Illustration of an obstacle course
5-second summary
  • Teamwork is essential for success no matter what industry you’re in, but it can be derailed in a number of different ways.
  • Connecting the dots between what your team is doing and why they’re doing it goes a long way in addressing (and preventing) many of the most common teamwork challenges.
  • Taking the time to listen to team members’ hopes and concerns builds a better working relationship, which makes any of these challenges easier to overcome.

Whoever said “teamwork makes the dream work” may have been onto something. That doesn’t mean it’s always smooth sailing, though. If your team has struggled with unclear goals, low engagement, or personality conflicts, then you know how quickly the dream can turn into a nightmare.

Teams at Atlassian are no strangers to the challenges of teamwork, and we’re always keen to share what has worked for us and what hasn’t. So I called up a handful of my esteemed colleagues to learn more about some of the most prevalent challenges. I asked them how to know when your team is struggling (it’s not always obvious!), what to do about it, and how to prevent the problem in the first place. Here’s what they said.

Challenge #1: low engagement

Highly engaged teams tend to do better when it comes to devising solutions to gnarly problems and hitting their goals on time. But as many as 53 percent of workers were disengaged to some extent even in pre-pandemic times. Now, between the additional stress many people are still feeling and the fact that fewer teams are sharing physical office space, that number is likely to be even higher.

Warning signs

“If your team-wide Slack channels have gone silent and checking off tasks has started to feel like pulling teeth, engagement levels could be slipping,” says Sarah Larson, Atlassian’s head of talent. Other signs of low engagement include resistance to change, a decline in the quality or timeliness of work, and general complacency. If members of your team who used to be excited and communicative are suddenly distant and only willing to do the bare minimum, something is up.

What to do about it

To bring your team back into the fold, Sarah recommends two tactics. First, connect with your team members individually through regular 1-on-1s. Rather than discussing project updates, ask how they’re feeling about their work and how you can support them. And don’t forget to praise their accomplishments. “Even a small token of appreciation like a coffee or a shoutout over Slack can go a long way toward inspiring great work,” she says.

Second, make sure they understand how their work contributes to the bigger picture. “Draw a clear line between a task or project and the broader company goal it supports,” Sarah says. And, she cautions, “If you can’t identify a connection, ask yourself if that task actually needs to be done.”

She also recommends sharing customer quotes or stories that may help the team see the impact of their work and initiating cross-functional projects so they better understand where their piece fits into the puzzle.

How to prevent it

As for keeping engagement high, the best way to check on your team’s motivation levels is to ask. It could be through a quarterly company-wide survey, a casual check-in during one-on-ones, or anything in between.

You can also take a page from best-selling author Dan Pink’s playbook: create an environment where people have a strong sense of purpose, opportunities to master their craft, and the autonomy to make day-to-day decisions about their work. Autonomy + mastery + purpose = intrinsic motivation. And intrinsic motivation beats the carrot-and-stick variety any day of the week.

Control leads to compliance, autonomy leads to engagement.

– Dan Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Challenge #2: lack of trust

When you join or form a new team, trust is neutral: there is neither trust nor distrust. Your first few interactions determine whether you move upward toward trust, or downward toward distrust. So it’s up to leaders to create an environment that inspires upward movement, according to Atlassian’s resident work futurist, Dom Price.

Warning signs

Trust is a tricky one because the signs of a low-trust team can be counterintuitive. A non-stop parade of high-fives all around could be a facade.

“Look for the extremes,” he says. “If everyone is smiling all the time, they’re probably not being authentic. Similarly, if everyone is downcast, quiet, resigned to failure, and just going through the motions, that’s bad, too.”

What to do about it

You’ve probably been advised to show empathy, vulnerability, and authenticity if you want to foster trust throughout your team. And you should. (One manager shares 17 ways to do that, here.) That flavor of trust-building takes time and patience, though. So which tactics can you use to increase trust today?

“The cognitive science on building belonging and trust between teammates is all about clarity,” Dom says. “What’s our mission, what do I contribute to the team, what’s expected of me in terms of how we work together?” He advises managers to answer those questions first. That’s your team’s social contract. Then, make sure you hold everyone accountable. The less deviation from that contract, the more trust they’ll have in one another.


