Common issues that arise when key elements are missing and what to do about it
It is always helpful to look for gaps in the key elements of team collaboration first when seeking to solve or ameliorate confusion and conflicts in teams. Below I will discuss some common issues that arise if one of the key elements is missing or incompletely implemented, along with suggestions for how to address this lack from a position as a team member but not a team lead.
As a general rule, in a supportive team environment the first course of action for any of these would be to bring the lack of a key element up to your team lead(s) or supervisor(s) and ask them to address the lack, perhaps including offering suggestions for how to do that. However, this may be difficult or feel risky to do in some team environments, so the suggestions below are tailored towards a scenario where improving your own experience on the team is the goal, rather than improving all team members’ experiences. Part four, supportive vs. challenging teams, goes into greater depth about how to approach teams with different levels of health and support.
Lack of awareness about teammates’ communication styles
Misunderstandings and interpersonal conflicts can arise when people aren’t aware of their teammates' communication preferences, particularly if they are very different from their own. These kinds of even minor conflicts can affect the team dynamic and workflow, and are often difficult to resolve exactly because of their seeming unimportance. It is worth noting that while interpersonal conflict has many causes and is impossible to completely prevent, clashing communication styles is one very common cause that can be addressed to help avoid or ameliorate this issue. Consequently, even conflicts that don’t appear to be caused by lack of awareness about communication preferences would likely benefit from addressing this issue.
Giving and receiving constructive feedback, a critical activity in any team, can take much more energy and time without awareness of communication styles. If communication is severely limited by clashing styles, it may even be eliminated altogether (except for formal feedback processes that exist, and even those will likely be less effective), which will certainly lead to a less productive and well-functioning team.
To address this issue and improve your experience on this team, share your preferred communication methods with your supervisor(s) and any other team members that you expect to be working closely with, and ask for theirs in return. This can be done either in one-on-one conversations or, if the opportunity arises, in a group context. It may be particularly helpful to focus on your preferences for giving and receiving feedback, as that type of interaction tends to be the most difficult to navigate when communication is compromised.
Unclear roles and responsibilities for team members
The most common issue arising from this element being missing or incompletely implemented is that decision-making can be difficult and/or prolonged because it’s unclear who has final say in a decision and/or who should be involved in the decision-making process. This can easily lead to people being roped in late or left out entirely, leading to decisions that may be overturned later or resentment and frustration building among team members who feel left out of the decision-making process. A common and easy way to spot this issue is if decision-making processes take much more time than it feels like they should and even when made they are still open to challenge. Another common consequence of unclear responsibilities is that work may be duplicated and/or fall through the cracks, which is very likely to affect the project timeline and cause frustration for all team members.
To ameliorate this issue, ask about the expectations for your role and responsibilities from your team lead(s) and/or supervisor(s) from the beginning of the project. A particularly useful question to ask is how you fit in the decision-making process for the team. This is both good to know for yourself, and can serve as a prompt to expose if the team lead(s) or supervisor(s) haven’t considered what the decision-making process will look like in advance. This question is most useful couched in terms such as “how can I contribute to decisions about X”, with specificity about what types of decisions you’re asking about, as often different kinds of decisions require different levels of involvement from non-lead team members.
Lack of clear project timeline, milestone and product expectations
Gauging progress towards goals becomes difficult without predetermined timelines, particularly if there aren’t clearly defined middle steps towards the end goal. The lack of a detailed timeline, particularly in large teams, can obviously lead to delays in producing project outcomes, but also frequently cause frustration and conflict if team members that need to work together or are working on parts of the project that are interdependent have different ideas of when their tasks should be completed. This is especially important for projects that take months or years to complete, but it is still important for shorter-term projects.
On an individual level, if a team lead or supervisor has one idea of what the project timeline or products should be and it is not clearly communicated to other team members, then any failure to meet those expectations can lead to an unfair (and potentially unconscious) negative impression of that person and their work. Negative impressions that have an unclear or unknown source can be very difficult to address and correct, unfortunately. For the team member or subordinates part, it is very frustrating to be judged on expectations that weren’t clearly communicated, and it may be difficult to stay engaged and committed to the project, as well as trust the leadership of the team lead or supervisor moving forward.
