Communication’s Vital Role in Team Building

Do you consider yourself a “team player?” That term carries many definitions, but at its core, “team player” means you want to be part of a well-oiled, functioning machine, whether you’re the leader or a member. But even with the purest intentions, being a good team player and helping to build a strong team takes intentionality to make sure it doesn’t derail. Trina Lee, 4word Mentor Program manager and 4word: Portland leader, shares her tips for being the best team player you can be.

Why do you think people struggle to feel like they belong on their work team?

I believe we feel like we belong to a team when we are known, valued, and engaged. The absence of one or more of those things leads to isolation and frustration within a team. 

We’ll spend approximately a third of our lives working and that’s a significant amount of time to not feel seen. I’ve felt the most known on a team when both my strengths and weaknesses are known. I love that the team I get to lead knows that I cannot catch my own spelling errors and that I greatly value excellence in my work. They therefore are gracious in the way they give me edits and in this tangible way I feel known.

We can also feel discouraged when our contributions, big and small, to a team are not valued and appreciated. My colleague Leslie has on her desk an Everyday Achievement Award notepad for anyone to use. These simple awards have been a fun way for my colleagues to celebrate each others’ wins and to cheer each other on. We also have the tradition in our organization to publicly share what we appreciated about each other on our birthdays and work anniversaries. A great sentence for each of your team members to finish is, “[Your organization’s name] is better because [staff member’s name] ____________.”

When we are not fully engaged, we can experience great disconnect from our work and team. I feel the most engaged when my opinions are sought and my ideas are heard out. A team is strengthened when there is a healthy culture of asking for and receiving feedback. We also feel engaged when we are “in-the-know,” especially in regard to the vision and direction of an organization. When individuals or teams are kept in the dark on matters important to their work, a sense of distrust can quickly grow.

If you’re in a management role, what cues should you be on the lookout for to signify that your team might not be meshing well?

If you sense any tension within your team, be on guard. Are team members making passive aggressive comments about each other? Are they not giving each other the benefit of the doubt? Is there unhealthy competition? Is there a lack of trust and transparency? Are team members not owning their mistakes and taking responsibility for errors, especially when it impacts others?

I once heard that you know that a team is healthy if they can laugh together. When a team can laugh together, I believe they also have the relational collateral to work through stressful seasons and challenges that might arise.

Natural collaboration amongst a team is another great sign that a team is meshing well. When you see your team working together, on their own, to solve a problem or to help each other out, it’s evidence of healthy team dynamics.

How have you helped yourself feel like a team player? As a team leader, how did you ensure that your teammates felt unified?

I believe that it’s important to be both the leader of your team and a member of your team. I strive to never expect anything from my team that I’m not expecting of myself. With that said, I try to model transparency in how I talk about my own weaknesses and the habits I’m working to develop to shore up those weaknesses. I also ask my team for their input and help. And I’m continuing to work on addressing areas in which I may be the bottleneck or slowing down the work of others.

As a team leader, you have significant responsibility for the culture and health of your team and there are many ways to foster unity. I believe that creating a culture of belonging starts with the hiring process and specifically how you onboard new team members. You move toward unity when you celebrate work and life milestones as a team and you celebrate your team’s wins and achievements.

Meetings are also critical in how a team functions and works together and they should not all look the same. About three to four times a week, my team has a meeting we call “10@10.” The meeting happens around 10AM and the goal is to keep it to around 10 minutes. The meeting is either a standing or a walking meeting, during which we check in with each other and we share our top priorities for the day. Meetings are also a great space to share best practices with one another. For one meeting, we have a monthly standing agenda item called “Efficiency Fun” and the objective is for the team to share with each other a new trick they learned in Excel or a new productivity habit that’s making their life easier. As team members adopt each other’s best practices, it creates a positive chain reaction.

It’s also important to give your team the opportunity and space to spend time together outside of your work environment. This can happen during a lunch out, an offsite retreat or even doing a service project together. About once a year I take my team to see an inspiring movie in the middle of the workday and I believe those two and half hours have been an invaluable investment. 

Reading a book together is another great way to create team unity. Not only does reading and discussing a book give you a shared experience, a team also gains a new shared vocabulary on a given topic. Growing professionally together can also help to level the field for both the leader and the team members.

Why is communication such a vital part of team building? 

Relationships don’t exist without communication and therefore communication is a vital part of building a team. It’s the glue and it’s the fuel.

As a team leader, it’s a great practice to take inventory of when, where and how your team communicates with each other. Are communication preferences known and honored? Are communication expectations clear? For example, we have a “rule” within the team I lead that we use our team’s Skype group chat for asking questions and sharing information, but not for delegating tasks to each other. We have other shared expectations for what is included in emails and who gets carbon copied on what communication.

I believe that as a leader, our first responsibility after making a decision (or learning of a decision), is to ask the question, “When and how should this decision be communicated to others?” It’s so easy to have what I call “in-the-know-amnesia.” We can so easily forget how we learned something, when we learned something and who does not yet have the same information. This amnesia keeps team members in the dark and can unintentionally foster a sense of disunity and a lack of trust.

The questions you ask and how you listen are also essential to effective communication and building a team. I recently asked my direct reports individually to answer two questions for me that I got from another 4word woman: “What can you count on me for? What can’t you count on me for?” And how I listen to and respond to their feedback is critical to the level of transparency I’ll receive the next time that I ask for feedback. It’s important to create different opportunities for feedback: collectively, individually and anonymously.

What tips or tricks have you learned along the way that anyone can implement and help bring their team together? 

You can start with defining your personal values as a leader and then defining your team’s values and culture together. The gap between the stated values and the perceived values can illuminate potential areas for team growth.

Regularly revisit your meeting and communication strategies. What is the objective of each meeting? Consider adding the objective to the top of each meeting agenda. Can any meetings be eliminated, combined, or the frequency and length reduced? Are there any meetings that need to be added to help to build relationships or better foster collaboration?

How well do you know your team members? How well do your team members know each other? Is there a meeting where you can add a smart, standing team building question? Is there a personality/strengths assessment that your team can take and discuss together? Ask your team to select a book they’d want to read together and then weekly discuss a chapter at a time.

Brainstorm with your team how they’d want to celebrate their next win or the completion of a major project. What are common things your team would enjoy doing together and outside of your work environment?

Does your team share any healthy matras or sayings? If so, use them to rally your team and to build your team’s culture. Consider picking a team “word of the year.”

Evaluate how and when you ask for feedback. Collect great questions to ask.

In closing, it’s never too late to make changes in how you function as a member of a team or how you lead a team. Lean into your natural strengths and ask for help from others to give input to your blindspots and to shore up your weaknesses. There are countless ways that we get to live out of faith in the marketplace by how we work alongside others.

Trina Lee is a non-profit professional. She leads the U.S. sponsorship team for Africa New Life, which is transforming the lives of over 10,000 students in Rwanda. Trina is also part of the 4word team, manages the 4word Mentor Program, and has personally paired over 500 mentor pairs together. She’s been part of 4word since 2011 and serves on the 4word: Portland leadership team.