Working in a Team: Opportunities and Problems

by Dr Catherine Armstrong

In a previous article I discussed some practical ways to make the best start in your new job. In response to that article, a jobseeker has emailed me asking for an article on how to blend into your new team and how to work well with your new colleagues. So here it is!

Internal politics 

Every department or workplace will suffer from internal office politics to some extent. This means that particular groups or factions will form and attack other colleagues either openly or surreptitiously. At its worst this sort of thing can develop into outright bullying, but in most cases what happens remains as mild gossiping and usually results in a desire among the warring parties to agree to work together on a professional level for the good of the whole team.

As a new member of staff coming in to a work situation you will almost certainly have no idea of the internal politics, unless you already know someone who works there. After all, the department was on its best behaviour at your interview, keen to sell itself to the best candidate and certainly not openly admitting rifts within the team. So over your first few days and weeks in the job you come to a gradual realisation that there are tensions within the office and that not everyone in your team gets along.

In an academic environment this can matter less than other offices because lecturers and researchers often work independently, many have their own offices, and do not constantly work together in a team. However, this is not always the case and problems can surface at departmental meetings, for example.

The best way for a new member of staff to deal with this difficult situation is to try to get to know every member of the team personally. Do not listen to others' remarks and judgements but make decisions for yourself. Treat everyone with an open mind. However, do not bury your head in the sand and ignore tensions. Try to find out subtly the reasons for any animosity. If these reasons are structural, to do with the way your organisation is run, this is something you need to be aware of as it could have an impact on your own career. Often though, office politics will have its roots in clashes of personalities and you must try to put yourself above the quarrels of colleagues who have worked together for years.

The best and safest way to get to know your colleagues

A good way of working successfully in a team is to engage with colleagues on a social level. Many employers and team leaders encourage this. Of course, this does not mean getting drunk with them every night of the week, but rather, occasionally meeting up for a variety of activities outside the workplace. These sorts of events can cause problems, though; it can be difficult to remain professional in an environment where you are used to behaving very differently. It is best to remain reserved while being friendly and honest. Enjoy yourself but remember that if you behave inappropriately your job could be in jeopardy.

Every workplace is different, but an initial ice-breaker might be for you to arrange lunch in order to meet others. Make it clear that you want to meet everyone in your team and that you discourage factionalism and petty office politics. That way, your arrival could be instrumental in breaking down some barriers.

Clash of personalities

Of course you cannot be expected to get on with everyone and you may start a new job and after a while realise that you do not get on with some members of your team. Niggles often start when people are perceived not to be pulling their weight or that they are being given better treatment. Don't let differences spiral out of control. Remind yourself of why you are good at your job and why the other person is good at theirs. You should approach your mentor or immediate boss about this matter only if the situation is starting to affect your work or if you feel you are being unfairly targeted or excluded. He or she will have their own strategies for dealing with the problem - they may decide to get the team together and try to clear the air, expressing grievances in public.

If differences of opinion are serious, a representative from the Human Resources Department can be called in to adjudicate. If you really feel unable to continue to work in the team then you could ask to be moved elsewhere in the company or organisation, but this is a dangerous strategy for someone who is new.

If your complaint is about your immediate mentor or line manager then you need to identify someone else in a senior role within your team to approach about this problem. Carefully and rationally write down the problems that you are having including times and dates of events if possible. That way, if any improper conduct has taken place you will have a record of it. But these sorts of actions should only be a last resort in serious cases. On a day-to-day level maintain a professional relationship with all your colleagues and realise that we all have different styles of working and can bring different skills to the table.

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