It is always a good idea to set up regularly scheduled check-ins (either actual meetings or through a more preferred communication method), with your supervisor from the beginning of any project, but this is especially important if the project is lacking clear timelines, milestones and/or product descriptions. The frequency of check-ins depends on individual preferences and the type of project, but if you are getting the impression that you are not meeting your supervisor’s expectations or that expectations are frequently changing (especially if those expectations are silent), a good first step is to ask to increase the frequency of check-ins. It is also helpful to ask directly if you are meeting expectations, ideally multiple times over the life of the project. This will both give your team lead(s) an opportunity to evaluate for themselves if you are meeting their expectations and give you that feedback, and will likely demonstrate to them that you want to improve and are invested in the team, which is always a good thing.
Lack of clear conflict resolution processes (or lack of access by all team members to them if they exist)
In a team that lacks clear conflict resolution processes, it is very common for solvable problems and conflicts to persist. Interpersonal conflicts can affect both team cohesion and project objectives, not to mention the health and well-being of the team members involved. An unfortunate potential consequence of conflicts that are not adequately resolved, both interpersonal and project-related, is that reputations can extend beyond the team and the project to affect future interactions and even career prospects for team members. More vulnerable members are particularly at risk for this outcome, with vulnerability defined both in terms of their role in the context of the team and their social identities in the context of the larger culture.
Addressing these types of issues is challenging for any team member, but particularly for those in non-leadership positions. Strategies for approaching conflict resolution as a non-team lead will be covered more extensively in part seven of this series, but in brief, your team lead(s) or supervisor(s) should be the first ones that you can approach for advice and possibly intervention if you are experiencing conflict with a team member. If the conflict is with your supervisor(s) or team lead(s), then seeking advice and possibly allyship from other team members or even mentors outside of the team may be the best recourse. If the team is part of a larger institution or organization, there may be conflict resolution processes that you can access outside the team. It is a good idea to do research about what these processes entail before conflict arises, if possible, as some types of conflict have a limited time window to be addressed through an official process.
Lack of universally agreed upon and understood technical and/or methodological processes
Technical communications (file or code sharing, for example) between team members may require a lot more back and forth, necessitating more time and energy being spent on what should be a straightforward interaction. Files may even be lost or inaccessible to team members who need them if there is no standardized file sharing procedure. If periodic technical and/or methodological reviews are not built into the project processes, then it is up to individual team members to catch mistakes, increasing the chance that issues will arise late in the project timeline simply because the fewer people who review any single process increases the chances that an issue will be missed. Alternatively, if periodic reviews are built in but the technical process for doing them is not standardized, then it may become a frustrating chore for everyone involved and increases the likelihood of procrastinating or skipping it entirely.
If no standardized technical process exists, then you can instigate that conversation with your supervisor(s) and any team members that you interface with on this level. If you have developed preferences from previous work experience for a particular file sharing or task management app, advocate for using that if it's appropriate. The earlier you can have this conversation the better, as sometimes it can be difficult to get buy-in for a new process from team members if the project is already well underway.
In the context of a team that is larger than 2 people, bringing up missing elements as a group, particularly in challenging team environments, can be both more effective and less risky than doing it as an individual. This approach may require a bit more effort, as it means having conversations with other team members to get them onboard before bringing it up with the team lead(s). In challenging teams, it may also be helpful to evaluate the relative power of the team members who will be bringing this up with you, and ask the one(s) with the most relative power to be the spokesperson. This will be discussed further in part five, analyzing power dynamics in a team context.
Finally, you may encounter teams where more than one of the key elements is missing or incompletely implemented. In these instances, it will likely be necessary to prioritize addressing these lacks rather than trying to tackle them all simultaneously. The prioritization decisions you make will depend on the context of the particular situation, but addressing lack of awareness about communication preferences can be low-hanging fruit in terms of effort, and might make any of the others easier to bring up. Additionally, the project timeline, milestones and product expectations might well exist and just haven’t been written down or made accessible, or they will also be low-hanging fruit and easy to justify asking about. Alternatively, if the lack of a particular element is causing problems for you (or the team in general), like lack of clear roles and responsibilities or agreed upon technical processes, then it may be useful to focus on those first.
However you decide to go about addressing these lacks, keep in mind that there is often a lot that you can do to improve your experience of working in a team and sometimes your efforts to improve your own experience will lead to a better team working environment for others as well.