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How to Overcome the Trauma of Teamwork

Bad collaboration experiences can turn us into lone wolves, but we have choices.

Key points

  • Many people have had bad experiences with collaborations.
  • We can make internal or external choices to work on teams that better align with our values, character, and goals.
  • Reclaim the joy of working together by taking baby steps toward collaboration.
Source: Kichigin/Freepik
Source: Kichigin/Freepik

Most of us can tell stories of teamwork drama. You know, those "collaborations" that are not really collaborations, and forced "teams" that are not really teams. These classic horror stories are about people not pulling their weight, starting fights for no apparent reason, somehow deleting the group's work, or even stabbing others in the back—while we are picking up their slack.

Of course, if we are honest, some stories involve the embarrassment of our own subpar participation. But we don't like telling those.

Poor collaboration does not even have to be any specific person's fault. Sometimes we are placed on poorly resourced teams or are given tasks that do not fit the team.

Sometimes, the "teamwork approach" does not fit the task, period.

Unfortunately, group work has been touted as the "it" thing of the workplace and education, regardless of whether it makes sense under a particular set of circumstances. This means that many people experience dreadful forced collaborations—and become reluctant to collaborate, period.

Over time, bad experiences with teamwork drama add up. We are again and again clobbered by collaboration overload. Throw in 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 if that also means better control over our outcomes.

Over time though, working as a lone wolf can lose its appeal. Even the most independent and wary of us feel the need to belong, and even the most capable have limitations.

Reclaiming the joy of collaboration

Protecting ourselves from the risk and unpredictability of relying on others by working as lone wolves is an understandable reaction to bad collaboration experiences. When we have a choice whether to collaborate or not, individual work is a tempting choice. But there is a cost of possibly losing out on the fun and accomplishment that come with great partnerships. Giving new collaborations a chance can be a restorative experience. "Baby steps" can start with one project, it might just snowball into more collaborations. I've used this to collaborate with others on writing projects leading to other writing projects.

But what about regular workplaces?

Of course, working with like-minded colleagues on projects of shared passion is a special type of collaboration. Yet, most employees can make internal or external moves to work on teams that better align with their values, character, and goals. And organizations can create environments that support positive and effective collaboration experiences. Leaders have a responsibility to create healthy collaborative environments.

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

  1. Create environments centered on a clear set of values, where leaders consistently exemplify these values. Transparent and ethical organizational systems support the development of transparent and ethical team norms.
  2. Develop clear links between organizational values, specific goals, and team projects. This clarity of purpose will help both frame and motivate team efforts.
  3. Avoid collaboration overload. Some projects require collaboration, while others don't. And don't use collaboration in an attempt to make up for chronic under-resourcing. A group of chronically overstretched and under-resourced people is unlikely to produce "collaboration magic."
  4. Enable team creativity and flexibility in determining how to reach project goals. Support teams in determining the strength-based distribution of work and the balance of 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 contribution history), without invasive monitoring and disruptive check-ins.
  6. Support collaboration by ensuring that incentives balance acknowledging both team accomplishments 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 Company:

A great collaboration is when all parties can listen to all viewpoints to determine a way forward. Sometimes it can resemble a flock of birds taking turns to lead the way. The secret is to understand or be open to understanding nuance, being respectful to others and setting a clear goal state and desired outcome. Bottom line: Emotionally intelligent leaders will nurture that environment with care, a keen listening ear and flexibility.

I love the imagery of the flock of birds. The aerodynamics of flying in formations optimize collective success and each bird's individual efforts. And that is the point of a great collaboration.

We are meant to be social beings. To belong. Bad teamwork experiences can rob us of the joy of collaboration. But we can rebuild our connections and the sense of belonging, step-by-step.

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

More from Ludmila N. Praslova, Ph.D.
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