The Oxbridge Editing Blog 28th November 2019

Essential university student skills: teamwork

28th November 2019

Teamwork – does it always make the dream work?

Love it or hate it, team work is important. Very important. The more person power that can be marshalled toward a specific task, the more efficiently that task can be completed. Or so the idea goes at least. In reality, things are not so straightforward. Many hands often make for challenging work. How many times has a group work partner let you down? Or tempers frayed because members of the team don’t see eye to eye? Getting a team to function together harmoniously can be tricky. Sometimes it’s a nightmare.

Group dynamics are complex. People don’t gel. Frictions arise. Communication breaks down. All manner of impediments can spring up to hinder the otherwise well-oiled machine that is the team. We see this all the time. The sports team that blows the cup because they don’t play “like a team”. Bandmates who start arguing while onstage. Seemingly happy couples that suddenly fall to pieces. The simple reality is that people are extremely emotionally and intellectually diverse. Thus, getting them to work in unison, at all, let alone toward a common goal, is not easy. Getting them to work effectively is a remarkable feat; but it does bear fruit. When skills and objectives can be brought into alignment, as if by magic, great things can be achieved.

The classic example of team work par excellence is a symphony orchestra. Dozens and dozens of musicians all working together in total harmony. Each note in place. Every beat observed. Each individual has their specific role. Each role slots together within the grander objective. Beautiful music is the result. If only all team activities could be executed with the same precision and elegance as an orchestra. Imagine how much could be achieved.

This is why teamwork is an essential skill. Not just for your time at university, but for life. If you can bring people into sync, if you can be like a conductor, you can make wonderful things happen.

How to encourage your own teamwork skills at university

Practice, as they say, makes perfect. So go out, find a team. This could be a team you’re place in on your course. Or maybe a society where you all share the same common interests. Perhaps you could form a social group for nights out, or a study group to help you get more out of your studies.

Once you find a team, observe the people in it. What do you notice? Competing ideas, objectives, strategies, priorities, opinions? Maybe alliances form. Perhaps enmities arise. It depends on the people. Some combinations are alchemical, some are combustible.

When put into groups, people tend to become a bit, well, chaotic. Structure is needed. But what structure exactly? This question has no easy or exact answer. No one structure will fit all groups. This is why you have to take a step back. View the situation at an objective distance, as if you were an impartial spectator. A spectator sees more of the game. By taking yourself, as it were, outside of the group, you can see it as a whole system. See how it works. Understanding the group and its dynamics will help you work better within it.

So, first do nothing; well, kind of. Listening and watching may seem passive, but they’re not. Cultivating your observational abilities is an excellent way to develop teamwork skills. You are learning the mechanics of group activity. Indeed, you are gathering the raw data that will be used to form a strategy. This is essential. The strategy is like the sheet music from which the orchestra will read. It makes sense, therefore, to figure out which instruments the various team members possess. Who plays what and how well. You must learn to take in the situation so as to deduce what best fits the dynamic.

Objectivity is vital. While it may seem counter-intuitive, the best way to work well within a group is to be at a healthy remove from it. This doesn’t mean don’t contribute; it means remove your ego. Don’t let your emotions derail your rationality. This can be trying, especially when other members of the group are being combative, distracting or otherwise disruptive. But being able to move beyond petty disagreements and do what is best for the team is what counts. The good of the team must trump the needs of the individual.

Other skills that cultivate excellent teamwork

Observation

As noted above, observation is essential. Though, we are talking about a specific kind of observation. Analytical observation. This means looking out for continuities and discontinuities. Identifying points of strength, which can be brought to the fore, and areas of weakness, which can be patched up. You are actively observing. Watching with an eye toward doing. Before you can work effectively toward the team’s objectives you need the team itself to function. It’s no good meticulously planning the perfect route for a car with no wheels.

Communication

In team work, the most important skill bar none is communication. Without communication, very little is likely to be achieved. Communication is verbal and non-verbal. It’s in what is literally said and what’s said without needing to be spoken. The way someone holds their body. An off glance here. A suppressed smirk there. Which all probably sounds quite confusing. But we all know what it means. When people don’t work well together, it’s tangible. As they say, “you can feel the tension in the air”. On the other hand, we all know what it feels like to be in perfect company. When everyone is on the same page and things just work. Nine times out of ten what separates the one situation from the other is good and bad communication.

Organisation

The whole point of working in teams, really, is to maximise resources. To pool talents. Logically, some team members will be better at particular things than others. Everyone has unique strengths. Some will be more skilled in a certain endeavour and others will possess more knowledge on a specific subject. The objective, then, is to get right person working on the right task and in the right way. Figure out how best to deploy the various skills and knowledge which are at your collective disposal. This will be a matter of planning and so of organisation. A little bit of thinking upfront will save a lot of sweat down the line.

