Teamwork skills to fast track your career

If you’ve been anywhere near a college classroom recently (or, ever) the idea of teamwork brings up nightmarish memories of group projects. I know, I know… the pain is still fresh for me, too. But take heart. Though teamwork feels messy even at the best of times, it’s the most effective way to deliver high-quality work that gets you noticed.

Take this article, for example. It has cool imagery, a clean layout, snappy copy, and unless you’re my mom, you’re not reading it because I personally emailed you the link. That’s because I worked with six other people to make it happen: my editorial director, two peer reviewers, an SEO analyst (hi, Google crawlers!), a social media strategist, and an illustrator. Without them, my work wouldn’t be nearly as successful. 

Teamwork is also rewarding, empowering, and a ton of fun – provided you have the right skills. 

Teamwork skills that help you build trust

Fellow team members will be more willing to go the distance with you and bring their full abilities to bear on whatever problem you’re tackling if you’ve got good chemistry and relationships built on trust.

Teamwork skills that help you build trust

Communication

Err on the side of over-communicating. Share information about what you’re working on and how it might affect others, positively or negatively, before anyone has to ask you for it. Early feedback helps you shape your ideas and avoid obstacles or risks down the road. Plus, reaching out to your colleagues makes them feel invested and therefore, more supportive.

Put it into practice

Keep it clear and concise whether you’re communicating over email, shared documents, chat, or in person. But workplace communication doesn’t have to be super buttoned-up. Don’t be afraid to let your personality shine through. Toss in an emoji or two. Just go easy on the exclamation points and all caps. Because that sh*t’s annoying. 

Active listening

Could active listening fix all your work problems?

It’s pretty easy to tell when the other person isn’t really listening, but just waiting for their turn to speak. Don’t be that person. Close your laptop and put down your phone so you can give them your full attention. Non-verbal signals like the occasional nod or a well-timed cocked eyebrow show you’re listening. If something they say confuses you, it’s ok to interrupt and ask for clarification before the conversation goes further. Other than that, just listen without thinking about how you’ll respond. 

Put it into practice

When the speaker pauses to let you chime in or asks for your input, it’s a good practice to start with “If I understand correctly, you’re saying that…” and then summarize what they’ve said before proceeding. 

Humility

If you have strong beliefs about the right way to approach a task, that’s great. Advocate for them as if you’re right, but listen to other opinions as if you’re wrong and be willing to change your stance in the face of compelling evidence. Be yourself, but don’t take yourself too seriously. 

Put it into practice

Around our office, we often use the phrase “seek first to understand.” (Or, put another way, “assume you are not surrounded by morons.”) Next time you’re having a “WTF??” moment, start by investigating why the situation exists. When you see it in context, it’ll seem less idiotic, and you’ll be able to offer a more robust solution. 

Emotional intelligence

7 emotional intelligence articles that’ll future-proof your career

Emotional intelligence is the ability to read the emotional state of yourself and others, then act accordingly. In the workplace, this often means regulating your own emotions – like when an idea you feel passionate about isn’t selected. At other times, it means empathizing with teammates or customers in the course of helping them. 

Put it into practice

Emotional intelligence isn’t just about what you say, but also when you say it. When you need to give critical feedback to another team member, think about whether they’re in the right space to receive it. Are they already drowning in a deluge of criticism? Has something come up in their personal life? Consider holding your comments for a day. Giving them time to process might mean they’ll take your feedback on board more readily. 

Conflict resolution

“Seek first to understand” and “assume positive intent” sound like a bunch of BS in the heat of the moment, but they’re still good principles for resolving conflicts with teammates. Unless you’re being threatened or feel unsafe, try to work things out independently before involving a manager or HR. 

Put it into practice

You and your teammates will disagree – on goals, priorities, the right solution to problems… everything. And you’ll have to find ways to combine the best bits of their ideas with the best bits of your ideas. Treat that as an investment instead of a tax. Creative friction and “respectful dissent” are good practice for dealing with true conflicts. And your work will be stronger, besides.

Teamwork skills that help you keep your eye on the prize

Helping your team swat away distractions and avoid bottlenecks is a great way to demonstrate leadership, even if you’re not in an official leadership role. 

Teamwork skills for staying focused

Goal-setting

It all starts with finding the big, fat, ambitious goal that (in an ideal world) all your work contributes to. Many teams use the “SMART” goals framework, which encourages you to set goals that are “specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound”. My team uses the OKRs (objectives and key results) technique, which favors ambitious goals over goals you know you can achieve, while still emphasizing that measurable aspect. Either way, your individual goals should contribute to your team’s goals, your team’s goals should contribute to your department’s goals, and so on up the chain. 

Put it into practice

Make sure your goals speak to outcomes, not outputs of effort. So instead of saying “write six articles”, say “bring 10,000 new visitors to our website”. See the difference? They’re both measurable, but the first one feels like a to-do list whereas the second speaks to the desired result. 

