Team Up Communicate To Collaborate
Link & Learn
Teams Are Ubiquitous
Collaboration is crucial in sports, philanthropy, business, and life. Consider the following quotes:
“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.”
“You can do what I cannot. I can do what you cannot. Together we can do great things.”
“Good crews are good blends of personalities: someone to lead the charge, someone to hold something in reserve; someone to pick a fight, someone to make peace; someone to think things through, someone to charge ahead without thinking.”
Daniel James Brown, in The Boys in the Boat
“Great things in business are never done by one person. They’re done by a team of people.”
“Your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else."
Starting with your first professional job, your career success will depend on your ability to collaborate. This chapter begins with some tips on team development. The focus then shifts to professional communication in three collaborative settings:
- Workplace platforms like Slack, Teams, and Workspace.
Section OneTeam Development
Teams, groups, committees, councils, cohorts—these and other small collections of people require communication skills that are different from one-on-one or one-on-many communication. Foremost among these skills is the ability to overcome differences of opinion.
You've probably heard the stages of team development:
- forming (initial orientation and relationship formation)
- storming (conflict over goals, tasks, and roles)
- norming (developing team rules and processes)
- performing (getting the job done)
- ajourning (disbanding the team)
Although the research that first described these stages is more than 60 years old, the stages have gained wide acceptance in the professional world.
Subsequent research has shown that storming is not a stage that the team passes through, but rather a constant feature of teamwork. Personalities clash; disagreements arise. Learning how to avoid conflict as much as possible, then manage it when it arises, are crucial professional skills.
The best tool for preventing team conflict is to create a team charter during the forming stage. A team charter is a simple document that captures the goal(s), expectations, roles, and rules that will govern the team.
WHY and HOW of TEAM CHARTERS
This 2022 article from the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership covers why and how of team charters.
Activity 7.1 Create a Team Charter
Use the guidelines in the Center for Creative Leadership article to create a charter for a team you belong to. Make sure each member of your team has input and signs the charter.
Even the most thorough and well-intended charter won’t completely prevent intra-team conflict. Keep in mind, however, that not all conflict is counterproductive. Encouraging everyone to contribute ideas and solutions will lead to disagreements, but such diversity of thought is crucial to high-quality work. As Stanford Professor Kathy Eisenhardt explains in her classic 1997 Harvard Business Review article, “The absence of conflict is not harmony; it’s apathy.”
When tempers boil over and teamwork starts to derail, your ability to resolve conflict will set you apart. Although conflict resolution is a complex skill that could easily fill its own textbook, these six pointers from Dr. Eisenhardt’s article will help you play a calming, unifying role on the team:
- Focus on facts, not personalities. Stay above the emotions by steering the discussion toward what’s right, not who’s right.
- Highlight the team’s shared goals. Find common ground by emphasizing agreed-upon objectives, roles, and deadlines.
- Express value for diverse viewpoints. Acknowledge everyone’s opinions and perspectives. Make sure everyone feels heard.
- Deploy humor. Find a self-deprecating way to get people laughing at the conflict rather than intensifying it. Never ridicule or belittle teammates in the guise of humor, however.
- Share power. If a dominating team member is exercising undue influence, change the dynamics by inviting a less-dominant team member to have equal say.
- Seek “qualified” consensus. Consensus is achieved when everyone agrees to support a decision. Consensus should always be the goal, but when it’s not achievable, work out a “majority vote” approach in order to move forward. This works best if the team has agreed to support majority decisions, which sometimes requires members to “agree to disagree.”
Meetings can be valuable. They can also be excruciating. A group of high-paid professionals represents a big chunk of labor costs, but the opportunity costs are even bigger. Think of the work you could have completed if you’d been excused from your most recent pointless meeting. Now multiply that work by the millions of people who endure inefficient meetings each day. Are you starting to see the productivity drain associated with meetings?
Before you join a social movement to abolish meetings, recognize they’re not going away soon. In fact, employees at high-performing companies spend more time in meetings than their peers at low-performing companies, according to a 2019 study by consulting firm BCG. High-performing companies know how to run productive meetings. As a result, their employees spend less time on email. (More on this below.)
“Wait,” you protest, “I have no control over the meetings I attend. I’m not in charge.”
Think again. Your skill as a communicator influences the set up and outcome of the meetings you attend. Learn how to be a stellar meeting participant now. That way, when you’re in charge, your meetings will be appealing, not appalling. Just follow the five rules covered in BCG’s study.
