Teamwork isn’t really teamwork unless the team actually works. Seems simple enough, but in practice, effective teamwork is hard. Look around your own organization, is there a team that immediately jumps out as the shining example of excellent teamwork? I hope the answer is yes, but it’s likely no.
And yet, teamwork dominates much of the work gets done in organizations today. In a study published in The Harvard Business Review, we learn that ‘‘over the past two decades the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent or more.” Furthermore, employees are spending roughly 80 percent of their workday communicating or interacting with co-workers on work-related activities.
Since we spend so much time collaborating with others, isn’t it critical then, as individuals, we know how to improve teamwork?
This starts with understanding the challenges of teamwork. As I began to research this topic, I discovered the list of challenges is long. But, there’s a common theme: the connection that people feel at work and to the teams they work with. Teams fail when connection fails.
“A deep sense of love and belonging is an irresistible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don't function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.”
This extends into our work environment, and the types of connection that we crave to be successful, fulfilled, nurtured, appreciated—and yes, even loved—at work. When we’re lacking this connection with our peers, managers, and leaders, work is harder and less satisfying. All of the toxic outcomes that Brown describes above in broken personal connections can manifest at work too. There are no winners in this scenario, least of all individuals, which means that teams become broken too.
Let’s get ahead of this. Here are five challenges threatening connected teams, and a practical tip to conquer each of them.
5 challenges of teamwork (and how to overcome them)
1. Building trust
Trust is a key building block of all relationships, and is especially critical in teams. A lack of trust can break down a team because it threatens productivity, creates a toxic culture, and shuts down communication. It also de-motivates team members, which ultimately impacts the bottom-line of your business.
If you’re not convinced that trust has an important role to play in teamwork, turn your attention to the extensive research on teamwork in Google's Aristotle Project. Trust was found to be a key requirement for the perfect team.
High trust environments help people have better experiences because they feel safe and connected to others. Amy Edmondson’s definitive research links trust to psychological safety: “It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves."
“Project Aristotle is a reminder that when companies try to optimize everything, it’s sometimes easy to forget that success is often built on experiences—like emotional interactions and complicated conversations and discussions of who we want to be and how our teammates make us feel—that can’t really be optimized.”
The bottom line is that teams are comprised of humans. And trust is a major factor in successful human interaction. But, trust is not something that can be engineered or optimized, like processes or formulas. Trust is emotion-bound and earned over time. It’s also critical to developing strong connections with those around you—in the workplace and beyond.
2. Physical proximity
Teams (and organizations) come in all shapes and sizes today. In addition to supporting myriad structures and ways of working, technology has advanced how dispersed teams can work together.
However, research is suggesting that while remote work is physically possible, it’s not the optimal way for teams to engage: “Even with all the technology available today, teams work better together and get more done when members are in close physical proximity. If a team must be virtual, it should have periodic in-person team meetings.”
Why is this? Scientist Matthew Lieberman makes a case that our need to connect is as fundamental as our need for food and water: “Across many studies of mammals, from the smallest rodents all the way to us humans, the data suggests that we are profoundly shaped by our social environment and that we suffer greatly when our social bonds are threatened or severed.”
For the workplace social environment to thrive, connection with fellow teammates is key. This may be in the form of various types of conversations and interactions, mostly in person. Face-to-face exchanges allow participants to experience the full range of communication including non-verbal cues, body language, and environmental influences.
3. Optimal conditions
Many of us operate in fast-paced work environments, where change is constant. It’s hard to keep pace with work, let alone move our teams forward in the face of this disruption. However, there are optimal conditions that help teams be cohesive, nimble, and productive, despite the difficulties posed by pace and change.
Elaine Pulakos believes there are three coping mechanisms that organizations (and teams) need to operate effectively: adaptability, resilience, and agility (ARA). She writes:
“To be successful, the integrated, cross-functional teams that make success happen need to operate within an organizational climate that is characterized by ARA values. These include authenticity, trust, flexibility, empowerment, and collaboration—characteristics that are essential for teams to successfully manage disruptive, fast-paced change.”
Central to these ARA values is individual connection—to other team members, to the organization, and to purpose (more on that later in this article). I’d argue that organizations that emphasize these types of connection are more stable and adaptable.
Harvard Business Review studied seven 100-year old organizations, including NASA (initially part of the US Army), the New Zealand All Blacks, and Eton College. “While stabilizing their core, the Centennials keep waves of disruption crashing at their edge—to stay fresh and get better.” These organizations don’t avoid change; they simply create the internal conditions, similar to the ARA values advocated by Pulakos, to triumph over change, repeatedly.
They do this with precision focus on the importance of connection: to society (and how it’s changing), to the types of leaders they appoint, and to the nature of teamwork they embrace (pushing constantly to improve and tirelessly tweak). All of this impacts how their teams perform, and the success that they achieve together.
4. Team member self-awareness
If you’ve worked on a team, you’ve likely felt the frustration of working with someone who demonstrates the traits of low self-awareness: resistant to feedback, blames others for failure, appears to know it all, takes undue credit, and the list goes on.
These traits are more common than you’d think. Recent research by Harvard Business Review found that “although 95% of people think they’re self-aware, only 10 to 15% actually are.” Ouch.
It gets worse: “Un-self-aware colleagues aren’t just frustrating; they can cut a team’s chances of success in half. According to our research, other consequences of working with unaware colleagues include increased stress, decreased motivation, and a greater likelihood of leaving one’s job.”
It’s obvious that low self-awareness is the enemy of even the most tepid teamwork (not to mention the health of the organization). With low self-awareness comes low emotional connection to others, to teams, and to the organization itself. Perhaps this problem is partly to blame for the abysmal engagement rates that pervade organizations (and have done for years, without remedy).
If we increased individual self-awareness, we’d improve the quality of connections that unfold in organizations, leading to better ways of working together—and ultimately, improved engagement levels.
5. Lack of purpose
If I think about the teams that I’ve least enjoyed working with, or even struggled to be part of, it’s usually because I’ve had a hard time understanding or getting behind the team’s purpose. I doubt I’m alone in this. It’s hard to do your best work when you don’t know why you’re doing it. Even more so when that work involves working with others.
When you lack team purpose, you don’t have a compelling reason to connect with team mates either. You’re more likely to simply do what’s required, without any discretionary effort to build the team beyond the work.
Kimber Lockhart puts it perfectly: “A sense of purpose is a deep understanding of the reasons behind our efforts and a desire to pour in time and energy because that purpose resonates with the impact we’d like to make on the world.”
In contrast to the poor team experiences I’ve had, the most satisfying teamwork has happened in teams where purpose was clear, and team members were aligned. When you find yourself in this situation, it doesn’t feel like work. Instead, it’s invigorating, satisfying, and engaging.
Teamwork is difficult. As our work environments become even more complex, so too will teamwork. However, if we focus on what connection looks like at every level in teams and the organization at large, we can begin to address the challenges of trust, proximity, optimal conditions, self-awareness, and purpose in teams. It starts with acknowledging the importance of the individual and how they feel connected at work.