Tips for High-Impact Teamwork: Range and Consistency in Teamwork

Tyler Reimschisel, Associate Provost for Interprofessional Education, Research and Collaborative Practice

By Tyler Reimschisel

Teamwork is a skill. This means that no matter how good or effective we are at working on teams, we can always improve if we practice deliberately and effectively. I recently had the opportunity to consider expertise in two skills-based activities, and I think those experiences are informative in how we think about the skill of teamwork.

We frequently hear people say that healthcare is a team sport. I think that one of the limitations of that metaphor is that playing a sport is almost always a competitive experience. I don’t think we need more competition in healthcare teams. Instead, I prefer comparing a healthcare team, or any collaborative team, to the teamwork that we see in an orchestra.

A few weeks ago, I received free tickets to hear The Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Music Center. I had a wonderful time listening to our city’s world-class orchestra because I thoroughly enjoy classical music. I am always struck by the control that they demonstrate across the full range of volumes, tempos and moods. For example, during this single concert, they were able to maintain their musicality and pitch when playing very loudly, especially given the number of musicians on stage. Then, later in the concert, they faded out so masterfully that their quietness gently became silence. It happened so gradually that it was hard for me to identify when their hushed tones ceased and total silence in the concert hall began. Simply amazing! 

How does this relate to our work in teams? Well, how good is your team’s range? Are you able to stay as controlled during stressful times as you are when there is less pressure on the team? When challenges arise, does your team always respond the same way, or are you able to modulate your response to match the unique needs of the situation? Sometimes during a difficult situation, teams need to buckle down, push back or work harder. At other times, the situation calls for a purposeful pause in the action, a huddle to regroup or a commitment to step away from simply “doing” to carefully consider the appropriate next steps as a team.

Can your team quickly, effectively, and accurately assess the situation, adapt appropriately, and select the best approach according to the context of the challenge? If not, then perhaps you should spend time as a team discussing the process you will use as a team to demonstrate a better range of responses so you are not taking a “one-size-fits-all” approach to every challenging situation that forces your team to adapt. 

Additionally, what is your range of skill as an individual on your teams? For example, can you foster psychological safety with the team members you do not get along with as well as with those who you like? Can you manifest self-regulation and other features of emotional intelligence when you are tired as well as when you are just returning from a vacation?

Like I asked above about your team, are you able to modulate your individual response to the unique needs of the situation or do you always respond the same way to every challenge? For example, sometimes we need to express our anger or frustration as strong, professional advocacy while at other times we need to humble ourselves and contritely dwell in the difficulty to learn from the experience.

Do you have the self-control and self-efficacy to know which response is the most appropriate? Sometimes more than one approach is required in a single situation. Can you pivot in real time to align your response so it benefits the team and not just you as an individual? Since we are not very good at self-assessment, I encourage you to discuss these questions with one or more trusted colleagues so you can gain better insight into your strengths and opportunities for improvement.

I recently had another occasion to consider expertise in a skill-based activity. The one sport I can play reasonably well is tennis. (In this case, let’s just say that I am taking liberties with the definition of “reasonably well.”)

A few weeks ago, I was talking to the pro who I take lessons from about the levels of tennis players from amateurs to professionals on the tennis circuit. He pointed out that one of the major differences between his ability and the pros on the circuit is their level of consistency. Whereas he can return a backhand as hard as they can, they are able to do it consistently shot after shot after shot. Even at my very amateur level of play, he pointed out that I am able to hit a nice forehand three to five times in a row, but then I mess up the sixth or seventh shot. Consistency is definitely one of the core features that differentiates better players from the rest of us. 

Consistency is also a core feature of effective teamwork. Maybe we are good at testing our inferences and assumptions when teammates we like frustrate us, but can we use the same approach over and over again when teammates we do not like frustrate us?

Perhaps we ask genuine questions to learn another team member’s perspective the first few times we disagree. But can we do it consistently after several disagreements have arisen between us?

On some occasions, we may be able to interrupt a team member who starts to gossip about someone on the team. But can we consistently resist the urge to participate in gossip with anyone on our team, including our supervisors and leaders? 

I think if we are honest with ourselves— as individuals and as teams—we can always make improvements in all of these areas. This is why I constantly teach and coach that teamwork is a set of skills. Like learning any set of skills, we should maintain a growth mindset when learning how to be more effective and impactful in a team.

We should identify those skills where we are relatively better and those where we have more areas for improvement. We should consider the full range of teamwork skills, including how consistent we are with individual or team behaviors that foster better teamwork. Once we have identified areas to work on, we should deliberately practice by devoting time and energy to building our strengths and enhancing areas of relative deficiency or weakness. 

Hopefully, you can commit some time this summer to reflect on your individual attributes as a team member and can also talk with your team about opportunities for team growth. Consider the range of teamwork skills you and your team demonstrate and how consistently you and your team practice those skills in all situations. 

As I close this article, I want to let you know that The Huddle will likely be published once a month in June and July. To submit any news, announcements, or celebrations that you would like to share, visit The Huddle homepage