1. Don't Save Problems and Questions for the Next Team Meeting
Always use the simplest and quickest communication method to resolve issues. Real-time communication is often best: a quick face-to-face chat in person or on video or even a phone call. This rule is especially useful for sensitive topics that require reading nonverbal cues. Emails and chat messages are too easy to misinterpret.
Waiting for the next meeting to raise a current issue may unnecessarily highjack the meeting’s agenda, thereby prolonging the discussion. Use team meetings to discuss issues that legitimately require everyone’s contribution.
2. Influence Your Team's Meeting Culture
Quickly audit your team’s meeting culture by answering the following questions:
- Are your meetings driven by the schedule or the need? If your team is meeting just because it’s time for your weekly meeting, talk to your teammates and manager about switching to an as-needed approach. Or propose short daily huddles instead of long weekly reviews.
- Does your team have a “meeting budget”? Some companies impose limits on the amount of time teams can spend in meetings. Once a team has used up its allotment of minutes, no more meetings are allowed that week.
- Are teammates allowed to opt out of meetings? Team members with nothing to contribute should be honorably excused from the meeting. And after team members report or resolve their issues, they shouldn’t have to sit through the rest of the meeting.
3. Own the Agenda
Make your team leader’s life easier by volunteering to create and distribute the agenda before each formal meeting. Solicit input from your teammates. Include the meeting’s goals, outcomes, and decisions.
Go one step further by offering your services as timekeeper, gently reminding the group when it’s time to move to the next item on the agenda. Circulate a brief recap with action items, assignments, and deadlines
Apply at least one of the BCG meeting rules in your next team meeting. Reflect on how it worked. Were your teammates resistant? Did it help make the meeting more productive?
Pep Up Your Virtual Meetings
Virtual meetings are now the norm, but communication habits from the face-to-face era don’t work well online. Here are four energizing tips from Jim Szafranski, CEO of Prezi.
Distribute the meeting’s agenda and action items as video messages.
Pre-record a short video inviting team members to the meeting and explaining the purpose, agenda, and required prep. Then trim the meeting's recording to capture just the action items and send it out as a follow up.
Be inclusive in new ways.
Hybrid and virtual meetings offer myriad ways to include participants. Avoid asking blanket questions to “the room.” Instead, direct questions to specific team members, either verbally or via the chat feature. Ask teammates to “pass the mic” to other attendees the same way. This way, quieter voices will be heard.
Consider asynchronous meetings.
Think of the difference between live TV and on-demand streaming. On-demand works better for many shows—and for many meetings. Record your message, and then ask globally distributed team members to record their reactions, questions, and other contributions. All team members can hear everyone’s input at the time that’s most convenient for them. Reserve synchronous meetings for times when a live conversation is absolutely necessary.
Source: "Stop Hosting Boring Virtual Meetings" Harvard Business Review, 07 February 2022.
4. Eliminate the Distractions
Multitasking is a myth. Your team’s meetings will take less time if all agree to leave their mobile devices at their desks — unless, of course, they’re joining via their mobile device.
5. Advocate for DMZs
A DMZ is a “de-meetinged” zone—a block of time on each team member’s calendar when meetings are not allowed. For example, BCG North America has “Focus Fridays”; all meetings are prohibited after 1:00 PM. That meeting-free time is devoted to uninterrupted, “heads-down” work.
Not all meetings need to be held sitting down or even indoors. If appropriate, invite someone to a walking meeting. Brains sometimes work better when your limbs are moving. If a walking meeting doesn’t work for you, invite someone to a lunch meeting.
Sample Meeting Agenda
- Project Coordination (9:00 a.m. - 20 min)
- Individual role updates
- Roadblocks to address
- Brainstorm: New remote work policy (9:20 a.m. - 20 min)
- KSS discussion: Keep, Stop, Start re: remote work?
- Summarize and make assignments (9:40 a.m. - 5 min)
In hybrid meetings, those gathered in the meeting room should also join on their computers but mute the audio. This strategy enables remote participants to clearly see each in-person participant and thus feel more connected.
Section ThreeWorkplace Collaboration Tools
In August 2013, Slack was launched to the public. For workers raised on social media, Slack provided an intuitive, flexible, chat-based platform for workplace communication. Its growth was meteoric.
Success breeds imitation. Facebook launched its Workplace product in October 2016. Microsoft launched Teams in March 2017. Google has been retooling various products to create an integrated Workspace product. Skype offered Skype for Business until its owner (Microsoft) folded Skype business users into Teams. Cisco continues to enhance its Webex suite.