Prioritization

The simplest prioritization tip money can buy

Whenever possible, your priorities should align with your goals. One of my favorite prioritization techniques is a group exercise where you brain-dump and categorize all the work on your team’s plate, then rank each task in priority order. There’ll always be more on your backlog than you actually have time for, so the last step is drawing a line between the tasks that are mission-critical and the tasks you can drop or delay if necessary. 

Put it in practice

Standing by your priorities means saying “no” to a lot of good ideas and requests from other people. While it’s tempting to say “no, not right now, that sets a false expectation that you’ll certainly do it in the future. Instead, practice saying “no, and here’s why”. Being open about which tasks are higher priority gives the other person the context they need to either accept your answer gracefully or explain why their request actually should be a priority.  

Decision making

Group decisions are notoriously difficult. The stakes are high, and everyone (everyone!) has an opinion. You can stand out as a leader by introducing your team to the DACI framework, which brings order to the chaos by assigning each person to a role. The driver (“D”) makes sure the decision gets made on time. The approver (“A”) is the person who makes the final call. Contributors (“C”) are subject-matter experts who weigh in with recommendations. Everyone else is informed (“I”) after the fact. 

Put it in practice

There are a million small decisions you and your team need to make your work, and trade-off sliders make it easier. Agree on what you’ll optimize for vs. what you can be flexible on, and represent that on sliding scales. With that in hand, you’ll all be able to make every-day decisions autonomously and avoid bottlenecks. 

Teamwork skills that help you solve complex problems

The simple problems are already being outsourced to robots, and the complex ones are too much for one person to handle. No wonder 90% of companies say they rely on teams to get the job done. 

Teamwork skills for problem solving

Growth mindset

How you can benefit from a growth mindset

This is the frame of mind you need to power through obstacles and find creative solutions. Instead of avoiding challenges, embrace them. Instead of ignoring criticism, learn from it. Instead of feeling threatened by others’ successes, be inspired by them.  

Put it into practice

Approach each new problem with curiosity, even if you think you already know the answer. When you and your team are brainstorming solutions, ask questions like “what if our assumptions turned out to be wrong?” or “how would we know it worked?” or “what would Beyoncé do?”

Problem framing

Before diving into solution mode, make sure you’re seeing the problem from all angles and its impact on customers or the business. Without a shared understanding, you’ll end up having the same discussions ad nauseam or find team members advocating for wildly different solutions. 

Put it into practice

This simple problem framing technique will help your team define the problem space: 

  • Who – Who actually has this problem? Have you validated that the problem is real? Can you prove it?
  • What – What is the nature of the problem? What research or supporting evidence do you have?
  • Why – Why is the problem worth solving? What’s the impact on the customer?
  • Where – Where does this problem arise? Have you/your team observed this problem in its natural habitat?

Meeting facilitation

How to manage meetings like an expert facilitator

A good facilitator communicates the goal of the meeting (e.g., “We can end the meeting early if…”) and keeps the discussion focused on that. But don’t constrain things too tightly. It’s ok to allow the conversation to go on tangents for a few minutes because that can lead to more creative thinking. Just don’t let yourselves go too far down the rabbit hole. 

Put it into practice

Introverts, women, and remote employees struggle to be heard more than their extroverted, male, and co-located counterparts. Establishing a no-interruptions policy makes the meeting more inclusive and ensures everyone has a chance to contribute. 

Change management

People are naturally resistant to change, so a gentle approach is usually best. Here again, err on the side of over-communicating. Get feedback early on from those who’ll be affected by the change and use it to shape your plans. Asking for their input gives them a sense of agency and makes them more likely to help you champion the change. 

Put it into practice

We run change management kick-off meetings that include forming a problem statement, agreeing on guiding principles, mapping out the process, and crafting a communication strategy. Give it a try next time you’re about to roll out a change to your established practices or technical systems. 

Peer feedback

3 types of feedback you need to avoid (and 1 to aim for)

Best-selling author and former Google exec Kim Scott has the best feedback advice ever: challenge directly, and care personally. Her book “Radical Candor” argues that timely, empathetic, and specific feedback is the most effective. When you’re on the receiving end, accept it with an open mind and assume the other person is acting with positive intent. Critique of your work or behavior is not a condemnation of you as a person. It’s an opportunity to grow. 

Put it into practice

Peer feedback makes our work stronger. Period. Try a technique from the world of design thinking called “sparring“. Gather a few colleagues for 15-30 min and ask them to look at a piece of work. They can suggest ways to make it better, challenge its fundamental premise, or anything in between. Do this early on so it’s easier to incorporate their feedback. 

Continuous improvement

Always learning, always improving, progress matters more than perfection – that’s the growth mindset in action. Take time to reflect on what’s going well vs. what’s not, then adapt. When you’re doing this with your team, don’t resort to blaming or scapegoating. Assume failures are systematic (not personal) until proven otherwise. 

Put it into practice

Team retrospectives have been wildly popular in the tech world for decades, and now other industries are catching on. The team Health Monitor is a technique we pioneered at Atlassian and it has spread to thousands of teams all over the world. Whereas retrospectives focus on the team’s work, the Health Monitor focuses on how you’re working together. Both are worth taking time for. 

These are the teamwork skills you need to fast-tra...