IOP Institute of Physics

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“A good team player” - it’s a turn of phrase that crops up constantly in job advertisements and person specifications.

The concept derives, of course, from the world of sport. But if your memories of team games revolve around running forlornly round a muddy rugby or hockey pitch, the idea of being a team player at work might not appeal terribly much.

The problem is compounded if you’re fresh out of university. It’s often difficult to make the transition from working alone or in a tight-knit group on an academic project to taking your place in the corporate hierarchy. But the truth is, you’ll almost certainly need to show evidence of teamwork skills to advance in your career. So how do you go about burnishing those skills? And what are the pitfalls?

Clarity is key
First of all, make sure goals and responsibilities within your team are clear. A lot of the competitiveness and back-stabbing which characterises bad teamwork arises in situations where people aren’t sure exactly what they’re trying to achieve and their personal part in it. So if you’re leading the team, make sure any grey areas are resolved. And if you’re not in charge, press for clarification.

It’s all about communication
To a large extent, being a good team-worker is also about being a good communicator. Not only do you need to explain what you’re doing and why, you also need to be open to your team-mates’ views and concerns. Allow others to have their say and try not to interrupt. You may not rate another person’s contribution highly, but don’t let it show. It’s rarely the case that there’s nothing whatsoever of value in someone else’s opinions – at the very least they’ll help you to understand their point of view.

Value the strengths of others
Think about the contrasting skills and talents within your team. Work on the basis that everybody’s different, and everybody has something to contribute. Somebody who is more brilliant at networking or giving presentations will be different from someone with strong analytical skills, but both will be needed to create an unbeatable team.

Offer help
One quick and easy way to boost your reputation as a good team player is to be ready to offer ideas, volunteer for tasks and help others. Being willing to do the donkey work - for example, “scribing” in brainstorms or taking minutes – will be appreciated.

Camaraderie and team spirit are built up as much over lunch and after-work drinks as when poring over reports and statistics, so make time to socialise. Even small things like offering to make a round of tea, bringing in biscuits or going out to buy sandwiches will help.

Avoid toxic behaviours
There are obvious things that will mark you out as a poor team player. Spreading rumours, boasting about your own achievements and blaming or denigrating others might be very tempting in sticky situations, but they’ll do your reputation no good.

Be careful with criticism
If you’re going to talk about problems and weaknesses, do so in the context of the team rather than specific personalities. Use the word “we” rather than “you” or “I” wherever possible. Don’t discuss other people’s performance unless explicitly prompted, and even then be very careful. If you feel you have to criticise, concentrate on what they did, rather than who they are or how you feel about them.

Be patient
It often takes a little longer to do things as a team, as time is taken to negotiate a general agreement. This can create a temptation to go “off piste” and try and get things done in glorious isolation. But be careful. Once you get a reputation for being non-collegiate, you’ll find it difficult to remove.

last edited: October 01, 2012

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