How to Overcome the Trauma of Teamwork

Bad collaborative experiences can make us lone wolves, but we have choices.

Most of us can tell stories of teamwork drama. You know, these “collaborations” that aren’t really collaborations and forced “teams” that aren’t really teams. These classic horror stories are about people who don’t get their way, start fights for no apparent reason, somehow erase the group’s work, or even stab others in the back – while we fill their gap.

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Of course, if we’re being honest, some stories involve the embarrassment of our own underperforming participation. But we don’t like to tell them.

Bad cooperation does not even have to be due to a specific person. Sometimes we are transferred to poorly equipped teams or given tasks that do not suit the team.

Sometimes the “teamwork approach” doesn’t fit the task, period.

Unfortunately, group work has been touted as the ‘it’ in the workplace and in education, regardless of whether it makes sense in certain circumstances. This means many people are experiencing horrific forced collaborations — and are reluctant to collaborate, period.

Bad experiences with teamwork dramas add up over time. Collaboration overload hits us all the time. Add some bullying and we can end up with teamwork trauma. Teamwork trauma can turn us into lone wolves, who would rather take on all the work and all the responsibility, even if it means more control over our outcomes.

Over time, however, working as a lone fighter can lose its appeal. Even the most independent and cautious of us have a need to belong, and even the most able have limitations.

Regain the joy of working together

As a lone wolf, protecting oneself from the risk and unpredictability of relying on others is an understandable response to poor collaborative experiences. Given the choice of whether or not to work together, working alone is an enticing choice. But it comes at a cost, potentially sacrificing the fun and accomplishment that comes with great partnerships. Giving new collaborations a chance can be a refreshing experience. “Baby steps” can start with one project, it could turn into further collaborations. I’ve used this to collaborate with others on writing projects that led to other writing projects.

But what about regular jobs?

Of course it is a special form of cooperation to work with like-minded colleagues on projects of common passion. However, most employees can take internal or external steps to work in teams that better fit their values, character, and goals. And organizations can create environments that support positive and effective collaborative experiences. Leaders have a responsibility to create healthy collaborative environments.

Here are some tips for leaders looking to maximize the benefits of collaboration and minimize burnout:

  1. Create environments that focus on clear values, where leaders consistently exemplify those values. Transparent and ethical organizational systems support the development of transparent and ethical team norms.
  2. Develop clear connections between company values, specific goals and team projects. This clarity of purpose will help both shape and motivate team efforts.
  3. Avoid collaboration overload. Some projects require collaboration, some don’t. And don’t use the collaboration to compensate for a chronic undersupply. A group of chronically overwhelmed and underserved people is unlikely to produce “collaboration magic.”
  4. Allow team creativity and flexibility in determining how project goals can be met. Help teams determine the strengths-based workload and balance between synchronous and asynchronous collaboration that works best for the team and the task.
  5. Use collaboration tools that support transparency and accountability by design (online collaboration tools with post history) without invasive monitoring and disruptive check-ins.
  6. Encourage collaboration by ensuring incentives are balanced and recognizing both team effort and individual contributions.

In the words of one of my collaborators, Caroline Stokes, the author of Elephants before unicorns: emotionally intelligent strategies to save your business:

Great collaboration is when all parties can hear all viewpoints to determine a way forward. Sometimes it can resemble a flock of birds taking turns pointing the way. The secret is to understand or be open to nuance, be respectful of others, and set a clear goal state and desired outcome. Conclusion: Emotionally intelligent executives maintain this environment with care, an open ear and flexibility.

I love the pictures of the flock of birds. The aerodynamics of formation flight optimize each bird’s collective success and individual efforts. And that’s the point of a great collaboration.

We are meant to be social beings. Belong. Bad teamwork experiences can rob us of the joy of working together. But we can rebuild our connections and sense of belonging one step at a time.

This post also appeared in Best Work for your Brain, December 2022.

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