Simply put, workplace collaboration tools (WCTs) make our jobs easier. Thoughtful use of a WCT can unify a team, reduce the need for face-to-face team meetings, and decrease the volume of intrateam email traffic.
On the other hand, WCTs can become yet another distraction. When used without discipline, WCTs pull employees away from productive work on the job and interrupt employees’ off-work hours.
This section introduces some basic rules for maximizing the pros and minimizing the cons of WCTs.
1. Know your purpose and your audience
Communicating in a WCT is like using an online chat or texting app. Messages are instant and informal. For this reason, WCTs work best for internal communication, especially within your team or department.
WCTs excel at getting quick answers to general questions. They foster collaboration because everyone on the chat sees the question and can respond simultaneously. In this sense, they are synchronous but not face to face, perfect for collaborative problem solving or brainstorming without having to call a meeting.
Email is still preferred for communication with external audiences—those outside your department, particularly external customers. Email also works better than WCTs for messages that contain detailed instructions, policy statements, or any message that you want to be semi-permanent and searchable.
2. Adapt Your Writing Style
Loosen up. WCT chats are less formal than email messages. Chats do not need full SMART structure, and emojis are fine—even encouraged—within WCTs. In all professional communication, however, avoid crass or offensive emojis.
Be brief. Keep messages brief and clear. Use short paragraphs. If your message requires some detail, show courtesy by crafting the entire message and then copying it into a chat before sending. The alternative—a series of one-sentence messages—will annoy your audience because each message triggers a notification.
Another courtesy in long messages is to lead with a summary—the main idea in a crisp sentence. Then say, “Additional details in the replies.” Reply to your own message with the details. Those wanting the headline can simply read your summary; the detail hounds can comb through your reply.
Be visual. Use fundamental formatting elements to add visual interest, break up your message, and call attention to key points. Bullet points, icons, bolding, and emojis can be used with a modicum of restraint to make your message come alive.
If you work with colleagues in different time zones, put your location and time zone on your messages. That way your teammates will know what hours they can expect you to be “at your desk.”
An excellent feature of most WCTs is the personal DM—a direct message that goes only to you. Use personal DM for drafts of important messages. If you accidentally hit send, no damage control is needed.
3. Organize Your information
Use private channels for team-only messaging. When a specific discussion becomes relevant for only a subset of the team, create a new channel for the smaller group. Although WCTs offer a direct-message (DM) feature, use it only for personal messages to co-workers. Most of your posts should include the team so others can benefit from your ideas and see answers to your questions.
Use mentions (signified by the @ before a teammate’s name) to notify specific individuals of assignments or replies—but use judiciously to avoid over-notifying people.
Some organizations create a “watercooler” channel for fun, funny, non-productive chats and sharing.
Channels are helpful, but always double check which channel you’re posting to before you hit send. You’ll avoid some embarrassment and apologies.
Within a channel, use the “pin” feature to keep key discussions at the top of the list
Threads are a series of replies by you or mutiple people in response to the same email or post in a collaborative tool.
4. Avoid Overload
Technology can be addictive. If you find your attention being hijacked by your WCT, take protective measures:
Manage your notifications. It’s OK to turn them off during times when you want to focus on your work, as well as after hours and on weekends. You can also set your status to show you’re not available. Well-functioning teams agree on ground rules about when team members are reachable and how quickly they’re expected to respond.
Let your teammates know when you’re not available via the WCT. Always provide another method of contact for emergency communication (i.e., phone call or non-WCT text message).
Never criticize anyone in a WCT. Follow the proven wisdom of “praise publicly, criticize in private.”
Read and apply Taskworld’s Eight Etiquette Tips for Using Chat at Work.
Slack and Microsoft Teams are the dominant workplace collaboration platforms. If you’ve never used them, watch the introductory videos for both: Slack and Microsoft Teams. Which is more appealing based on your first impression?
Email may seem quaint and old-fashioned—the horse and buggy of digital communication tools. But don’t write off email as irrelevant. In 2020, the number of worldwide email users surpassed 4 billion — more than 50% of the world’s population. More than 300 billion email messages are sent each day.
In the workplace, email remains the dominant form of collaborative communication between departments and (especially) with external audiences like suppliers and customers. For now, your career success still depends on being a savvy emailer.
This section covers two topics:
- Email strategy and etiquette
- Inbox management
Email Strategy & Etiquette
Keep your email messages short and direct. Rarely should an email message exceed one screen. If the reader has to scroll, your message is too long.
