- Building “soft skills,” such as effective communication and collaboration, are vital components of a team’s success.
- Making sure everyone is aligned on goals and responsibilities may seem like a no-brainer, but research shows that team members do not always have the clarity that leadership assumes they do.
- Using formal procedures to make decisions and solve problems can help ensure that teams don’t get sidetracked by predictable bottlenecks.
Teamwork is powerful. You can tap into people’s individual strengths, collect diverse perspectives and ideas, and get projects across the finish line more efficiently.
Here’s the catch: those perks only pan out if your team works together effectively. And as a leader, you’ve probably seen firsthand that successful teamwork doesn’t just happen.
It requires that you make strategic decisions, encourage positive behaviors, and cultivate an environment where people can get their best work done — not just individually, but as a unit.
That all starts with ensuring that your team has mastered these seven essential teamwork skills.
“We never listen when we are eager to speak.” – Francois de la Rochefoucauld
A large portion of team or project failures (just take the untimely explosion of NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter, as one example) arise from miscommunication. For teams to work well together, they need to be on the same page.
Team members need to be able to openly share information, align their expectations, and offer feedback. However, communication isn’t only about sharing messages — listening plays an equally important role. Active listening, in particular, enhances shared understanding and helps teams avoid crossed wires.
Help your team communicate:
- The extroverts on your team are more than willing to jump in with suggestions and opinions, but that can mean they end up steamrolling their colleagues. To make sure everyone’s voice is heard, send an agenda to all participants beforehand so people have time to gather their thoughts. Then, be sure to check in with each person during the meeting to make sure they’ve had a chance to speak. For in-depth guidance, run the inclusive meetings play to make sure that everybody’s input is considered when your team meets.
- Communication isn’t one-size-fits-all, and your team will be better equipped to exchange information and ideas if they know other people’s preferences. Having each team member create a user manual gives them a low-pressure way to share their ideal conditions for getting work done — from their favorite communication channels to how they prefer to receive feedback.
- Host a regular team stand-up to avoid siloed information. This is a short, dedicated huddle where you can discuss team goals, progress, and obstacles to keep everybody in the loop and aligned.
“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much. – Helen Keller
Collaboration and teamwork are synonyms, so it makes sense that you’d see this skill high on the list. Even so, simply putting people on the same team doesn’t inherently lead to effective collaboration.
Instead, clarity needs to take priority. Team members should understand their unique roles, responsibilities, and deadlines, as well as how their individual pieces impact the whole. That broader focus increases accountability and empowers people to find answers or proactively solve problems themselves.
Help your team collaborate:
- Who does what shouldn’t be a mystery on your team, however, people may not always have visibility into what other team members do. Try creating a shared document that details everyone’s regular tasks and current projects. You can also run the roles and responsibilities play so that there’s no doubt or confusion about what’s on each person’s plate.
- Collaboration falls apart when people don’t have a grasp on dependencies. For example, Team Member A might not think missing a deadline by a few days is a big deal — until they realize that it means Team Member B can’t start their assigned tasks. Dependency mapping gives you and your entire team a better sense of how things fit together so you can proactively manage bottlenecks and other issues.
- There are certain norms that play out on your team on a daily basis — like muting yourself on Zoom when you aren’t talking or using bullet points in emails — despite the fact that they might never be formally discussed. Consider creating a shared doc that spells out the “rules of the road” for your team. Encourage people to add to it regularly. It’s a great way to help new team members get up to speed quickly. Running the working agreements play can help your team iron out a list of those previously-unspoken expectations and avoid misunderstandings.
3. Goal setting
“If you don’t know where you are going, you will probably end up somewhere else.” – Lawrence J. Peter
Teamwork is all about working your way toward a finish line together. But first? You need to be in agreement about what that finish line actually is. While managers might like to think that goals are already obvious and widely accepted, team members may disagree. Proof: 72% of employees admit they don’t fully understand their company’s strategy.
