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4 Reasons Teamwork Is Hard to Build

Personal Perspective: The challenges of teamwork are not going away.

 Jacob Lund/Adobe Stock
Jacob Lund/Adobe Stock

It is too easy to explain away why today’s workforce seemingly disregards the value of joining something larger and making personal sacrifices for the greater good. After all, “Question Authority” has been a cliché for longer than it has been a true slogan.

But the question of teamwork is not going away in the workplace. There are four reasons why it is so difficult to build.

1. Workers today think more like customers than players. Yes, they know that their employer is the one paying them. But still, they look at their relationship with any established institution, no matter how small or how large, and they think, “What do you have for me? And what currency do I need to use to get what I want or need from you?”

Most workers are grateful to have a source of income and maybe some benefits. They are grateful to be accepted, validated, and wanted. They are grateful to have access to a hub of resources from which to acquire experience, training, and networking, a place to be that has computers, phones, and bathrooms, and maybe a kitchen, gym, and some office supplies. They are grateful for the future doors that might be opened by this current job. But let’s not get carried away. It’s not like they are likely to be here for a long time, anyway.

Most people today realize they are much less likely than those of prior generations to have long-term uninterrupted careers with one organization. They are less likely to be exclusively employed by one organization at any given time, work full-time, or work on-site. They are also less likely to trust the “system” or organization to take care of them and thus less likely to show what looks like loyalty—a desire to belong, deference to authority, willingness to make short-term sacrifices for the good of the whole, and an eagerness to contribute regardless of credit or rewards.

2. How workers think about their relationships with lateral coworkers is changing. These relationships involve a high degree of interdependency in pursuit of concrete goals every step of the way, and the stakes are high. Adults are in the workplace to earn their livelihoods. There are lots of opportunities to disappoint and/or be disappointed.

3. How people look at individuals in positions of authority is changing. Once again, they think like customers—in this case, specifically, your customer. Workers do not typically look at other people in the workplace trying to figure out “their proper place” in the context—i.e., how they can adapt in order to “fit in” with others who clearly have longstanding relationships and a well-established course of dealing. Instead, they look at you—and everyone else in the room—and think, “I wonder what role you might play in this chapter of my life story?”

4. Nobody is expecting to follow the old-fashioned career path anymore. Why should workers take the trouble to adapt to one company's approach to how they should manage themselves when they won’t even be there that long? They think, “Seriously, what am I supposed to do? Adapt my schedule, work habits, style, and attitude for every new job?” Even if they could be convinced to adapt for an employer eventually, they are unlikely to be ready to do it from the get-go; certainly not early in their first or second real job.

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