Teamwork: The Perfect Place to Practice Your Soft Skills

By Caitlin Williams, Ph.D.

Welcome back, everyone! Over the past six months, we’ve looked at a definition of soft skills, why they are so crucial in the workplace, how you can polish them to help in your job search and interviews, and how they can make a huge difference in your everyday interactions with colleagues.

Now it’s time to take an even broader look at the value of soft skills – this time through the focus on how soft skills make a difference in a team environment.

Have you ever been part of a team? (Even school projects and presentations count here.) Are you on a team now? Do you currently lead a team? Chances are very high that you answered “yes” to at least two of these questions. And your experience in being part of a team may range anywhere from “I thoroughly enjoy(ed) my team membership/team leadership experience” to “The team I’m on is dysfunctional, and I’m not enjoying the experience at all!”

Why is there such a wide variation in feelings about participating in a team? First, ask yourself just how much you think soft skills contribute to the effectiveness of a team. The answer? Soft skills contribute tremendously to the smooth performance of a team. Second, it’s essential to recognize that each team member (including the team leader) comes to the experience with a different agenda, as well as various concerns, goals, and motivations. Also remember that some individuals are there because they volunteered to be on the team, while others were told to be there. All these factors can result in different feelings about team participation.

Here is another question for you.  Consider and then write down a list of the soft skills you think might contribute to the team dynamics that are part of the team experience.  Each time a team meets – whether they’re together for a brief time or they’re working together for a longer duration, team dynamics are at work. And soft skills are also part of the experience for remote teams that meet virtually through Skype or email and conferencing (which can add more challenges to the encounters).

See if any of these soft skills came up when you put together your list:

  • Listening
  • Communication
  • Questioning
  • Clarifying
  • Persuading
  • Organizational Skills
  • Persistence
  • Adaptability/Flexibility
  • Respect
  • Problem Solving
  • Negotiation
  • Sensitivity to the needs of other team members
  • Perceptiveness

And for team leaders, add these soft skills as well:

  • Setting ground rules that everyone can agree to
  • Establishing a safe and respectful environment
  • Creating a climate of trust
  • Helping team members find common ground and develop shared goals.
  • Conflict resolution

Your list might be even longer.  The critical point here is to recognize how much it takes for a team to work well together.  A well-functioning team doesn’t just happen – it takes intention and attention on the part of each team member.

Of course, there is the content a team must focus on – the reason the group has been formed in the first place.  Perhaps it’s to set policy, resolve an issue, research an important topic, or respond to a question raised by leadership. Whatever the reason and focus of the team, to accomplish its goal(s), it needs to run smoothly to accomplish its task.

Beyond knowing and understanding the stages of team development (forming, storming, norming and performing), it is a good idea to give attention to the soft skills that will make your team work more effectively at each stage of its development.

Here are some ideas:

  • Before deciding that you’re on a “dysfunctional” team that could only improve if “they” would change, ask yourself how your behavior or mistaken assumptions might be hampering the team’s progress. For example, if your opinion is that the team’s task is a waste of time or cannot be completed, trying reframing the experience into one where you can get to know and interact with others, offer your best ideas, and polish a particular soft skill.
  • If you find yourself getting irritated by team members who don’t speak up often, consider that they may prefer a different style of contributing, such as thinking everything through first internally, before they even open their mouth to contribute to the discussion! (For more information about how individuals have and use different styles of interacting, read about the Myers Briggs Type Indicator).
  • Set a particular goal for the team meeting before it begins. For example:
    • What is one important point you want to contribute? Given your own unique experience and background, what is the particular perspective you can offer to the discussion? (Remember that team membership often includes people from various areas within an organization, so your view can add a lot to the team).
    • What is one particular question you want to ask that will help clarify the issue/goal/problem for you?  
    • Who is one person on the team you would like to understand or get to know better? How can you make that happen?
    • If you’re leading the team, what leadership skill can you work on during the next team get-together?
  • There has been a lot of discussion about EI (Emotional Intelligence) and the effectiveness of teams.  (If you haven’t had the chance to read about Emotional Intelligence and Soft Skills in the March issue of ALA’s Library Worklife, you may find it helpful to do so.)  The discussion of EI and teams suggests that a team, as a whole, can demonstrate higher Emotional Intelligence and perform more successfully by doing so. One of the ways a team can achieve a higher EI score is to “frame issues from the perspective of the team, rather than from pure self-interest” (Kohn & O’Connell, p. 80).  
  • What does that mean for you, as a team member or team leader?  It suggests that you can add value to your team by asking yourself what perspective or course of action would be best for the team overall and then direct your contribution to that end.  As a team leader, you can ask that same question and discuss this perspective with team members to determine how you might all work toward this end.

Consider soft skills the next time you volunteer to be on a team or are asked to do so.  Paying attention to your soft skills development during your team experience will benefit your team – and you’ll have the chance to make the experience a growth opportunity for yourself, as well.

Soft Skills and Team Participation Resources

  • Benincasa, Robyn.  “Mutual Respect Is the Foundation for Your Team’s Extreme Performance.”
  • Drenth, A. J. (2014).  My True Type: Clarifying Your Personality Type, Preferences & Functions.  Inquire Books.
  • Kohn, Stephen E. and Vincent D. O’Connell.  6 Habits of Highly Effective Teams. (2007). Franklin Lakes, NJ: Career Press.
  • Lundber, Sofie.  “Soft skill: Teamwork.”
  • Lynn, Adele B. (2007).  Quick Emotional Activities for Busy Managers: 50 Team Exercises That Get Results in Just 15 Minutes.  NY: American Management Association.
  • Porter, Jennifer. “To Improve Your team, First Work on Yourself.” January 29, 2019.