I wanted to take a minute this week and talk about teamwork. More eloquent people than me have covered this topic extensively, from Marcus Aurelius in ancient Rome to Viktor Frankl after World War II and, more recently, authors like Jim Collins and and Seth Godin. I encourage you to take a look at some of the incredible work out there about teamwork and leadership.
What I want to discuss this week is not why teamwork is important, or why we value it, or the benefits it brings. All of that is self-evident. What I want to talk about is, specifically, how to be a good teammate. One of the things we’ve tried to do with the Learning House Way is not only think abstractly about our values, but also to give specific, concrete examples of how to live out these colors. While living out the Learning House Way will certainly make someone a good teammate, I wanted to clearly and specifically lay out how you can be the best teammate possible, every single day. Many of these ideas come from my observations of the people I work with at Learning House, who I consider to be amazing teammates and who have taught me so much. Here are eight strategies to help make you not just a good teammate, but a beloved one.
Are You Putting the Team First?
The biggest challenge to being a great teammate, I think, is that as humans, we are inherently self-interested. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but finding the balance between selfishness and selflessness is critical. In my opinion, good teammates put the team first every day, but build in time to think about themselves regularly. I try to take stock of myself every quarter, and then annually spend significant time thinking through what my short- and long-term goals are, how I’ve done on last year’s goals and what changes I’d like to see. This scheduled review time allows me to put the team first daily, which actually brings more career upside, because I’m putting forth a better work product instead of thinking about myself. This is true not only for me, but for the people around me. I’ve observed that while it may seem counterintuitive, those who put the team first do spectacularly well in their own careers.
Do You Bring Value to the Team?
In a team, everyone contributes equally. That’s not to say the work is always divided so everyone has a perfectly equal share, but rather, that everyone brings their own strengths to the team and contributes them. If you’re not adding value, you need to opt out. That might sound harsh, but I don’t mean it that way. I do think, though, that if you’re not bringing value to a team, there’s another team at your current company or elsewhere in the world where you can. Find that team. You’ll be happier, I promise, if you’re in a setting where you can thrive.
Part of understanding your value comes with being radically honest with yourself. At Learning House, we have started having all of our employees take the Predictive Index. I have had several people tell me that they found the results really accurate, in ways that weren’t always comfortable. One employee said that her results said she could be impatient with people she didn’t think were smart, and while at first she objected, when she thought about it, she realized that was true. Instead of denying an uncomfortable truth, she is going to work on her communication skills. I encourage everyone to take stock of themselves regularly and to be brutally honest. If there’s an area where you’re weak, try to improve. If there’s an area where you’re strong, lean in to that.
Is Your Communication Open, Honest and Respectful?
Of course, the flip side to contributing to a team is having a space in which it is safe for people to communicate. That means fostering open, respectful dialogue. It’s totally OK to express disagreement — in fact, I encourage my leadership team to disagree with me and work to create an environment where it is safe to do so. But that communication must be done in a way that is respectful to me and the other teammates. Insults are not tolerated (and, frankly, undermine whatever point is being made). Generalizations, like saying “you always do this,” also are not helpful. Be specific, be polite and be well-reasoned. That is how a team can communicate successfully.
Is Accountability a Major Part of Your Work?
Go out of your way to deliver on your goals. The best teammates are those who can be trusted to do what they say. That means also saying “no” if you can’t do something. “I don’t know” is fine to say! Please, say that instead of nodding and smiling and then not being able to do whatever task it is you need to do.
If you do make a mistake, admit it, and admit it soon. The worst mistakes are those that people try to cover up or hope no one notices. Stepping up and saying “Hey, I messed up,” allows the issue to be resolved and people to move on.
Admitting mistakes should be true as a team, too. Even if you personally weren’t responsible for a project’s failure, radical ownership means saying “I was part of this team and it failed — what could I have done differently? How can I help in the future?”
Along with that, every team should have a captain, someone who is steering the ship and overseeing all the moving parts. That captain is ultimately accountable for the success or failure of the team. If you’re the captain, great! You have accepted a position of great responsibility. If that’s not you, it’s incumbent upon you to listen to your captain and work to help the captain succeed.