Use SMART structure to grab readers’ attention. Formally open and close your email messages. The following tips will guide you.
1. Put thought into your subject line
Craft a line that grabs attention and provides substantive information. Your recipient likely receives hundreds of emails per day. Write a subject line that stands out and says, “Open me!”
If you need a quick response, say so in the subject line. For example, “Response needed: Dates for our next offsite”
2. Use CC and Reply All sparingly
Too many messages include people whose participation is tangential at best. Don’t add to inbox clutter by CC’ing everyone you can think of. When replying to an email with multiple recipients, resist the urge to automatically hit “Reply All.” Limit your recipients to those who truly need to know.
3. Don't just forward. Summarize
How often do you receive a forwarded message with no introduction or a minimal “FYI . . .”? Admit it: This annoys you. You’re burdened with scrolling through the forwarded email to see what it’s about and why it matters to you.
Don’t make your teammates do work that you should do for them. Be a courteous colleague who summarizes rather than forwards. Take a moment to extract the key information from the email you’re forwarding and then put those nuggets in the body of your email with the line, “Full details below.”
4. Attachments? Seriously?
No one wants to open an attachment. That extra click is just too much effort. So in the body of your email, briefly summarize the crucial content of the attachment. The attachment then functions as an optional repository of additional information, not a haystack in which your reader is forced to search for the needle.
5. Acknowledge immediately; respond when fully ready
We all receive emails that ask us for ideas, decisions, or information that will take time to think through. Rather than leave the sender hanging, reply quickly with something like, “Got your request. I’ll have an answer for you tomorrow morning.” This approach spares the sender the uncertainty of wondering whether you received their request—and saves you the clutter of a follow-up message from the sender.
The following examples illustrate some of these principles of email etiquette. Note how the “NO” examples adopt an informal, chat- or text-like tone that is inappropriate for a workplace email message.
Because emails are a bit more formal than texting, adopt a tone that is friendly but not gushy. Give yourself a budget of ONE exclamation point per email.
Email Example #1Use Paragraphs
Suppose you’re emailing a potential business partner. This is an external message—perfect for email.
The first example below is an uninviting wall of text. The second example uses paragraphs to divide the meaning into sections and make the email more visually appealing. Which would you rather read?
We’re expanding our marketing efforts into Arizona, and I think our two companies would benefit by collaborating on a custom health-cost software package. We’ve nearly finished our health-cost analysis algorithms. If you are still working on your health-cost visualizations, I believe that our analysis package and your visualization package together would give us both an edge on the market. If you are interested, let’s have our teams meet and work out details on the APIs this month. I’ve attached a list that Jen Clark, our market research analyst, put together of businesses in the Phoenix area that would benefit from our co-developed application. Jen has strong connections, and we’d be happy to share our connections with you if we proceed on this exciting project. Let’s discuss this by phone. Are you free on Monday or Tuesday?
We’re expanding our marketing efforts into Arizona, and I think our two companies would benefit by collaborating on a custom health-cost software package.
We’ve nearly finished our health-cost analysis algorithms. If you are still working on your health-cost visualizations, I think that our packages together would give us both an edge on the market.
Take a look at this list that Jen Clark, our market research analyst, put together of businesses in the Phoenix area that would benefit from our co-developed application. Jen has strong connections, and we’d be happy to share them with you if we proceed on this project.
If you’re interested, our teams could meet and work out details on the APIs this month. Let’s discuss this by phone. Are you free on Monday or Tuesday?
Email Example #2Use Visual Signposts and Topic Sentences
Visual signposts catch the reader’s eye. Bold text, bullet lists, and indents all highlight your important points. Topic sentences help readers get your message even if they skim your email.
Below are two versions of an email to a colleague in another department of the same company—again, an appropriate use of email. Note the rambling structure and chatty tone of the “NO” example vs. the clarity and professionalism of the “YES” example.
Sorry you missed the interdepartmental meeting last week. Your flu sounds awful. Let me know what I can do to help.
It was a good meeting. Not as many tangents as usual. We covered the basics like the new client list, the ongoing audit, the yearly initiatives. Nothing new to report that you wouldn’t have guessed. Oh, and HR came by and gave us all an update on the new health insurance. It looks really good. Supposedly it will cost most of us less and should cover more; we’ll see. We’re supposed to send company Tik Tok ideas to someone in CX. Then they’ll take over. Well, get better soon.