In order to reap the benefits of effective teamwork, leaders need to not only explain team and company goals, but also actively involve employees in the process of setting those objectives so that they can take ownership over the outcomes.
How to help your team set goals:
- Use a defined goal-setting framework like objectives and key results (OKRs) or goals, signals, and measures so that everybody understands what you’re working toward and how you’ll know when you get there.
- Store your team goals somewhere centralized and accessible (like Confluence) so that everybody on the team can refer back to them when needed.
4. Decision making
“Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
There are very few times when teamwork is more frustrating than when you need to make a speedy decision. With so many perspectives to manage, reaching a consensus can be slow. That’s why decision-making skills are so important in a team environment, especially in collaborative cultures where the manager isn’t always the one with the last word.
To get their best work done, team members should be able to listen to other opinions and suggestions with an open mind but then come together collectively to choose the best way forward.
Help your team make decisions:
- Sometimes a consensus isn’t possible. In those cases, who has final say on a project? Who’s contributing but not necessarily a key decision-maker? Those roles can get murky. Use the DACI framework so that your team knows who fits where and is able to make more efficient group decisions.
- Does your team suffer from decision delay? Try setting a deadline for your team to make a choice. Psychology says that while deadlines can be stressful, they can also increase focus.
5. Problem solving
“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” – Albert Einstein
From a project that’s running off the rails to a conflict between a couple of colleagues, you and your team are bound to run into your fair share of roadblocks. In those moments, your team’s problem-solving skills are what will carry you through.
Successful problem solving isn’t just about slapping on a band-aid or identifying a quick fix. Some stumbling blocks can be deceptively complex. To truly address and prevent issues, team members need to start by digging deep and understanding all of the factors that are at play.
How to help your team solve problems:
- Use problem framing to step back and understand the who, what, why, and where of a problem before jumping into solutions.
- The 5 Whys Analysis is simple on the surface — it essentially involves asking, “Why did this happen” five times in a row. This exercise helps your team uncover the root causes of a problem rather than acting on assumptions and surface-level symptoms.
- The first possible solution to a problem isn’t always the best one, and that’s one of the many benefits of a team: everybody has access to an assortment of ideas and experiences to find the most suitable answer. Sparring helps your team get quick, honest feedback from each other in a way that feels structured and approachable.
6. Emotional intelligence
“Emotions can get in the way or get you on the way.” – Mavis Mazhura
Emotional intelligence is the ability to read the emotional state of yourself and others, then act accordingly.
Your team members can’t always check their feelings at the door (and you can’t either). Emotions come into play in our work lives — they bias our perception and influence how we relate to one another. And, research shows that team emotional intelligence has a significant impact on effectiveness, as well as how much conflict the group experiences.
How to help your team be emotionally intelligent:
- As the leader, one of the best things you can do is to model appropriate behaviors. Even seemingly small changes, like regulating a big reaction to customer criticisms or asking a team member if they’re in the right headspace to receive feedback, can show your team how emotional intelligence plays out.
- People can’t always control their emotions, but they can control their reactions and behaviors. Unfortunately, emotions can easily become confused with personalities. Try to model and encourage people to switch from “I am…” language to “I feel…” language to keep those lines clear. For example, “I am anxious about this deadline” becomes “I feel anxious about this deadline.” It’s a small but significant shift in how the message comes across.
7. Growth mindset
“Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” – Winston Churchill
Teams don’t always deal with smooth seas, and a growth mindset is what helps them power through obstacles and find creative solutions.
To state it simply, a growth mindset sees problems as opportunities. They’re chances to reflect, learn, and improve. A growth mindset helps your team use past experiences to drive better collaborations — and it also means they won’t bristle at perceived failures or criticisms.
How to help your team have a growth mindset:
- Run a retrospective regularly or at the end of project milestones so that your team can honestly discuss what worked, what didn’t, why, and how you’ll use that information moving forward.
Prioritize regular and frequent feedback for all team members. These candid conversations help them understand how they can improve themselves — which, in turn, helps them improve the entire team.
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