How to approach supportive vs challenging team environments
It is inevitable that some team environments will be better working environments than others. Challenging team environments can manifest in different ways, but a common theme is that it takes more emotional and mental energy to navigate team interactions and accomplish tasks than in supportive team environments. Consequently, the priorities and skills that you choose to focus on in any team environment can be tailored based on whether it is generally a supportive or challenging environment.
First, you can always control how you approach working in that team, whether or not you have the power to affect or improve the team dynamics in any obvious way. If you find yourself in a supportive, healthy team, that is an excellent opportunity to practice improving your communications skills, asking clarifying questions about team processes and decision making, offering constructive feedback and ideas, and generally experimenting with how you work best in a team environment. Approach it as an opportunity to practice your teamwork and leadership (even if you aren’t in a formal position of leadership) skills, as well as whatever skills the project itself is giving you the chance to work on. Healthy teams can be excellent learning environments, and good opportunities to experiment with skill sets that you are less confident about.
Challenging teams, on the other hand, regardless of what makes them challenging, can be unsafe or unhealthy learning environments for many teamwork skills. Challenging teams can come in a variety of forms, such as well-meaning but unskilled team management that causes confusion or challenging interpersonal relationships with coworkers which causes stress. In particularly bad cases, challenging teams can include toxic work environments where your mental and perhaps even physical safety (for example if safety procedures are lacking or not enforced) may be at risk.
However, challenging and even bad team environments can still provide learning opportunities, where you can figure out what doesn’t work for you in terms of communication methods, leadership styles to work under and technical processes. Understanding your own needs and preferences when working in a team is an essential part of becoming a good team member and leader, and sometimes challenging environments reveal those needs and preferences faster than good ones.
Depending on what makes a team challenging as a working environment, there may be some things you can do to try to improve communications and/or clarify expectations, as discussed in part three of this article series. However, there may be some teams where those tactics don’t work or feel too risky to attempt. In these kinds of team environments, you may need to focus on survival. In a working environment context, survival means focusing on whatever technical skills or knowledge the project gives you the chance to work on, doing what you can to clarify expectations for your work and timeline so you have the best chance at meeting them, and most importantly preserving your energy and mental health (and sometimes physical health), however you need to do that. Don’t hesitate to seek outside resources, either from mentors or colleagues outside the team or institutional resources if that is an option for you. You may be best served by choosing to leave a toxic or actively harmful team, as discussed in part 8, Quitting: a last (but sometimes best) resort. Workplace trauma is a real and unfortunately not uncommon phenomenon, can have serious and sometimes far-reaching consequences on our mental and physical well-being and therefore should be taken quite seriously.
Most teams are a mixture of supportive and challenging elements, with issues and opportunities that shift throughout the life of the team. To get the most out of any team work experience, it is helpful to periodically check in with yourself about how draining your team environment is currently in terms of emotional and mental energy, as well as what learning opportunities (both project-related and teamwork and/or leadership skills) have arisen that you might be able to take advantage of. These evaluations will help you to monitor whether a team environment has become toxic or if you could be doing more to take advantage of being in a supportive environment.