What Makes Effective Team Work?

Are You a Team Worker or a Free Rider?

“I’ll write down the questions for the interview,” said student A.
“I’ll do the interview,” said student B.  
“Well, in that case, I’ll do the PowerPoint presentation, but I need your input for the content part,”
said student C as he looked at student D.  Student D looked at each of her team members, and without revealing the disappointment in her voice, said okay. And the story continued with Student D slogging through the days and nights trying to complete the whole of the project report before the deadline.

Sounds familiar?  Well, this is a very common scenario among students in high schools, colleges, universities and among employees in workplaces.  So, what’s wrong with this?  Everything, actually.  There is no teamwork, no collaboration, no cooperation and no focus.  Almost definitely, we can say that student D had done the majority of the work, sieving through books and journals and then piecing the information together to form the body of the report.  Is that teamwork?

What is Team Work?
Teamwork refers to a group of people working together towards a common goal.  Scarnati (2001, p.5) defines teamwork “as a cooperative process that allows ordinary people to achieve extraordinary results”. Extraordinary results because teamwork requires people to collaborate and work interdependently, and collectively the team can come up with a better solution than an individual can.  Arthur L. Costa, in his book ‘The School as a Home for the Mind: Creating Mindful Curriculum, Instruction, and Dialogue', on p.43 said, “Cooperative humans realise that all of us together are more powerful, intellectually and/or physically, than any one individual.”  

Teamwork is very effective in problem solving.  However, not all teams can produce outstanding work.  “Anyone who has worked in successful teams can safely vouch for the fact that teamwork depends to a great extent on how members can protect and support each other. This is required to foster trust, confidence and commitment within the group” (Harris and Harris, 1996). Without support and commitment from each team member, the whole team crumbles and fails.

What Are the Attributes of an Effective Team?
To be successful, teamwork relies on synergy and cooperation among members.  Each team member must put in his or her best efforts into the learning process and be flexible enough to adapt to changing situations.  The team’s goals can only be achieved if each member collaborates, cooperates, and supports each other.  There should be open communication and each member should be given a chance to give opinions and make suggestions.  Constructive feedback should be taken into consideration and not brushed aside willfully.  The team’s objectives for each meeting or session should be focused and carefully discussed.  Members should be accommodating, nurturing and motivating, not critical, disrespectful or authoritative.  A positive team climate brings out the best in each person, enabling the team to attain their set goals.

In Times of Dispute
Whenever there is a disagreement, or the team reaches an impasse, it is always good to bring in a mediator to help with the reconciliation process.  Avoid altercations at all costs as these can lead to resentments, which can escalate to the team being dysfunctional and being split up.  Precious time will be wasted, and team members will have to start all over again.  Learn conflict-resolution skills, negotiation skills and decision-making strategies.  These skills are useful not only in teamwork but in your personal and social lives as well.  To avoid disputes, you need to learn to be accommodating, patient, and receptive to advice.  Settle disputes amicably.  Inject humour into the group discussions.  Make everybody less tense and more open towards each other’s suggestions and comments.  Do not be overly-sensitive and do not take rejections too personally.  With better attitudes and proper skills, unnecessary, nasty arguments can be avoided or stopped before they become destructive.

Eliminate Free Riders
Free riders are people who benefit from something at the expense of others.  In the case of project work, a free rider is someone who does nothing or does the minimal work but obtains the same marks or grades as the other members.  Free riding should never be tolerated. It’s unfair to the other members who do most of the work but more importantly, the quality of the project may be at stake because of one member not putting his best into the project work.  So how can you identify a free rider?  It’s actually easy to recognise.  A free rider usually does not participate during discussions, does not prepare anything for the meeting (either reading or researching), disappears for long periods of time or multiple times to either go to the bathroom or to answer a call, does not attend meetings or simply comes late for meetings, while giving all kinds of excuses for both.  

When there is clear evidence that a team member is free riding, it is pertinent to analyse the reasons behind it, rather than making premature assumptions or judgements.  It may not be due to laziness, lack of interest or inconsideration on the part of the free rider.  It could well be the fault of the team itself.    Maybe the team is not well-organised, the objectives are not clear, or the leader is too authoritative.  Or perhaps the ‘free rider’ is not actually free riding but he/she is just shy due to his/her language incompetency or lack of skills or knowledge in the project objectives.  Whatever it is, find out and be certain.  Unravelling the real issue behind the free rider’s behaviour is crucial to finding the right solutions.  

In this case, the leader has to take the reign and make some changes.  Make the objectives of each task and roles of each member clear and distinct.  Provide peer coaching or mentoring if that is needed. Break the tasks into smaller parts.  Give motivation and encouragements.  Besides the team leader, each team member also needs to take responsibility. He/She has to listen with empathy and understanding and help out in whatever way.  The objective here is to help, not to criticise or ridicule the ‘free rider’.  If all expended efforts fail, always seek advice from your tutor or supervisor.

How to Correct Ineffective Team Work
Going back to the scenario above, we can deduce that the team has no leader, lacks a proper planning of the project work and possibly evidence of free riders.  It seems that students A and B choose the easy part of the work while Student D is left to do the majority of the work unassisted, within a short time span.  There is obviously no collaboration among the team members.  If the output generated by student D is below quality, team members will put all the blame on her.  It is undeniably unfair to student D, and this can have a negative effect on morale and self-esteem.

What needs to be done in this case is to first assign a leader.  Without a leader, it will be like ‘the blind leading the blind’.  The leader’s job is to set the direction of the team and manage the team.  He needs to assign preferred roles to each member and monitor the team’s progress.  The team should schedule meetings, set their objectives clearly and set deadlines for each assigned task.  Only in this way can the team progress smoothly, and the jobs get done effectively and efficiently as a group.  Team work does not mean division of work or distribution of unrelated jobs.  It means assigning tasks intelligently and justly to each member.  It means coming together to provide inputs, analysing and compiling them in the best way possible so as to produce a reasonable, if not outstanding, output.

The ability to work in teams is pertinent if one hopes to succeed in his/her career.  Many professions now require employees to work together among familiar colleagues or strangers.  In this modern era and age, teamwork is inevitable.  Whether you work in a big multi-national corporation, or a small family business, teamwork is part and parcel of your daily routines.  You have to learn and master the skills in working interdependently.  You need to know the attributes of an effective team.  As future leaders of tomorrow, it is imperative that you familiarise yourself with these attributes and put them into practice today, before tomorrow.

Beginning this week, MBA student Hanna Abdelwahab, will write a regular "Student Column" for Wittenborg University News, contemplating the ups and downs of student life and the questions international students in particular grapple with. Hanna is from Egypt, but also lived in Singapore. She is doing an MBA in Education Management and also has a postgraduate diploma in education.

WUP 26/4/2019
by Hanna Abdelwahab
©Wittenborg University Press

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