Adaptability

All the above skills point in some respect toward optimisation. Making the most of what is available. But this is only possible if one is adaptable. Human beings are qualitative in nature; each of us is different. Infinite variety obtains. No two combinations of people will be exactly the same. Meaning every group is literally distinct. As a result, your approach to and actions within various teamwork scenarios must be nuanced according to requirements. Bruce Lee used to say one must “be formless, shapeless like water”. Water adapts to any contour. In your team-working, you should seek to do the same: assume the optimal shape and form for the situation.

A willingness to learn

Working in a group is like being in an intellectual phalanx. A hive mind. The benefits of the hive mind are that you now have multiple perspectives, interpretations and ideas at play. You, as an individual, are no longer restricted by the limits of your own knowledge. This makes teamwork the ideal situation for learning; and learning is something we should always aim to do. In being receptive toward other people’s ideas, we expand our own consciousness. We should see working with others, consequently, as a means to optimising ourselves. The more skilful and knowledgeable you are individually, the more use you will be to the collective. Usefulness is a marker of value.

How will having good teamwork skills benefit you?

If you want to thrive at university and during your working career, and if you want to be a leader of any sort, you need to have good team-working skills. A leader who cannot get people to work well together is not a leader at all. In fact, they’re a liability – and that will not play for long. Not in academic or professional circles. For this reason, cultivating one’s team-working abilities is of the first importance. Even if you don’t literally want to be in a “leadership role”, leadership skills are a powerful asset. They translate to multiple contexts; they make you a better person.

First of all, good team-working abilities are prerequisite for persuasion and influencing skills. Think about it. Unless you’re looking only to convince yourself, the art of persuasion is always a group activity. Being able to influence means having an impact. It means agency; and agency is power. You don’t need to think of this in grandiose terms. Forget about House of Cards. No matter what your pursuit, you surely want to have an impact within it. The better your ability to move the hearts and minds of the group, the more likely you are thereby to make a difference. Think about job interviews, or pitching ideas to your peers or colleagues. Hey, even if it’s just deciding what takeaway to get, having a say is never a bad thing.

Teamwork also enables better listening and communications skills. A team which lacks either of the above isn’t really a team. It’s just a bunch of people talking over each other – which is annoying at best. Being able to communicate well will enhance every interaction you have. You will be able to make people understand exactly what you mean. You’ll never be flustered for words. You will be able to paint vivid pictures; to move, to inspire.

People instinctively admire good communication skills. Great communicators change the world. Even if your own ambitions are less lofty, being able to express yourself will help in manifold other ways. You’ll be more able to win the group to your way of thinking. Your word will help sway the crowd. Hence teamwork skills tie in directly to decision-making skills. A good decision is generally the result of a reasoned thought process; it is justified intellectually. You might have the most watertight reasoning imaginable, but if you can’t effectively express your rationale then your impeccable vantage might easily be overlooked.

Career going forward

Unless you’re going to work as a long-distance trucker in Alaska, some level of sociability is necessary in the professional world. Any organisation wants to know you will fit in; that you will help not hinder operations. Hiring is invariably about making the organisation better. If you can convince potential emloyers that you will improve the overall functioning of the workplace, you immediately present yourself as an asset. As we have seen, teamwork isn’t just about effective behaviour in a group. It encompasses a gamut of other important skills too. Showing that you command teamwork skills indicates emotional intelligence, rational thinking and problem-solving capability; and these are the makings of one who rises the ranks.

Tips for developing your own teamwork skills

Assume the contrary position

Good communication is an art. All art is craft and any craft can be honed. This means that you don’t have to be naturally sliver tongued. You can learn to be a great communicator. You can even master it. But how? By taking the contrary position. This is an old exercise from debate clubs, intended to refine one’s argumentation. When someone says something you disagree with, take a moment and assume their position. Internally, defend it as if it was your own. By knowing the other person’s position thoroughly, you will better be able reasonably to argue against it, should that be in order.

Study, learn, adopt and adapt

Think of a team you admire. It could be a sports team, a great company, a community team – whatever you like. Examine their practices. Identify how and why that team is effective. Be scientific in your analysis. Locate processes which you can adopt and adapt. Take and implement them. Essentially, mirror the behaviour of successful teams.

Admit your mistakes

You can’t be right all the time. Sorry! While it’s hard to be wrong it’s arguably even harder to admit to it (and everyone secretly knows this). When you realise you are indeed at fault, recognise this. Publicly acknowledge it, try to learn and improve. This kind of public admission exhibits strength: it shows you’re not afraid to accept when you’ve made an error. People will respect you for this, because it shows openness and reasonableness.

Lead by example

Now that you possess the skills and knowledge of how a good team should work, put that into practice. “Be the change”. Embody the traits you seek from others. If you capably manifest team-working skills, other people will intuitively admire and respect you. Also, leading by example demonstrates your integrity. If you are seen not to have integrity, your opinion loses currency.