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The Loner's Guide to Becoming a Team Player

Lakshmi Hutchinson

The Loner's Guide to Becoming a Team Player

Have you had a hard time moving from an individual role to a more team-centered environment? Maybe you’re moving from a small company where you wore many hats to a large one where there are clearer divisions of tasks. Or perhaps you’ve moved from a freelance consultant role where you were used to being the only expert with a certain skill to a full-time job where your teammates have similar skill sets. 

If you’ve always been more comfortable doing things yourself or being the sole decision-maker, working as part of a team may initially pose a challenge. Luckily, there are ways to overcome this issue and learn to embrace teamwork. Start by asking yourself these questions. 

Why am I hesitant about sharing responsibilities?

A good place to start is to consider the reasons why you prefer to get your work done independently. If you’re one of those people who likes having full ownership of their work, the following justifications might sound familiar to you:

  • "I’m confident that I can do the work better than others." 
  • "I don’t want anyone else’s input changing what I had planned."
  • "I’ll end up picking up the slack and doing it all myself anyway."
  • "I’ll never get my direct report to understand exactly what I mean, so it’s better if I do it." 

Unfortunately, this could be the result of past negative experiences with group work. A great team needs a balance of different traits, and it takes a talented leader to create such teams. 

And while self-confidence and ambition can be positive qualities, they shouldn’t come at the expense of being able to trust your colleagues, share responsibilities, and come up with creative solutions together. 

What are the benefits of a team environment?

You may be surprised to learn that there are well-documented benefits to the team environment. In fact, research by Stanford psychological scientists suggests that just feeling that you are part of a team makes difficult tasks more enjoyable and increases motivation. In the new world of remote work, collaborating on programs as part of a team is even more important. With employees working from home in different locations, it’s so easy to forget the bigger picture while focusing on individual tasks—but maintaining organizational culture is heavily reliant on successful teamwork and communication.

In the social-impact space, a shared purpose is often what brings us together in the first place. Striving to address issues that you’re passionate about with like-minded people is critical to the job satisfaction that comes with mission-driven work. And taking advantage of the diversity of experiences and ideas in such a team setting can lead to even more innovative ideas.

What steps can I take to adjust my work style and outlook?

Understanding the benefits of teamwork is great, but you may still have trouble adjusting if you’re used to doing everything yourself. Here are some ideas to help you in changing your mindset and habits:

  • Assess your strengths and weaknesses, and be willing to teach and learn. Whether it’s communication, problem-solving, or planning—figure out what you’re most proficient in. (Be aware that other team members may be equally or even more adept at something than you, and that’s okay. You’re on the same team, not in competition!) If you’re an expert in an area, you can teach others. This removes the excuse of “only I know how to do this right.” By the same token, a willingness to learn from your coworkers is key to being a team player.
  • Build trust with your colleagues. One way to build trust is through demonstrating your own vulnerability and openness. Provide honest feedback to suggestions, and ask questions when you don’t understand something or haven’t come across a particular viewpoint before. Show empathy towards your coworkers and ensure that disagreements remain respectful.
  • Recognize that sharing the workload (or delegating) frees up your time and motivates others. If you’re too busy completing a laundry list of tasks yourself, you won’t have time for other responsibilities. And if you manage others, by delegating work you’re also showing your staff that you have faith in their abilities.

It’s understandable that working in a team may be a difficult adjustment for someone who’s used to taking the reins all the time. But once you address what makes you hesitant about group work, you can begin to see the benefits of a collaborative, team environment. 

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Lakshmi Hutchinson

Lakshmi Hutchinson is a freelance writer with experience in the nonprofit, education, and HR fields. She is particularly interested in issues of educational and workplace equity, and in empowering women to reach their professional goals. She lives in Glendale, California with her husband, twin girls, and tuxedo cat.

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