Use this Roles and Responsibilities exercise from the Atlassian Team Playbook to clarify all of the above in just one hour. And for a deep-dive on team culture and expectation, add the Working Agreements play.

How to prevent it

To prevent trust issues from popping up or recurring, strive to create an atmosphere of connection and belonging. The magic ingredient here is time. “We’ve accidentally become quite transactional in our relationships,” Dom notes. “But spending time getting to know each other personally is what builds team cohesion and genuine bonds.” Even if it’s just a few minutes of small talk at the beginning of meetings.

5 employee engagement ideas that build authentic connections

When you see teammates sharing opposing opinions in a way that doesn’t alienate the other person and without fear that it’s going to get them fired, you’re on the right track. Dom also recommends using the Health Monitor technique he pioneered at Atlassian to keep tabs on team sentiment and spot emerging issues before they flare into bona fide problems.

Challenge #3: information silos

Within the context of a single team or department, people might hoard knowledge in an effort to gain an advantage over their peers or because they think it’s the path to job security. But just as often, it’s simple carelessness. In my 20-odd years in the workforce, I’ve seen countless examples of how information sharing can go by the wayside when you’re cranking through your day-to-day.

Warning signs

If you’re noticing tension and infighting on your team, there’s a good chance an information silo is lurking somewhere under the surface. Duplicated effort is another sign to watch for – when you don’t know what others are up to, or what’s been tried in the past, you often reinvent the wheel.

What to do about it

As a leader, you have at least two roles to play. First, be a model of transparency. Ask your team members and peers for feedback on a piece of work that’s still in progress. Make every Word doc, Confluence page, and Google doc you create open and discoverable (unless there’s a legal reason to lock it down). Change the settings on your calendar to show exactly what’s on your schedule by default, instead of just showing you’re “busy.”

Second, be a cheerleader for things that were successful because people collaborated openly. Did you save 30 minutes of asking around because you were able to find the information you needed on your own? Give a public shout-out to the person who made that possible.

Your third role might be mediator and/or peace-maker, depending on why the silo exists. See above, re: building trust.

How to prevent it

Over my many years of working with multiple teams, I’ve noticed that making sure people feel valued in their roles goes a long way in preventing information silos. When your place in the world is secure, you’re more open and less competitive (or at least less nasty in your competitiveness). Of course, tools for sharing information are critical in our digital-first world. The key is configuring them to make information open by default so it’s easy to discover.

Challenge #4: short-term thinking

Obviously, you need short-term, tactical thinking some of the time. But unless your team pursues tactics in the service of a larger goal, they’ll chase a lot of “shiny objects” and won’t have much to show for it.

Warning signs

David Turnquist is Atlassian’s head of business strategy and operations, focusing on long-term strategy. According to him, a healthy team should be able to articulate their long-term goal or North Star. “For example,” he says, “when your team is kicking off a new project, ask them about their rationale. If they’re a long-term thinking team, they’ll be connecting the project back to their longer-term goals.” If they can’t, that’s a problem.

Another clue, especially for organizations that are growing quickly, is whether the team frames their strategies in terms of the way things are today or the way things might be a few years from now – like a hockey player skating to where the puck is going to be. Last, David recommends looking at the team’s attitude toward change. Teams that are a bit too in love with the status quo are often ignoring long-term possibilities.

What to do about it

To help them get out of this rut, remind your team of your long-term objectives are at every opportunity. “A good case study here is Atlassian’s goal of getting all our customers migrated over to our cloud products,” David says. “We had TV screens in every office scrolling past migration stats, slogans, etc. Plus, [co-CEOs] Mike and Scott would talk about migration in every single all-hands meeting.” Don’t forget to challenge your team to make their case for new project ideas in a way that connects with their long-term goals, too. If they can’t, push them to re-shape the idea such that it does.

How to prevent it

Focusing on the “why” is also a great prevention technique. David and his team periodically review all their projects in the context of their long-term goals. “Sometimes your goals or the shape of your project shifts and it’s easy to get a little off track,” he notes. “If you consistently ask yourself how it all fits into your current understanding of your goals, it reminds people to think long-term and prompts you to refocus your projects so they stay relevant.”

