What does it mean to be a team player at work? Does it mean making a fresh pot of coffee when you notice it’s running low? Does it mean picking up the slack for a team member who has suddenly been called on to care for her aging father? Or is it about learning how to work toward your corporate goals as a team with ease and efficiency? Perhaps it’s a combination of these big and small steps.
Below are four strategies that will expand the definition of what it means to be a team player and provides practical steps for improving your team player game.
Amplify and uplift your team.
We may have been taught about the survival of the fittest and coached to seek opportunities only for ourselves. But, being a team player may have bigger benefits on your workplace and on your career. You can improve your leadership skills as you support your team.
Leadership coach and DEI trainer, Carolina Caro, calls this “cultivating the genius” in others. She writes, “If you spend your time cultivating the genius in others rather than needing to be the genius, people will naturally gravitate toward you because you will inspire and empower them to realize their potential” . Inspiration is contagious and it feels good. If you inspire others by amplifying their great ideas, your team will work more cohesively to realize goals and, in turn, they will be receptive to your ideas as well. By creating a culture that calls out the good in others, your team will be a safe and inspiring place to work.
You’ve heard of aggressive drivers and aggressive dogs, but have you heard of aggressive listening? Instead of thinking of listening as a passive activity, aggressive listening flips the script. Esther Choy of Leadership Story Lab explains the three tenets of aggressive listening:
- Body Language: lean in and make eye contact.
- Further their story by asking good questions and summarizing what you’ve heard.
- Give them the spotlight. Choy suggests that listeners should resist the desire to interject with their own story: “We often think of sharing a similar story as a demonstration of empathy. But too often it merely puts our own story in the spotlight and pushes our conversation partner’s story aside” .
Listening aggressively will help you connect with your coworkers authentically. Because your coworkers will feel heard when they are around you, you will build a more trusting relationship.
Embrace imposter syndrome.
Sometimes when you are learning how to do something new you may feel like an imposter. Consider this to be a good thing. Herminia Ibarra in the Harvard Business Review writes: “Because going against our natural inclinations can make us feel like impostors, we tend to latch on to authenticity as an excuse for sticking with what’s comfortable” . Being comfortable can stand in the way of innovation and learning.
To be a good team player, you need to be able to step out of your comfort zone to help with new and different strategies. You can reframe the feeling of being an imposter as being a learner who is up for a new challenge.
Ibarra warns though being too honest (or authentic) about feeling like an imposter can backfire. For example, a newly hired manager could lose the trust of his direct reports if he reveals he feels a bit unmoored by his new role upon meeting his new team. Therefore, you must learn to read the room: When is it okay to admit you are feeling challenged by new circumstances and when do you just need to brave the new waters with eagerness?
Read a novel.
Does sitting in a sunny cafe window reading the newest Kazuo Ishiguro novel improve your ability to be a good team player at work? Yes, it does. Neuroscientists are finding that people who read literary fiction have higher degrees of empathy and critical thinking skills. Here’s what they are saying: “reading fiction predicts increased social acuity and a sharper ability to comprehend other people’s motivations” . It is precisely these kinds of skills — or emotional intelligences — that help a person relate to the people around them, and often they are what managers are looking for when looking to form a team.
It’s important to know these skills can be cultivated through the enjoyable experience of reading fiction. If you feel like your workplace needs more empathy or generosity or a way to relate to something other than work, you could start a book club.
A book club may sound daunting, especially if you are new to reading fiction. But online resources can help you get started. NPR’s Book Concierge, for example, can help you select your first book.
You also don’t have to reinvent the wheel to get your first discussion started: you can find resources like this one or this one with questions broad enough to spark a conversation about any book. Many publishing houses also create readers’ guides for their books.
From these four strategies, it can be seen that being a great team player isn’t about sacrificing your career trajectory or your own needs, but learning how to lead, learn and listen with empathy and courage. All the skills that will help you work better with your team, will also help you excel and grow in your career.
If you enjoyed this article, you might also like:
- How to be an LGBTQIA+ Ally at Work
- What HBO’s Insecure Taught Me About Business and Life
- Ways to Show Appreciation at Work
- 7 Tips for Collaborating With Your Designer Colleagues
 Carolina Caro. Developing Conscious Leadership and Mindful Workplaces. 2018.
 Esther Choy. Use Leadership Storytelling To Connect With Everyone. Leadership Story Lab. 2020.
 Hermina Ibarra. The Authenticity Paradox. Harvard Business Review. 2015.
 Christine Seifert. The Case for Reading Fiction. Harvard Business Review. 2020.