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How to Be a Team Player in Collaborative Work Settings

Updated on June 2, 2022Professionals

Collaborating with a team can be . . . challenging.

Maybe you ran into this dynamic sometime around fourth grade, and have watched it play out over and over since then: one kid immediately assumes the mantle of leadership, while another isn’t sure what the task at hand even is and/or stops showing up. In the end, most of the last-minute preparations before your deadline fall to you and, if you’re lucky, one other team player. Sound familiar?

The good news is it doesn’t have to be this way. While you probably can’t avoid collaborative work situations entirely, as a team player you can limit the frustration you—and your classmates or colleagues—have to endure. With practice, these tips can make your collaborations not only more productive but maybe even more fun.

Practice the first rule of improv.

What works in improvisational comedy also helps when you’re part of a collaborative team.

The idea is to try making “yes, and” the first words out of your mouth as you respond to your collaborators. You want to build on their ideas—and maybe sometimes steer them in certain directions—rather than brusquely shut them down. It’s a way of giving input without killing anyone’s momentum, like so:

“No, we won’t have the bandwidth to add that feature until after this month’s deadline.”
“Yes, and we can start laying the groundwork for that feature soon.”

If you sometimes struggle to present yourself as an affable and receptive collaborator, making “yes, and” a staple of your vocabulary can help, especially as you take on this next item . . .

Define your objective early and refine it as needed.

What are you trying to get done—and in what timeframe?

Facilitating this conversation in a collaborative way isn’t always easy (for more tips, see our post on How to Be a Better Collaborator) but coalescing around a rough sense of your shared goal early on can relieve a lot of the anxiety you and your colleagues may feel.

Not every last detail has to be settled before you dive in; in fact, it can be good to leave some flexibility to fine-tune the particulars as you go along.

What’s more important as you map the contours of your shared endeavor is that you communicate and don’t leave your team guessing as to what potential constraints or obstacles are on your mind. Put another way:

Use your words.

This is a thing you might urge an upset five-year-old to do when you’re not sure why they’re crying. It’s also a useful thing to say to yourself when you’re worried some part of your project needs more attention, or you’re uncertain how it will get done.

What’s obvious to you may not have occurred to your collaborators. Then again, someone may share a scintillating insight that will make your life easier once you broach the subject. The key here is that you’ll never know if you don’t bring it up.

To do so in a way that fosters collaborative openness, try to avoid assuming too much with your question. For example:

“Do you nimrods realize we’re going to waste half the week just getting our credentials set up?”
“Have we established a timeframe for credentialing yet?”

Also, if you’re not sure where to begin—whether with voicing a complex concern or just getting your team’s general gameplan underway—try taking it one piece at a time. This divide-and-conquer approach can help you clear challenges both big and small . . .

Break it up into manageable chunks.

A team that includes a writer, a designer, and an engineer probably doesn’t function best by having all three of them sit together and negotiate every sentence, every button, and every line of code in unison. (The same is true if your roster consists of the captain of your school’s math team, a kooky sculptor, and a lacrosse player.)

Getting from the spontaneous, creative, let’s-make-this-happen phase of the collaborative process to the more concrete, we-got-all-this-done-before-lunch stage means breaking the project down into smaller parts. Again, knowing what you’re breaking down and using your words can help, but there’s one more aspect of this that’s worth keeping in mind:

Recognize and play to each other’s strengths.

You and your teammates all bring different skills to the table, and you’re at your best when you can bring the full force of your collective experiences and diverse perspectives to bear. At the same time, in addition to different areas of expertise, you likely have different talents when it comes to speaking, organizing, and troubleshooting.

Acknowledge this. Apply it in a way that makes your collaborators comfortable—but also be mindful of opportunities to help each other grow. If you’re normally afraid to get in front of a crowd, talking to the natural emcee of your group might open a door to confronting that fear, for instance.

In other words, being a team player isn’t just about figuring out how to finish an assignment together. It’s also a chance to hone new abilities in the best possible way—by working with others.

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