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Five tips for effective teamwork

Sep 19, 2023

Group of students

Teamwork and collaboration have long been important in the workplace and may matter more than ever with the rise of remote work. But many students entering Ivey have never worked in teams before – at least not how it’s done at Ivey and in the workforce, says Martha Maznevski, PhD ’94, a professor of Organizational Behaviour and expert on team dynamics.

“When they’ve worked on team projects at school, they’re mostly projects where one or two people could do the work alone. In the workforce, each person’s tasks are complex and interdependent with each other, and the organizational conditions are uncertain and changeable,” she said. “The team development and assignments at Ivey are structured to help our students learn how to work with their teams – whether they’re the leader or not – and help the teams be at their best.”

Maznevski, along with Hayden Woodley, an assistant professor of Organizational Behaviour who researches team environments, did research last year on the experiences of HBA1 students in the program and their learning teams. Below, they share tips for maximizing a team’s performance.

1) Discover and respect each other’s strengths

Every team member has something to offer so, to get the job done, first explore what each person does well. Discovering these strengths will help you to work together and respect each other over time, says Woodley.

“Get to know your team members’ deep-level characteristics. What skills and knowledge do they have? Often, we focus on the surface and make inferences based off that and it leads us down the wrong path,” he said. “One mistake people make is to blame their team members for not doing something well. When that happens, I ask, ‘Why did you give that person that responsibility? Did you consult with them to find out if they would be good at it?”

2) Embrace diversity as a strength

Diverse teams can make better decisions and implement them more effectively, says Maznevski, but only if they leverage differences in perspectives and expertise.

“Most teams focus only on what they have in common,” she said. “It’s much easier to come to a consensus on what everyone has in common, or what a few people ‘know’ and everyone else agrees to.”

To use the diversity, Maznevski encourages teams to set aside time for each person to bring something unique to the discussion, and to talk about the contributions until everyone has a sense of how these contributions might shed a different light on the situation at hand.

Martha MaznevskiTalking about different perspectives takes time and effort. People need to explain things, ask questions, explore meaning, and combine ideas in different ways. Doing so brings different knowledges and lenses to the work and that provides a broader base of information as well as creativity and innovation.”
– Martha Maznevski

3) Create a safe environment

Psychological safety, which is an environment where people feel they can voice opinions and make mistakes without being judged negatively, helps a team to be effective. But Maznevski warns people have different perceptions of it, feelings of psychological safety can vary from day to day, and it’s common for some team members to feel psychologically safe while others don’t.

“To build real psychological safety, everyone on the team should be sensitive to behaving respectfully and with positive intentions. When mistakes are made and someone feels disrespected, the team should be able to talk about it without judgment,” she said. “It’s not as simple as saying that you all like and respect each other. Be sensitive to how team members are interacting – do they demonstrate respect for each other’s identity and adapt as situations change?”

4) Manage conflict and address team failure

Speak up when team members do something inappropriate or mistreat a team member, says Woodley, particularly because the instigator may not even realize the actions were harmful.

“To create the culture we want at Ivey, – inclusivity and community – we need to stand up equally for behaviours that are acceptable and unacceptable,” he said. “Sometimes people aren’t even aware that they did something wrong so you can help to create self-awareness for them.” 

And if your team fails, don’t point fingers at individuals. Woodley says team failure can’t be blamed on an individual – it’s a team issue.

“If you point fingers at someone, you are going to undermine your team. If you instead work together to figure out what you can do better next time, you’ll improve the team’s performance.”

5) Share leadership and put the team first

A leader may naturally emerge based on skills, but all team members should together determine the team’s moves and leadership should be shared. Woodley says problems can arise when everyone goes along with the leader, instead of together deciding what the team needs.

“Consider it like playing a sport with no coach. In a self-managed team, leadership needs to be fluid,” he said.

All team members should watch for lulls in team confidence or increased conflict, says Woodley, and not be afraid to point this out and give constructive feedback for keeping the team on track.

Hayden WoodleyIt’s like fitting puzzle pieces together to achieve your goal. It’s not about who does what – it’s about being adaptable and doing what is necessary to focus, not on yourself, but on the outcomes of the team. Prioritizing the team and team outcomes can be exhausting, but doing so will help the team perform better in the long run.”
– Hayden Woodley