I hope you’re feeling better. Here’s a quick report on the recent interdepartmental meeting:
- Clients: Client retention remains an issue. We lost Case and Quest but signed FastUP and Coral.
- Audit: The audit is projected to finish next month. Victoria needs your billing files ASAP.
- CX Initiative: Using Tik Tok has increased customer interaction 75%. Lakshmi will keep directing our Tik Tok account—she’s crushing it. Send her your ideas.
- Health Insurance: Our new health insurance (Advantage) will cost us 7% less and cover 15% more on average. Here’s the link to the signup form. It’s due by 5 p.m. this Friday.
Looking forward to having you back in the office. Take care.
Email Example #3Include Supporting Information
Find the balance between giving enough and too much information. You don’t want to overburden your reader, but you need to be credible. Use hyperlinks or attachments so the recipient can seek greater specifics if desired.
In this example, a manager in the finance organization is emailing someone in the supply chain organization regarding the need for new office furniture.
Is it true we’re getting new office furniture? I hope so. My back has been killing me lately and I’m thinking it might be this ancient chair I’ve been sitting in. And the desk lacks cord pull holes, making cable management a mess. We definitely need new furniture, but we also need equipment to make our Zoom calls better (like ring lights and green screens). Has the company decided what to buy? Our VP said each employee has a budget of $2,500 for furniture upgrades. Does that mean we can order from any supplier we want, or are we limited by a corporate contract with Steelcase or something?I’ve started looking at the manufacturers and it looks like SitSmart, Wellesley, and BrainComfort are good. I have so many things I want in an office chair, like posture control and height control, also mesh. I’m ready for an upgrade!
Our VP approved a budget of $2,500 per employee for new office furniture. This is great news. I have three questions I’m hoping you can answer.
- Are we limited to desks and chairs, or can we use our budget on things like ring lights and portable green screens for Zoom calls?
- Does the company have a contract with a large office furniture supplier like Steelcase or Herman Miller? If so, I assume we will be limited to items from their catalog.
- If we can use other suppliers, my research shows that the following companies offer good quality at affordable prices. Do we have contracts with any of the companies on this list?
- OfficeBarn (authorized retailers for SitSmart chairs)
- Furnishall (specialists in the BrainComfort line)
- ModernOffice (local dealer for Wellsley modular systems)
I look forward to your response.
Make email your servant, not your master. Here are three inbox management tips.
Search rather than sort. Rely on your email system’s search capabilities to find emails you need rather than spending time sorting and maintaining topic folders.
Fence your email time. Don’t let email take over your day. A 2019 survey by Adobe showed that 76% of millennials and GenZers check their email multiple times outside of work hours—not to mention the near constant attention to their email during the workday. Check your email three times during the workday instead of 30, and maybe just once after work. You’ll be amazed at how much time you save.
Declutter. Unsubscribe from unwanted newsletters and junk email to cut your email workload drastically.
What about "Inbox Zero?"
If you routinely ignore emails and your inbox has ballooned into thousands of emails, you’re a prime candidate for the Inbox Zero movement. Read Emily Hackeling’s advice on the mindset required to achieve inbox zero and other inbox management tips.
Texting. Instant messaging. Social media posts. How quickly should you respond?
In professional settings, what’s considered “timely” differs by communication platform. For emails, responding within 24 hours is typically expected. Instant messaging and texting, however, often carry the expectation of instant response.
An article in Inc. Magazine describes how Larionne Mariah, an independent branding consultant, handled a demanding client who accused her of being unresponsive. Larionne set clear boundaries between her personal and professional lives. When the client balked, Larionne refunded her fees and ended the project.
Larionne’s story raises important questions about professional accessibility in the instant messaging age. The article in Inc. Magazine offers three guidelines:
- Know the (unwritten) rules. Figure out how quickly your colleagues and clients expect you to respond to different types of messaging.
- Set boundaries. Decide what level of accessibility you are willing to live with.
- Communicate expectations. Let others know how best to reach you (email, IM, text, phone) and when they can expect to hear back.
In sum, managing accessibility is a crucial task for today’s professionals.
Being a strong team member will make a difference in your career. The ability to contribute to— and eventually lead—effective meetings will make you stand out in a world where time-wasting meetings are the norm. Managing your email and mastering workplace collaboration tools will help you survive and thrive in the present era of communication saturation.
Learning to connect with and show respect for your teammates will not just propel your professional success. You’ll also find your work more rewarding and satisfying.
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