How Committed to Success Are You?
There will be decisions made that you don’t agree with. That’s OK. You can express your disagreement and why you feel that way. Then, you have to give 100 percent to the task, no matter what the decision is. Successful teammates aren’t those who work only when they feel passionate; they feel passionate no matter the work.
In the sports sense, teams are all about competition, and ultimately, competition is about passion. Find a way to get your competitive juices flowing, whether it’s beating last quarter’s goal or competing against another team.
Do You Make Building Good Relationships a Priority?
The first question on your mind should be “How can I help others be successful?” Teams are not just about you. They are about the good of the group. That’s not to say people never clash — we are all human, and we won’t always get along. But teams that succeed are those where clashes and disagreements aren’t allowed to fester. If you’re having a disagreement with someone, talk to that person. More importantly, listen and really try to understand where the person is coming from. If you are a bystander to teammates clashing, see if you can help solve the problem. Can you foster communication? Smooth over disagreements? Support your captain? Sometimes, you cannot seem to make progress. Do not give up. Talk to your manager or manager’s manager. Put simply, pushing real issues under the carpet will likely lead to sub-optimal performance for the team, which is the exact opposite of what a great teammate strives for.
Good teammates aren’t afraid to call out when people aren’t pulling their weight. They do it respectfully, as we discussed above, but they say “Hey, this isn’t OK and needs to change.”
And when things are going right, celebrate that. If someone has done something extraordinary, tell him or her. That can be publicly or privately — part of good communication is knowing how people like to be praised. But the important part is that you recognize achievement. That’s not to say everyone deserves a trophy! Simply doing your job is not enough, but excellence should be rewarded.
Sometimes, of course, there are toxic teammates. I plan on having a full post about how to deal with that later, but for now, my advice to those with toxic teammates is: Talk to the captain about it, express how you’re feeling, and then move on. Above all, don’t gossip. Not only is it unkind, but it just allows a problem to grow bigger in your mind.
One way you can help build relationships is by forging connections. Teams can’t be about business 100 percent of the time — that’s unrealistic and a good way to lead to burnout. So ask how someone’s weekend was. Crack a joke. Share a story about your day. Be transparent about your feelings. However it is you want to connect, do it.
Is Practicing Gratitude a Habit?
In my meditation practice, I think about all the people and things I am grateful for, both personally and at work. While I try to express that gratitude verbally, I think even being aware of that gratitude makes a difference in how I act and treat people. To go along with the toxic teammate comment above, even the people I am most frustrated with, I try to find something to be grateful about. This is not always easy; however, you would be surprised at the benefits it brings! It helps me stay in a better, more productive state of mind and allows me to view that person not as a hindrance, but as a valuable teammate with something unique to bring to the table (even if what the teammate is bringing is a good way for me to exercise patience).
Are You Trustworthy?
Everyone likes to think they are trustworthy, but actually being trustworthy is complicated and difficult. Like nicknames, you can’t declare yourself trustworthy; instead, that’s something other people have to say about you. You have to earn it through your actions, and once you’ve earned it, you will reap the rewards of lifelong bonds.
I think the seven strategies outlined above will help you be trustworthy, but I also think living authentically — fulfilling your commitments, being honest and sharing your true self — will all help build trust among your teammates. And when you are a trustworthy teammate, those benefits last far longer than the day to day; they can last years. The people I have remained closest to, even after we have stopped working together, are those who were trustworthy. Everyone else falls by the wayside.
I think we all remember the feeling of waiting to be picked for a kickball team in elementary school. The grown-up equivalent is work teams. I have found that in life, especially in an incredible free market society like America, the cream eventually rises to the top. In today’s fast-paced world, being a great teammate is the No. 1 quality I look for in team members, even more than aptitude (although of course, you have to have at least a certain level of aptitude for the job). But ultimately, skills can be taught, and attitude is ingrained, and it’s more important to me to hire for attitude than skill. I hope these strategies help you become a teammate who is not just liked, but the first person people want to work with.