Is teamwork bad for your career?

There's a fine line between being a 'giver' at work and being a doormat, as Adam Grant explains in his book Give and Take. Whatever side of the line your actions fall makes a big difference to your career prospects.

" Often, a single team member is more valuable to a team than all the others combined."
Kath Walters, content marketing consultant and freelance journalist

The doormats are at the bottom of organisations, unrewarded and unrecognised. Although collaboration and teamwork are key performance indicators in almost every job today, some team members just don't get the delicate balance right.

Those who do understand the art of giving wisely rise to the top. They are leaders and they are loved for their generosity and inclusiveness.


Today's workplaces are fostering collaboration – in which groups of people work together until a task is done and then disband.

This trend is changing the dynamics of teams, which traditionally were a fixed group working together in a fixed process for a fixed outcome.

In fact, collaboration is taking over the workplace, according to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, co-authored by Grant. “Time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 per cent or more," the authors write.

It is a positive trend but it's not all good. The most collaborative team members are burning out. That's because there are very few of them: only 3 per cent to 5 per cent of employees carry the burden of up to 35 per cent of value-added collaborations, the authors' research found.

Often, a single team member is more valuable to a team than all the others combined, according to research by the University of Iowa, and published by the American Psychological Association.

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The term team is bandied about so often we all assume we understand it. That's part of the problem.

The authors of the classic book on teamwork, The Wisdom of Teams, highlight one distinguishing characteristic. A team is not a workgroup. A team has individual and shared accountability. A workgroup has only individual accountability.

It's an important distinction. As marvellous as the high-performing team member is for getting things done, they may also contribute to team dysfunction, according to leadership expert, Tracey Ezard.

“If the answers all come from one person, the other team members don't have a voice," Ezard, who works with leaders to build the collaborative capacity of their teams, says. “They don't have input or co-creation of the results."

Ezard has a tongue-in-cheek moniker for the over-performing team member: the 'Font of Knowledge'. She describes the other two archetypal dysfunctional team members as the 'Waste of Space' – disengaged and frustrating – and the 'Hoover' – an opportunist who often sucks energy from the group.

Teamwork is typically misunderstood as co-operating together, Ezard says. “But I believe what teamwork should be about is building collective capacity."

That means each member of the team brings more than their own skills and experience – they actively engage in learning from other members of the team.

Most of what is written about teamwork is reductionist and over-simplified, says Hamish Riddell, the founder and managing director of Kumbayah Consulting. “I get annoyed about that," he says.

This concern fuels the training he provides to improve companies' performance. In Riddell's experience, it is leaders who have the ability to handle complexity and manage teams effectively.

Teams are systems, Riddell says, but because they are made of humans, they change all the time. And they are part of a bigger system – the organisation. If the team's work is not aligned with the organisation's strategy, it's doomed from the start.


For individual team members, Adam Grant's analysis of successful giving provides a useful roadmap for surviving the complexity of teamwork and collaboration. Grant says being “agreeable" is not the same as being generous.

We need to know the difference because givers can be lured into helping 'takers' – those horrid people in our workplace who do not get the idea of reciprocity – because they are agreeable. That's a big waste of time and energy.

Grant also advises the generous to 'chunk, don't sprinkle,' by which he means be generous in blocks rather than in bits throughout the day. Being generous gives us a burst of energy but only if we chunk it. If we do little bits, our effort seems like a drop in the ocean, and we don't get the same benefits.

Be aware some forms of generosity are more efficient than others. Sharing information, for example, is generous and efficient. Sharing social resources (networks for example) uses more energy but it still less taxing than sharing your personal resources such as time and effort.

When team members change intentions to include learning as well as co-operating, their performance lifts, Ezard says.

“More people have to get passionate about contributing to teams," she says. “We need to stand up and name non-participation, and have honest conversations about who we want to be part of the team, and how we want to operate."

The secret is to keep those conversations objective and not attack individuals and to focus on a vision of what the team could be like, she says.

Riddell believes team dysfunction is a leadership issue. The leader's first role is to build a sense of safety among team members by establishing processes that help the leader to manage behaviour and emotional tensions.

Leaders must be willing to learn, and put aside their egos, he says, in order to manage the multiple perspectives in any team. It's then a matter of establishing a sense of purpose.

“We need a degree of shared connectedness about why we exist," he says, noting a surprising number of teams don't know why they exist.

The next step is agree to the principles, priorities and processes governing how the team works together, what they do and the effort required. When each plank is in place, the ultimate outcome is a team with greater performance.

For both leaders and team members, the overarching principle is to focus on spending their time wisely and approaching their role within the team as an opportunity to build skills as well as get the job done.

Kath Walters is a content marketing consultant and freelance journalist

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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