Individuals often shy away from teamwork because they have a preconceived notion that teamwork is inefficient. How many times have you heard someone say, “I can do it by myself faster” or “I can do it by myself better”? As an instructor, I have often heard these comments. Why do instructors force students to form teams and study groups when individuals prefer to work alone?
Earlier today, I took a moment to reflect upon the importance of teamwork. As Director of Admissions for the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Waterloo, I rely upon a highly-skilled team to review and assess applications to undergraduate engineering programs at the University of Waterloo. It is a task that no individual could reasonably perform. Effective teamwork is the only solution to this challenging problem. Thankfully, I have one of the best teams working with me on this daunting task. Our team also has the support of other teams on campus that help us with planning for the future, marketing programs, analyzing trends, and communicating with applicants.
Shown below is an image depicting teamwork taken on campus a few weeks ago. Clearing a university campus of snow requires teamwork and coordination. More than one snow plow is required to clear the university parking lots efficiently. Thankfully, most of our snow has melted as our local temperature has been above freezing for over 24 hours.
An effective team is clearly capable of superior work when compared to the output of an individual. Just imagine how ridiculous it would be to play a team sport such as football with the support of a great team. I am confident that Tom Brady, quarterback of the New England Patriots, would concede the game if facing an opposing team without an offensive line to support him. Given a great team to support him, he was able to guide the New England Patriots to win Super Bowl LIII.
What do all the best engineering companies have in common? They have highly productive teams. We can’t possibly expect an engineer to build something amazing without the support of a team. So why do individuals avoid teamwork if it has such great potential?
Here are some of my thoughts on why individuals avoid teamwork…
Teamwork requires effective communication. This is a surprisingly difficult task. You might know how to draw an object but instructing someone else to do so is not easy. You might know how to write a function in a programming language but again, describing it takes almost as long as doing the coding yourself. To communicate effectively, you need to learn to exchange information precisely using as little information as possible. You need to understand your audience. High school students are often trained to do the exact opposite. In high school, essays have word counts. Students learn to write sentences using as many unnecessary phrases as possible. They do not tailor their writing to their audience.
Communication is also difficult because each individual interprets words and sentences differently. Context is very important. A sentence said by one individual may be interpreted in many different ways. This is particularly true with the English language where idioms are common. The English language rains cats and dogs with idioms! Yes, that was a poor example of an idiom for those who might be translating this blog to another language.
However, effective communication is something that can be learned with time. It takes practice. Avoiding teamwork is a sure fire way to ensure that you do not practice your communication skills. Waterloo Engineering students frequently work in teams to improve their communication skills and interpersonal skills. Students also gain a valuable opportunity to expand their network when working in teams. They learn to support each other.
Lacking a Common Goal
Some teams simply lack a common goal. If all teammates are not working towards a common goal, you will never be completely successful as a team. It is difficult, if not impossible, to satisfy several goals at once. Even if you can satisfy multiple goals, the solution is unlikely to be simultaneously optimal for each goal.
This is why effective teams spend time establishing a common goal and a process for achieving the goal. It may be difficult but this effort will always be rewarded. Some teams spend more time planning a project than implementing it. This is okay. It is probably more effective than wasting time on interim solutions that can never satisfy the goal. This is not to say that iterative design approaches are useless. Design iterations clearly have value but only if you are working towards a common goal with a well engineered process.
You can’t always choose your teammates. Even if you can, you don’t always have a deep pool of candidates for your team. If you are surrounded by people who are not working at the same level as you, teamwork can be incredibly frustrating. In high school, this is often the case. If you are the top student in your high school thinking about applying to Waterloo Engineering, you have probably been a part of several teams that have been dysfunctional where you have had to take on a leadership role. Perhaps you even had to complete all of the work to achieve your team’s goals. These bad experiences reinforce the belief that teamwork is doomed to failure.
However, even if you have had a few bad teamwork experiences in the past, this doesn’t mean that you should give up on teamwork entirely. Many of life’s greatest engineering achievements required effective teamwork. Thankfully, you will not always be surrounded by people who are not working at your level. At the University of Waterloo, you are just as likely to work with someone working at an even higher level. I can recall learning more from my teammates in my 4th year of studies than I did during some of my lectures. By fourth year, I was working with teammates who knew immediately how to communicate ideas to me.
Incidentally, this is also why great engineering companies have productive teams. Great companies hire great people. When they put teams together, the members of the team communicate effectively and contribute positively to the team. The end result is a highly effective team.
For those interested in another viewpoint on the value of teamwork, check out the following post by Alexander Hogeveen Rutter entitled, “The Value of Teamwork in 2018”. In his post, he touches on some of the same ideas that I have mentioned but also provides some insight into how to be a good team player. It is a great article worth reading.
So perhaps, if you are an individual that prefers working alone, you should give teamwork another chance. It’s not always easy but if done correctly, teamwork is superior to working alone.