Introduction to Professional Communication

5 Working in Teams

Working in teams is a fundamental skill of today’s professional workplaces. Whether part of a team of peers, working across departments, supervising a team, or working across levels in an organization, teamwork is how organizations achieve results.

Any time you interview for a job, anticipate that you’ll be asked about your teamwork skills and how you approach working in teams. The skills are that important; organizations want to make sure the people they hire are going to work well with others.

Advantages of working in teams

Successful organizations have found that the benefits of working in teams dramatically outweigh some of the drawbacks.

More bandwidth: The most obvious benefit of working in teams is that you have more people to complete the work; some tasks are too onerous for any one person to take on.

Coordination: Major organizations have a large number of departments. If your employer decides they want to change how they communicate financial information to shareholders, this would require a careful and thoughtful approach involving multiple departments: finance, legal, investor relations, public relations, communications, and possibly marketing, plus senior management, such as the CEO and COO. The best way to coordinate all of these areas is through a cross-functional team, with one or more representative from every department.

More expertise: With people coming to the team from different departments and backgrounds, they each bring different knowledge sets. The team can capitalize on the knowledge of people from each area to maximize results.

Better buy-in: When one person comes up with a plan, fewer people will feel committed to that plan. When a team of people from around an organization work together, liaising with their own departments and others in the organization, there is stronger organizational buy-in for the results. When the whole organization is committed to the team’s work, the process will work better and achieve better results (at least, one hopes).

Better overall performance: The social support and positive pressure that comes along with teamwork can have important benefits. Nobody feels that they are alone in their task and everybody has people they can consult for advice. Most importantly, perhaps, the sharing of ideas naturally leads to the best ideas being advanced, with opportunities for all to provide advice, corrections, and additions to whatever the team is working on.

Disadvantages of working in teams

Unfortunately, not every part of teamwork is a happy utopia. There are several problems—all of which can be pre-empted or solved—that can crop up in team settings.

Free riders: In schools, these folks are sometimes called “slackers.” Free riders attempt to gain all the benefit of the team’s work with no meaningful effort or contribution. Amazingly, these people exist in professional workplaces, but they are less likely to earn promotions or the respect of their peers. In school settings, these folks may achieve some short-term benefit from their behaviour, but they will learn less, have more difficulty finding people who will work with them, and usually end up with lower grades in the end (if they even pass their courses). Taking a free-riding approach in school also sets a bad pattern for professional work; future employers and co-workers notice such behaviour and regret hiring such people.

Halo effect: Sometimes, there is a senior manager or star performer in a team—or perhaps merely a person everybody thinks is a star performer—whose ideas sound really good or perhaps whose ideas nobody is willing to challenge because of their status. This is known as the halo effect. When this person speaks, everybody simply goes along with what they say; that’s not healthy for an organization or the decision-making process. Even the most high-ranking, senior person with the best track record can make mistakes or make problematic suggestions. Teams need to be mindful of this issue and always judge ideas on their merits, not on who’s ideas they are.

Horn effect: The reverse of the halo effect is the horn effect. Here, there’s a person whose ideas aren’t taken seriously by the team, no matter how good the ideas are. This person may have made mistakes in the past or may be the newest person to the organization or may simply be unpopular. However, their ideas need to be considered on their merits, too.

Groupthink: If the horn effect and halo effect aren’t impeding the team’s thinking, your team may yet suffer from groupthink. This occurs when team members are afraid that putting forward different ideas than those the team is currently adopting may cause conflict. Instead of challenging ideas, they “go along to get along” and nobody challenges ideas that may need to be challenged.

Coordination: Yes, coordination is one of the major benefits of working in teams, but it is also time consuming! A busy team can generate an enormous amount of email traffic. Also, coordinating schedules can be extremely difficult; every time you add a team member, that’s another schedule that needs to be coordinated.

Successful teamwork processes

Good teams don’t magically sparkle into existence; they need a shared commitment to a good teamwork process.

The most important part of successful teamwork is active communication. As soon as you know who’s in your team, exchange contact information and work out when your schedules mesh. Schedule your first meeting immediately, as that is often a time-consuming process that can cause unnecessary delays.

Active communication also means agreeing on how you’ll communicate, such as by email, text message, or social media messaging platform. Whatever you agree on, check those messages at least daily. Never let somebody in your team go without a response more than a day. If you see a message, respond, even if only to acknowledge. Teams that go silent suffer.

Make sure you all understand the project you’re working on and clearly set the quality benchmarks you want to achieve. Set goals and work towards those goals.

Plan your workload and keep notes of everything you agree to. Choose a place to share documents (students frequently choose Google Docs) and keep a schedule with the agreed-upon tasks, due dates, and responsibilities. Note timing points for checking in on the team’s progress.

When scheduling, build internal due dates into your workflow; these are due dates that only your team knows about and that you set in advance of external due dates, which is when your work is actually due. Tip: always plan to finish your team’s work at least two days before it is due. Planning on finishing your work the day it is due is extremely risky and stressful. Doing so also reduces your opportunity for quality control.

Also consider establishing roles for different people in the team. Somebody may be the most organized; they’re a good person for coordinating the flow of information, but they can’t be in charge of the whole project. You need somebody who is going to take the lead on task completion, making sure that everybody is hitting their targets. You may also need somebody to take the lead on research work, document design, presentation planning, and/or other necessary tasks.

Take a look at this excellent video from the University of British Columbia about how to succeed in teams.


College Info Geek. (n.d.). 5 tips for dealing with lazy group project members [Video]. Youtube.

UBC Learn. (n.d.). Working in groups [Video]. Youtube.



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