By Hara Estroff Marano, published on September 1, 2003 - last reviewed on September 26, 2012
Do you play well with others? If you're a part of the working world, playing well with others means being a member of a team. It's a key part of nearly every job description.
At the very least, it means that you can get along in the workplace—that you have the social skills to have open, productive relationships with other workers so that collectively you can all get done what you need to get done, whether it's writing a research report, inventing a fresh sales presentation or just keeping a company running day to day.
On a deeper level, being a team player is about managing emotions and translating them into effective communication. And that can be a difficult task, depending on the work environment, your personality and the personalities of others on the team.
Conventional wisdom says that we should keep emotions in check when we're at work; showing strong feelings is a no-no. We often think being "professional" means curbing your thoughts and words and conforming to the office norm.
But being a team player requires reading the emotions of others—the good, bad and especially the in between. Then you can respond accordingly in order to accomplish the job before you.
Squashing your emotions in the office may be a mistake, especially in today's diverse, twenty-first century workplaces, according to researchers from the University of Michigan. Being impersonal and focusing solely on work can be detrimental to productivity, says Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, a psychologist at the University of Michigan who has studied teamwork styles in different cultures, including the U.S. "East Asian, Latin American and Middle Eastern cultures tend to believe that social and emotional relationships are just as important at work as a relentless focus on the task at hand," he says.
In the U.S. workplace, Sanchez-Burks found, the typical, impersonal workplace attitude often leads one to miss important cues in nonverbal communication from colleagues. This view of the proper workplace behavior seems to be mostly limited to the U.S., according to the study.
So how can you show your emotions in a way that is effective? Here are a few key ideas that industrial psychologists say you should keep in mind when working as a team.
This is a key trait that successful team players need. When a project doesn't go as planned, or takes an unexpected turn, you will have the advantage if you can alter your strategies to deal with unforeseen circumstances. And in a weak economy, workers who can adapt to change are more valuable.
Learning to funnel many different viewpoints into a plan of action goes hand in hand with flexibility. It's important to learn to listen to those in the team, particularly those who don't agree with you. If you are part of a group, you won't get your way all the time. Taking into account all viewpoints can make a team stronger and the result better.
Do you know how to compliment others? What about the art of critique? Both can be equally difficult. Be honest, but also try to be gracious. A little generosity can pave the way for productive office relationships. Some psychologists suggest complimenting coworkers and subordinates in public, but criticizing in private. This also means accepting feedback from others and letting your defenses down when you listen.
Some of us grew up learning that direct eye contact was disrespectful. Others learned the opposite. In the workplace, body language can be important in conveying that you are not only listening to a person, but that you are really taking it in. Pay attention and make sure the other person knows it.
This one's obvious: if you make a mistake, you should acknowledge it. That means not shifting the blame onto others or making excuses for failure. It takes a mature and strong will, but it's a great way to build a team. Other members will learn to trust you and your integrity.
It's a common job interview question, "What is your greatest strength and what's your biggest weakness?" When it comes to teamwork, it really helps to know the answers. Some people are better able to communicate in person than in writing. Others are unwilling to share their expertise with others because of a competitive streak. Teams are a great concept precisely because contrasting personalities and skills can complement each other.