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6 DOs and DON’Ts for Killer Creative Teams: Confession of a bad team player

In my day-to-day life as an art director, being a team player has some challenges. Most of the time I think I manage pretty well, though it has taken a lot of practice. Over ten years ago, I was just a fine art student at Bowie State University dealing with a dreaded group project. Cue ominous music. You all remember the collective groans we   all had when a professor started matching us up with the class full of strangers? The theme from jaws plays.

Fine art majors had the unusual requirement of taking twelve theatre credits. The structure of the group project was that the teams each had to make decisions themselves how to split the work and would receive a single grade for the entire group. We didn’t have an assigned leader or structure, we had to decide how to proceed from scratch from that I learned a few tough lessons. How do we as a member of a team contribute and be ready to take on various roles?

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much” Helen Keller

Our first assignment was to research and individually present pieces of theatre history. It seemed easy enough for us to quickly discuss which part we would each work on. Once on my own, working on my section I’d run across information that my teammates agreed to take care of. I’d worry that they wouldn’t do their part, so I’d type up what excess research I found.

As a working professional, think about how ridiculous that really would be now. If I – as a professional designer – were to start editing copy. How this would show my lack of faith in my editor. Or in my ability to communicate and manage my concerns. I’ve had this happen to me, where a copy editor would redesign my pages according to their whims: Dude, either get a job as a designer or stick to editing copy. As pop singer Sara Bareilles once said, that kind of “help just hurts.”

On one hand, I took sole responsibility for my grade.  On the other hand, I didn’t take the step to even try directly addressing potential issues with my teammates. Ultimately, we discovered just before the presentation that my team member did fail to have their assignment completed. She did use my notes at the last minute. I had now encouraged and enabled her to continue to not contribute. It would have made more sense to meet well before the presentation to practice and check our work. At that point, we would have discovered the lack of committment and been able to decide on consequences from there.

DON’T be a pushover or enable others.

DO build in time to check your team’s productivity.
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In my imaginary version redoing these events, we would have discussed these problem as a team. My more assertive present-self would suggest to younger me to arrange regular meetings. Use them as a chance for everyone in the group to bring up concerns. The key is to focus on behavior and how it impacts the team. Be constructive and have empathy by asking them why they are struggling. They likely already know they are causing a problem, yet are acting unable to hold themselves accountable. If you really want a helpful response, it helps to appear sincerely curious as someone who is on their side. Otherwise, they may just be glad to bring you down with their sinking ship. If they’re really unable to do the task, discuss what can be done.

These days at work, if I’m really overloaded and can’t make a deadline I’ve learned to express politely honesty and to ask for honesty in others. The regular meetings build in opportunities for positive communication and a focus on constructive criticism as part of your regular interactions.

DON’T pressure, assign blame or take productivity issues as a personal assault.

DO be aware of feelings and find constructive ways of dealing with them.
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As the semester continued, we eventually wrote an assigned play together. Conversation was a bit uncomfortable considering we were a group of introverted strangers. Paying attention to this, a team member noted we weren’t getting more than a basic plot developed through our continued discussion.

In the spirit of improv theatre’s “Yes and” philosophy, we all nodded and had built on this thought to develop a plan. Since I had once a worked on a comic strip project once where each would draw a piece and then improvise based on what had come before, I pitched that idea for our writing play. We wrote three separate parts one after the other, with the person whose schedule allowed to finish the writing of our beginning and then passing it on to the next member.

We didn’t know then that the “collective intelligence” of teams is not based on IQ. It turns out that it’s based on the ability for team members to take turns during conversation according to research led by Anita Woolley of Carnegie Mellon. Being aware as individuals of the “social sensitivity” of the group dynamic as an individual and how you give to it can change your ability to perform. Listening will help find and work with the strengths and experiences of each team member

DON’T focus on your team’s weaknesses.

DO listen carefully.
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The teammate who I was enabling wasn’t the only problem. As I was the last team member to work on the play’s finale, I also had the least amount of time to study the first two parts. I felt I had a strong memory, yet didn’t account for the amount of time it took to memorize and practice lines. I totally bombed during our in-class play performance.  This was one case where the reception of the performance and disappointment among my team members was consequence enough to refocus my behavior. Internally, I took responsibility for my unprepared performance and future performances for the class improved. While the group was conflict averse, conflict is necessary for change and inevitable.

DON’T underestimate the time it takes carry out your plans. 

DO be ready.
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As I was a fine art student, part of one class was to have sessions overseeing the art shows on campus. A simple job of greeting people who entered the gallery asking them to sign the guest book. One of my group members visited the show and I greeted her by the wrong name… I noticed in the guest book after she left. It was a terrible faux pas that I addressed and apologized for next meeting.

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Research by MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory shows that teams who communicate outside of formal meetings and who have increased opportunities for information communication do better.

DON’T avoid addressing the elephants in the room. 

DO get to know your team personally.
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As none of us had much practice with leadership, the professor took that role and discussed our team dynamic and addressed directly that she would have liked to have assigned us to different groups for more balanced. None of us had experience with the necessary decisiveness at the time. Ultimately, even if the real group dynamics never really worked, this turned out to serve as a great learning experience which was the real purpose of college study. Just because it doesn’t work out the way we wanted, doesn’t mean it didn’t work out.

When we are learning, we feel that our actions directly impact our future. According to researchers Martin Seligman and Roy Baumeister, this sense of control connects to to a meaningfulness and happiness.

DON’T beat yourself over imperfect experiences.

DO learn from every situation and give yourself credit
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For more ways to work with others, see my podcast episode on How to Collaborate More Effectively. So how do you think I could I have dealt with these situations better? Have you had any terrible teamwork experiences that had very little team or work?

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Brian E. Young

I'm a graphic designer (portfolio), classical pianist and artist in Baltimore, MD. I host the Uncanny Creativity Podcast helping to demystify the creative process and creator of Funlooksfun.com, an online shop for apparel and games. Twitter: @sketchee

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