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Balancing act: Teamwork is challenging — on the field or in the office

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 29 2013 8:00 a.m. MST

The majority of Americans prefer to be alone, especially in the workplace. Ninety-five percent said teams serve an important function, but for the majority of those who have worked in groups, the experience has not been positive.

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Unless you're completely ignoring all media this week, you're going to hear a lot about teams.

Specifically, you'll be bombarded with more facts and analysis than you ever wanted to hear about the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers, the two teams that are set to play in the Super Bowl on Sunday.

While I'll watch the game, I can't say that I'm eager to hear all of those details. (Yes, I'm bitter, as only a long-suffering fan of the Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins could be.)

However, I do want to talk about teams this week, from a work perspective.

While many people have jobs that require (or allow) them to toil alone, there's a pretty good chance that almost all of us will be asked to work in a team at some point during our employed lives.

In fact, how we react to those team assignments, and how well we "work and play" with our teammates, could have a huge impact on our prospects for career advancement.

Knowing that, I was interested in a survey from the University of Phoenix that hit my email inbox a couple of weeks ago.

In that online survey of 1,019 nationally representative U.S. residents ages 18 and over, 95 percent of respondents who had worked on a team said those teams served an important function in the workplace.

However, only 24 percent of those respondents said they preferred to work on teams, and 36 percent of younger workers (ages 18-24) who understood the importance of teams in the workplace said they would nevertheless prefer to work alone all of the time.

I find those latter figures surprising. While I had stretches of time during which I worked alone back when I was a newspaper reporter — including one summer when I was the only person in the office of a small-town weekly paper in Tripp, S.D. — I almost always felt like I was part of a team that included other reporters and editors. In fact, some of my most enjoyable, memorable and challenging experiences in journalism came when I worked closely with other editors and reporters on major collaborative projects.

Now, as a manager outside of journalism, I'm still working with a team of writers and editors, and still enjoying it. My team includes people with diverse backgrounds and different skills, but they help each other and work well together. They are aware of each team member's strengths and weaknesses, and they take on assignments accordingly. As a result, our team routinely meets its deadlines and completes excellent projects.

But perhaps I'm just lucky to work on a team that functions well. In the University of Phoenix survey, 68 percent of those who had worked on a team at some point admitted that they were part of a "dysfunctional unit."

"The survey identifies several key factors that may contribute to Americans’ reticence to engage in teamwork, including verbal and physical confrontations, scapegoating and spreading rumors," said the University of Phoenix press release about the survey.

"Forty percent of those who have ever worked on a team in the workplace have witnessed a verbal confrontation among team members, and 15 percent said a confrontation actually turned physical. Forty percent report that one team member placed the blame on another for something that went amiss, and 32 percent said a team member started a rumor about another team member."

I've seen — and, yes, participated in — some "verbal confrontations" over the years, but those arguments didn't make me want to avoid team projects. When you spend long hours with people, none of whom think exactly like you do, you're bound to have disagreements. And, on occasion, those differences of opinion get heated.

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