Career Advice

Trying Out Teamwork

Lisa M. Balbes

A Theoretical Scenario

You have probably participated in group projects already, but at some point in your graduate career teamwork will almost certainly rise to a new level. You may find yourself in a situation where, in addition to the work you will contribute personally, you will assume wider responsibilities. You will be working jointly with others to determine how to divide the team’s work and how to meet the team’s goals. To take a closer look at some strategies to help you succeed, let’s think about the following theoretical scenario.

A new semester begins, and with it a new teaching assignment. This semester, you and five other graduate students will be assisting with an upper-level analytical chemistry class that includes both lecture and lab sections. The professor informs you that each of you will supervise one of the six weekly lab sections. Your group is also responsible for holding office hours each week, grading lab reports, and grading the three evening, course-wide tests.

Guess what? You’re part of a team! Now what?

Divide the labor. The Team Leader (professor) has assigned each of you to one lab section, but other than that it’s up to all of you to divide the work. As with any given group of tasks, there are numerous ways they can be assigned, each with its own advantages and disadvantages.

For example, would it be more efficient for one TA to prepare the unknowns for all six lab sections, or should each TA each prepare them for his or her own section? Should one TA grade the lab reports from all sections for a single experiment, or should each TA grade her or his own students each week? How many office hours are needed, and can any student attend any of them? You could just do what has been done in the past, or your team could decide to try a new way to organize things.

It could be most efficient be to have everybody do what they do best. However, in an academic environment where TAs are learning as well as the students, it might be preferable to have all the TAs try new tasks so they can expand their skill sets. The decision requires balancing two priorities: what’s best for the project versus what’s best for the individual team members.

Many teams hold a kick-off meeting to discuss roles, responsibilities, resources, and deadlines. Especially if you don’t know each other, these initial conversations can feel awkward. Finding ways to form personal connections, maybe by sharing backgrounds and identifying similarities, can help. During discussions, encourage questions and make sure that team members respectfully consider all viewpoints and ideas, taking into account not only what people are proposing, but their thinking behind it.

Once any decision is made, fully dedicate yourself to making it successful—especially if you originally opposed it. Not only will you gain the respect of your teammates, but you will also preclude any suggestion that you did not do your absolute best to make the project a success.

Communicate. For any team, communication is crucial. You will want to agree on a communication system (e.g., e-mail, text, GroupMe, Slack, RocketChat, Blackboard). Different people will have different preferences, so for a large team you will need two channels to cover everyone, but using more than that quickly gets unwieldy.

The team also needs to decide what and how often to communicate. Do you tell everyone when you have finished grading your lab reports? Do you tell anyone? If multiple team members are carrying out similar tasks, you will want to share “best practices,” but possibly not every little detail. Compliment and acknowledge your teammates’ contributions publicly, but provide constructive criticism privately.

Will you need regular meetings to make sure everyone is still on-track and no one is overwhelmed or underused? If things are not working, or if circumstances have changed, the team may need to revisit the division of labor.

Communication is easiest when everyone shares the same language, background, and cultural references. Common experiences give us a shorthand way to communicate; for instance, you could indicate a certain kind of relationship by saying, “Like Sam and Diane” (or “Ross and Rachel,” or “Dan and Serena,” and so on).

In addition, foster an environment where it’s okay to ask questions, where collaboration rather than competition is rewarded, and where differences of opinion are discussed openly and respectfully and addressed.

Contribute. Make sure to complete all of your assigned tasks on time and to the best of your ability. Prioritize—complete tasks in order of importance, not in the order in which they were assigned. If you’re not sure, or if you have multiple people assigning work to you and you feel you are not able to prioritize the work, ask them to prioritize.

In another situation, suppose your team has decided to grade tests together. Everyone takes an equal pile and starts grading. When you are done with your pile, what do you do? You could leave, since you did your fair share numerically. A better solution might be to take a few tests from whomever had the most left, and continue grading. If everyone on the team does this, you will all spend the same amount of time grading, which is also fair. This demonstrates your commitment to the success of the project overall, and to the team.

Address teamwork problems. But what if it’s always the same person who needs help, time after time? If the individual is really trying, then maybe you can offer some tips from your experience. If the person is on the phone instead of grading, you may need to bring it up to the Team Leader.

Review. At the end of the semester, take some time to think about what worked well and what did not. Even better, hold an honest discussion with the whole team. That way, you can all use what you learned on this project to make your next team experiences even better.

From Theoretical Scenario to Real-World Strategy

The situation above was meant to provide you with a sense of how things work when you are part of a team, a view from the inside. Now ask yourself: Are there are some lessons you can draw from that theoretical scenario to help improve your real-world research team?

Think about your research team. Begin to ask yourself questions about your team and how it works. They might include questions like the following to help you consider some aspects of the team in a broader context than you may have in the past.

Who are the members of your research team? You and your research adviser, your collaborators, and the undergraduates you supervise, of course. But how does your team interact with other graduate students working on related projects? What is the overarching goal? (Hint: It’s not you getting a Ph.D.) How can you help reach that goal, as well as any subordinate goals other team members may have?

What are the team’s required tasks, and how are they divided and assigned?

Who is the team’s leader? Initially it may be your adviser, but over time you will take on more leadership, as you gain experience and build relationships with the other team members.

Consider cultural differences. Teams are made up of people, and people are unique. The larger and more diverse your team, the more likely its members are to have different backgrounds and cultures, which come with widely varying expectations and norms. Acknowledging any issues that may arise as a result, and taking steps to address them, can make the team run much more smoothly.

Encourage interactions among team members. Frequent small interactions provide a common background and build trust, which comes in handy when larger problems arise.

Don’t assume stereotypes to be true. Although people from one culture may tend in a particular direction, that does not mean every member of that group is that way. For example, Americans on average interrupt others more often than people from Finland, but any particular American may interrupt others more or less often than any particular Finn.

Communicate clearly. Especially where different languages are an issue, make sure discussions and instructions are provided in clear, simple language. Encourage questions. Provide background information so people know why they are doing what they are doing. Avoid using idioms or colloquial expressions without explanation.

Explicitly identify any assumptions people have about how things are to be done, and make sure they are valid in this situation. Enjoy learning from each other. Different ways of doing things are just different—not better or worse.

Think about time. Differing attitudes about time often cause problems in multicultural teams. When to schedule international phone calls is an obvious issue—do you always make the same person (or group) get up early or stay up late, or do you rotate the inconvenience? What holidays in each country affect when people will be unavailable?

When a meeting is scheduled for 4:00 p.m., do you expect people to arrive at 4:00 p.m.? 3:50 p.m.? Or even 4:30 p.m.? In some cultures, “if you’re early, you’re on time; if you’re on time, you’re late; and if you’re late, go home.” In others, showing up 30 minutes or even an hour late for a job interview is perfectly acceptable. Are people who show up late being rude, or is that just the way things are done in their cultures?

What about ending a meeting? Which is more important, ending at the scheduled time or making sure that everyone has had a chance to share an opinion? In a related question, is a certain level of expertise about the topic required before someone has the standing to share an opinion, or is everyone expected to participate in the course of the meeting?

Value Your Teamwork Opportunities

Both the National Postdoctoral Association and the National Academy of Sciences list the ability to work on teams with individuals of diverse backgrounds as a core competency for a Ph.D. scientist. Whether you are on a formal team or just part of a bunch of people trying to get something done, being a good team player is crucial to your professional success. The earlier you start thinking about this and improving your teamwork skills, the more people will want to be on your team.