Updated: Sep 28
I have not been working on a team in quite some time. One year and three months exactly. I didn't necessarily mean to change that looking for opportunities to study remotely. Benefits of "long distance learning" usually include self-paced work, choosing which courses to pick and when to write the exams in a set time frame of 12, 18 or 24 months, not being required to go to any lectures, etc.. However, finding out that the place I chose to study required the students to deliver 2 our of 6 examination tasks as a team made it all the more spicy and interesting.
Over the past four weeks I've worked in a small team to deliver the first examination task of our studies. The task was to critically analyze a peer-reviewed article of our choosing, create a 10-minute presentation and record our presentation with each of us presenting an equal portion of our findings. In doing so, I rediscovered how much fun it can be to work in a team with very different, very smart and very interesting people.
This series of articles is about rediscovering team work and the quirks of communication...
Advantages and disadvantages of working individually...
Throughout a significant part of my professional career I didn't feel like a good team player. I enjoyed finding quite places in the office or sit a bit further away from the pack to do my work in a concentrated and focused way. In some of the companies I worked for "team work" had a bit of a bad reputation: people wasting time chatting, not getting things done, blaming each other for not achieving the goals, etc... "If you want to get something done, do it yourself." was something I heard a lot back in 2007/2008.
This kind of work ethic stuck with me for a long time. I don't think that I got over it completely to this day. Sometimes I still feel like doing things on my own will deliver better results. However, reading and learning about the opposite from some of the most successful business leaders made me rethink my position. First I had to realize and experience what the advantages and disadvantages of working individually can be.
Here are some of the most obvious advantages:
You become very efficient
Things get completed quickly
No chances of any conflicts
You are praised for all the work done
Of course, being your own boss comes with a lot of benefits. Independence, freedom to do what you want to do and when to do it, more clarity and full transparency about what's going on, no hidden agendas, clear expectations... I never liked the fact that in teams some people have a different agenda and goals than others, some of them in private, some of them in regards to their career. These should never interfere with the outcome of the team's work, but from what I experienced they do more often than not.
However, there are some serious disadvantages to working individually, too:
No exchange of new/creative ideas
Lack of peer pressure
No networking opportunities
Getting all the blame for the work done
The biggest downside is that you are stuck with your opinion and the knowledge you've acquired. One can acquire a lot of knowledge but you also need to understand that there is always way more that you don't know compared to what you know. And others can bring that to the table. But what I truly don't like about working individually is not being able to talk to anyone about your progress, new ideas or problems that occur along the way. According to the Myers Briggs Type Indicator I am a pretty extroverted.
The extraversion-introversion dichotomy was first explored by Carl Jung (1921) in his theory of personality types as a way to describe how people respond and interact with the world around them. While these terms are familiar to most people, the way in which they are used in the MBTI differs somewhat from their popular usage. Extraverts (also often spelled extroverts) are "outward-turning" and tend to be action-oriented, enjoy more frequent social interaction, and feel energized after spending time with other people. Introverts are "inward-turning" and tend to be thought-oriented, enjoy deep and meaningful social interactions, and feel recharged after spending time alone.
Somewhat identifying with this definition, I reflected on how I operated in teams during the last two years of my previous job. After becoming a project manager in 2017 I had full responsibility for leading a team, instead of "just" working in a team. For some reason that made me enjoy team work much more. I am not a huge fan of hierarchies - as long as I am stuck in a lower level that is, I guess - a main reason for that being that I am very ambitious.
Being an ambitious co-worker can be problematic for me and for others. While as an ambitious team member I usually tried to outshine my co-workers, being an ambitions team-leader put me in a position to encourage my team to be ambitious as well. That's a whole different story. And if you've been "on the other side" you will be able to read and understand the situations when one team member tries to outshine or excoriate another one.
This has got a lot to do with communication, especially the different types and forms of communication, which will be the topic of the second part of this series.
Rediscovering team work...
To conclude this part let me tell you what I enjoyed most about working in a small team during the last couple of weeks while not being a project manager, higher up in the hierarchy or anything of that sort.
Firstly, none of us knew each other before we started. The group selection process was random so I just created a group and two of my co-students joined. As for me, it's always exciting to be thrown into situations where you have to achieve something with people you don't know or at least not very well. I usually rely a lot on the first impressions. If you don't have a lot of time to read people, especially in virtual teams, there is - in my humble opinion - no reason to think too much about "how these people could be completely different from what my first impression was". So I stick with that and most of the time it's working out just fine.
Another thing that I truly enjoyed was the different levels of energy in the few couple of video-calls that we've had. Feeling out your conversational partners, estimating the situations they're in and acting accordingly is always interesting and challenging. Something a bit more challenging is to figure out the expectations of your team members. It can be quite difficult to guess so it's always better to discuss them right at the beginning. Not doing so will lead you into awkward situations where you might want to go through everything one more time, practicing a bit more or just making the presentation look a bit better - while some of the other team members might not have the time to do so or don't feel the necessity.
Necessity and urgency are two very important factors when it comes to different levels of expectation, therefore I feel that it's very important to clarify the goals, how you want to achieve them, the amount of time available for every team member, and even the strengths and weaknesses to make sure nobody has to work on tasks they don't feel comfortable with.
But most of all I enjoyed the conversations - on and off topic. A lot of the things that are considered "bad" about team work can also be the best parts. Sometimes you just have to drift off a little and leave the serious topics behind to understand a bit better how your team members think and even feel. There was a time when I considered this to be "unproductive" and a "waste of resources". If you are truly in a pickle and there are only a few hours left to deliver a result, this still might be true. In every other situation it can add a lot of value to your team and the team's spirit.
Team spirit, therefore, doesn't have to be an illusion. It is created by open mindedness, clear communication of goals and expectations and the willingness to learn - learn about the topic as well as the people you are working with. And this is something you really can't experience working individually...