He also advises managers to create time for their team to do some open-ended, blue-sky thinking. Feeling like you’re stuck on a treadmill of small tasks can lead your brain into short-term mode. Dreaming up your “next big thing” helps stop that from happening.

3 signs your team doesn’t have an ownership mindset and what to do about it

Challenge #5: unclear goals

Speaking of big, blue-sky big objectives, your organization probably has a handful of these, set at the company or department level. At Atlassian, we expect roughly 60 percent of each teams’ work to ladder up to those big goals, according to Ron Romain, a senior program manager. That doesn’t mean the other 40 percent should be scattered in all directions, but… well, sometimes that’s exactly what happens.

Warning signs

“We do occasionally see teams jumping from project to project without ever stopping to ask whether they actually accomplished whatever they hoped to do,” he admits. That’s a dead giveaway that the team was never clear on why they did the work in the first place.

Another red flag is when people are optimizing for different things. Cross-functional project teams are especially prone to this. As a writer, I might optimize for clarity and readability when crafting copy for a marketing campaign. But for the strategist leading the campaign, messaging and product positioning might be the top priority. If we don’t have a shared understanding of our goal, we’ll butt heads and make a mess of the whole thing (and damage our working relationships in the process).

What to do about it

If this sounds like your team, the best way to remedy the situation is to pause your work and get on the same page. “A lot of times, managers hesitate to slow things down,” Ron says. “But if you’re working on the wrong things, that’s far more damaging than taking half a day to run an alignment workshop and build a shared understanding of the goal you’re pursuing.” Be sure to include exercises like Trade-off Sliders that help your team agree on what to optimize for in a given project.

See a 1-minute summary of the Trade-off Sliders exercise.

How to prevent it

To avoid confusion around goals, use a structured goal-setting framework. Although Ron is a big fan of the OKR method we use at Atlassian, he says KPIs, BHAGs, and SMART goals may work just as well, depending on the team. (Who’s hungry for alphabet soup?) “The key is setting those objectives, then holding yourselves accountable to them,” he cautions. “If you don’t keep those goals front and center, you’ll end up working on too many projects that don’t align to them.”

Challenge #6: personality conflicts

Whether it’s a specific dispute or ongoing low-grade animosity, nothing kills a team’s mojo faster than personality conflicts.

Warning signs

The vibe becomes tense. Debates heat up quickly. And in some cases, you might see a spike in absenteeism or notice that a team member has a sudden and unexplained tendency to decline meetings.

“The verbal and non-verbal cues are always a good indicator,” says Susan Kelbaugh, an employee relations manager at Atlassian. Teammates taking a snarky tone with each other in meetings or making a show of ignoring a colleague when they’re speaking are pretty clear signs. If you’re having trouble pinpointing the source of the problem, she also recommends checking in with team members one-on-one as to how they feel about the team.

What to do about it

While personality conflicts are often easy to detect, resolving them can be a difficult matter that requires patience and good faith on all sides. Susan advises the manager to be direct, but delicate. “Addressing it head-on with the employees involved is always good,” she says. “Listen and repeat back your understanding of what the issue is. Then brainstorm potential fixes with them to ensure the issue doesn’t continue.”

She encourages leaders to speak with team members individually so the conversation doesn’t devolve into finger-pointing. Kick off the discussion by clarifying that your intention is to help the team work better together – not to demonize any one person. As you’re listening, be open to any feedback they might have about the team’s culture, structure, or processes. A small change might pave the way to team harmony.

If your organization has an employee relations specialist, take advantage of their expertise. They can help both managers and employees navigate conflicts so nobody feels alone. The earlier you pull them in, the better.

How to prevent it

When you’re bringing in someone new from outside, including current team members in the interview process helps weed out (or at least identify) candidates who are likely to clash with the existing team. Even when a new member is coming from inside the org, Susan suggests setting them up with an onboarding buddy and doing a few team-building activities. This can help them connect with their teammates on a personal level and get a deeper sense of where others are coming from.

We’ve also found that interviewing for values alignment helps build teams that share fundamental attitudes about work and collaboration, while still allowing for diverse backgrounds, skills, and ways of thinking. There’s no guaranteed way to prevent personality clashes, but with a few tweaks to your hiring practices and investment in building personal relationships, you can get pretty close.

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