Easy-to-implement strategies to try, whether you’re an entry-level employee or the head of a company.

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Regardless of the job or industry, companies are most successful when their employees are team players — and when those in management positions actively foster and inspire effective teamwork based on mutual respect, compromise and an open exchange of ideas. But sometimes working together as a team is easier said than done, both for the manager and his or her employees.

Crystal Farh, Associate Professor in Management and Organization at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, offers easy-to-implement strategies and advice on workplace teamwork, whether you’re an entry-level employee or the head of a company.

What are the most common mistakes bosses and team members make, and what should they do instead?

  1. Believing that the work is done once you’ve done your part. No – you are not done until the team is done. There are always more ways to contribute if you are proactively looking at what others on your team need.
  2. Not grasping the big picture. Without knowing our shared purpose, it is too easy to prioritize individual objectives over collective success. Regularly revisiting what the team is trying to accomplish keeps us focused on what matters.
  3. Failing to enact ideas as a form of experimentation. Enacting ideas does not mean throwing all resources toward a single solution. It means throwing enough resources at an idea so you can see how you can build on it.

What are the top things bosses can do to foster effective teamwork?

Bosses are highly influential in both encouraging team members to speak up as well as enacting their ideas. If the boss can encourage a learning mindset while also showing he or she is not the smartest person in the room and therefore is open to suggestions on how to improve the status quo, this goes a long way in reassuring team members that speaking up will be worthwhile and not come at personal cost. The boss is also the gatekeeper for which ideas get enacted or rejected. Thus, when the boss actively tries to enact members’ ideas in the spirit of learning, it not only signals his or her openness to new ideas; it also creates an environment where members, too, are willing to act on each other’s ideas.

What are the top things members of a team can do to ensure they’re being team players?

  1. Be proactive. Look for ways to contribute to the team’s cause. You have unique skills, experiences and ideas that your team needs. If you don’t speak up and contribute, you’re not being part of the team.
  2. Be collaborative. Be ready to build on others’ ideas and also for others to build on your ideas. The goal is not for your idea to dominate. The goal is for the best idea to go forward. The team’s objectives must take precedence over your own objectives (including your ego).
  3. Act fast and learn fast. Everyone will be wrong at some point. What matters is how quickly you can iterate on a wrong solution to get to a better one. No learning can occur if no action is taken. Value is in the progress that is made.

Why is teamwork crucial to the success of any workplace?

Whether it be producing a new product, process, or even making a decision, there is rarely a situation where one person has all the skills, resources, experience and motivation necessary to accomplish the work. Organizations must rely on a group of individuals to bring their unique talents and strengths to the table and hope that through their interactions, these individuals fashion an outcome that is better than what any individual can accomplish. That’s what teamwork is about. Good teamwork allows a team to accomplish more than the sum of its parts.

What are some examples of how a strong team impacts and improves workplace productivity?

The best examples in my experience come from creative teams. Creative teams are charged with a mandate to generate new products, processes or procedures. A strong team is one that a) has a great deal of creative talent on the team (i.e., individual members are motivated and skilled in reflecting on problems, scanning the environment for relevant information, and generating novel and useful solutions to those problems), and b) has good teamwork.

By good teamwork, here, I mean members are actively engaged in coming up with ideas, sharing those ideas, building on others’ ideas, and allowing ideas to evolve based on the input of others. When members do that, the team is able to discover creative synergies and act on breakthrough ideas that exceed the quality of a given member’s initial idea.

In your experience, what are the most effective strategies to teach teamwork to employees? What are some common roadblocks, and how do you recommend handling them?

Speak up. The most effective strategy for teaching teamwork is to encourage your team to speak up with their ideas as well as being open to acting on others’ ideas. Speaking up with ideas sounds relatively straightforward – but in actuality, it can be quite difficult. People don’t speak up for a variety of reasons, often out of fear of negative evaluation. People have to believe that they won’t be penalized (socially or otherwise) by fellow peers and especially by authority figures if they speak up with an idea that challenges the status quo and questions existing assumptions. The best way to do that is to foster an environment where people can be wrong as long as they are learning, and mistakes and personal vulnerabilities are not held against members.

Implement ideas. Being open to acting on others’ ideas is equally difficult. This is not just about listening as a cognitive exercise. This is about actually taking action based on what someone else suggests. Enacting ideas is one of the fastest ways for a team to learn about what solution will or will not work. It also allows the team to (literally) build on each other’s ideas. Without enactment, ideas have no impact. The best way to facilitate enactment is to foster an environment of experimentation, where enactment of ideas is not seen as a competition for influence, but rather an opportunity for the team to experiment and discover the most suitable solution.

The Michael G. Foster School of Business at the University of Washington consistently ranks among the top business schools in the United States — for both undergraduate and graduate degrees.