolve conflicts:

  • Make sure each team member is shouldering an equal share of the work burden so no one feels frustrated or resentful
  • Have a clear set of rules and responsibilities team members need to follow
  • Make sure the team leader resolves conflicts effectively. The leader should address complaints objectively and offer constructive criticism, rather than placing blame.
  • If the team leader can't resolve the dispute, bring in a management team leader or consultant to act as a mediator.

Tips to Improve Teamwork in the Workplace

Workplace groups should take as much time as they need to mesh, but effective teams put clear leaders in place to stamp out conflict.
Workplace groups should take as much time as they need to mesh, but effective teams put clear leaders in place to stamp out conflict.

Once you have your team in place, here are a few general tips to make sure the collaborative process runs smoothly:

  • Don't let individuals get lost in the shuffle. Even though a team is a collaborative effort, each member should be allowed to feel a sense of ownership and accomplishment. Members should be rewarded for a job well done, and given encouragement and guidance when they need additional help completing a task.
  • Let each team member actively take part in the decision-making process. Making each member feel integral to the group's success is crucial for the team's morale. Minimize the importance of rank; instead take advantage of the entire group's talents and skills to contribute to its overall success. However, there must be one clear leader who can make the final decision if the team can't agree.
  • Keep the balance of work equal. One or two team members shouldn't be shouldering the burden for the entire group. Everyone should have a manageable and relatively equal workload.
  • Build a foundation of trust and mutual respect. Each team member should be encouraged to share his or her opinions openly and respect everyone else's point of view -- even if they don't agree with it.
  • Maintain open lines of communication. Everyone in the team should share ideas or express concerns with one another and with the company's management.
  • When conflicts arise, take a positive approach. Avoid confrontation and blame. Keep your focus on the issues.

For more information on workplace topics, please see the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

  • Cohen, Susan G. and Bailey, Diane E. "What Makes Teams Work: Group Effectiveness Research from the Shop Floor to the Executive Suite." Journal of Management, 1997, Vol. 23, pg. 239-290. http://www.stanford.edu/group/wto/cgi-bin/docs/Cohen_Bailey_97.pdf.
  • Gibbons, Tracy and Randi Brenowitz. "Workforce Collaboration." Innovative Leader. November 2002. Volume 11.http://www.winstonbrill.com/bril001/html/article_index/articles/551-600/article565_body.html.
  • Gschwandtner, Gerhard. Great Thoughts to Sell By: Quotes to Motivate You to Success. McGraw-Hill: 2007. New York, NY.
  • NDT Resource Center. "Teamwork in the Classroom."http://www.ndt-ed.org/TeachingResources/ClassroomTps/Teamwork.htm.
  • Okafor, Philip. "Workplace conflicts can be inimical to teamwork, insist experts." May 18, 2010.http://www.businessdayonline.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=11125:workplace-conflicts-can-be-inimical-to-teamwork-insist-experts-&catid=89:learning&Itemid=347.
  • Osborn, T. Noel. "Improving Teamwork -- Working Against the Odds." (Aug. 5, 2010)http://www.teaminternational.net/Resources/Docs/Improving%20Teamwork.pdf.
  • Prasad, Sameer. "Team Self-Management, Organizational Structure, and Judgments of Team Effectiveness." July 1, 2004.http://www.allbusiness.com/human-resources/971289-1.html.
  • The Team Building Directory. "Resolving Conflict in Work Teams." (Aug. 5, 2010)http://www.innovativeteambuilding.co.uk/pages/articles/conflicts.htm.
  • Santana, Joe. "Creating supportive, engaging work environment helps fight employee burnout." TechRepublic. July 14, 2003. (Aug. 3, 2010)http://articles.techrepublic.com.com/5100-10878_11-5035231.html.
  • Stanford Graduate School of Business. "Teamwork Can Boost Manufacturing Productivity." March 2008. (Aug. 3, 2010)http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/news/research/shawteams.shtml.
  • World at Work. "Employees Say Teamwork, Communication Declining in Workplace." June 24, 2008. (Aug. 3, 2010)http://www.worldatwork.org/waw/adimComment?id=26911.