Balancing Teamwork and Individual Recognition

January 4th, 2012 1 Comment

In today’s workplace, there is an ever-increasing emphasis on teamwork. However, the economy is harsh and competition is fierce. In many companies where job seniority is not a factor, the system is set up to compare employees against one another. Ranking sessions determine your bonuses, salaries, promotions – or even whether you’ll keep your job. It is no longer adequate to just do your job well, or even very well. But how do you stand out as an individual contributor, when you’re being evaluated in part as a team player?

To stand out in a team environment, you need to go above and beyond your regular job duties (for example, volunteer for special projects), actively promote all teams you are part of, and practice “good” politics. The trick is to do these things better than your co-workers, but without going so far that you are perceived negatively. Let’s look at these things more closely.

Special Projects

Anything not part of your regular job can be termed a “special project.” Volunteer for one, or if you want to be in management, lead a team that’s doing one. If you really want to stand out, create one. But not just any special project will do. Be sure it will benefit your manager, department, or company. But also be sure it will benefit you. To help determine that, you can get a copy of your job description. Decide which of your areas of responsibility need the most improvement, and select (or create) projects that will help you excel in these areas. From there, it’s just a balancing act – you don’t want special projects to keep you working long hours, nor do you want to take on so much work that it looks like you wouldn’t otherwise have enough to do.

At one company, I saw an issue with the documentation area of our corporate web site that I thought I could fix.  The fix involved creating my own, better-designed web page, and linking it off the main page.  Over time, I’d learned not to reveal any plans until all my ducks were in a row, if I could possibly help it.  So I first spent a weekend creating a prototype of the web page.  Then I called my contacts in the IT department to learn the process (and see about getting permission) to upload the page.  Then I tested the prototype, which seemed to work.  I didn’t see any issues, so next time I met with my manager, I mentioned the idea and asked if I could move forward with it.  Luckily, my manager had not already given that area of responsibility (web) to anyone else, and he said yes.

To make a long story short, everything worked as planned, and customer satisfaction with our part of the web site went from 41% to 86%.  Then a couple of things happened that I didn’t foresee.  My manager asked me to maintain the page I’d created, and to create additional pages for other areas.  I wanted to find new ways to shine, not be stuck maintaining those pages!  So I found someone who wanted to learn the HTML and publishing skills, and told my manager I’d be a mentor for that person.   That would increase the overall knowledge in the group, and we’d have a backup in case something ever happened to me.   The result was a double win.  I was now viewed as the “inventor” of the new pages, and as a leader and knowledge resource for the group.

Team Participation

There are basically three types of teams. You could work in a group of your peers, all reporting to the same manager. You could work on a cross-functional project team, made up of junior and senior members. Or you could work on a special projects team, which could include managers. The following points may not apply in all situations.

  • Boost your co-workers whenever you can, but be sure to boost yourself at the same time. Boosting your co-workers subliminally puts the focus on you rather than them – unless you repeatedly forget to include yourself. Then it just looks like you don’t do any work.
  • Be the communicator for your team whenever you can. The perception will then be that you’re doing a fair amount of the work. If you have to communicate bad news, have a solution in place and present that at the same time.
  • Use a variety of methods to communicate, and do it regularly. If you are having trouble getting your manager to understand your/the team’s value, schedule a separate presentation meeting with him/her, have slides, and call it a program review or something. Pitch it in such a way that the manager will want to come (not “here’s what I’m doing” but “is the project going according to the way you’ve informed YOUR manager that it’s going” or something similar). They’ll show up.

At another company,  I was on a team made up of employees reporting directly to a certain manager, but we were working on a side project.  Together, we were coming up with a plan for our documentation that would improve the quality and save us weeks of work at the same time.  Unfortunately our manager did not have a background in documentation, and did not really understand what we were doing.  She grudgingly gave us the go-ahead to meet about the project, but we felt she was likely to pull her support out from under us at any moment.  We decided it was necessary to do the “busy work” of documenting our progress, creating a slide presentation of the high points, and having bi-weekly meetings with her to make sure she saw our value.  I was not the team leader, or even the most senior person there, but I volunteered to take on the tedious task of putting the slides together.

Before the first presentation, I collected input from the team members.  I sent out the slides for review and incorporated their comments.  I also began listening to my manager speak, and I read her emails more carefully.  Wherever I could, I referred to our project using the same words she used for other projects.  When the time came to present, I mailed the slides to the team lead.  He wrote back to me “Why don’t you present?  I know my part, but you’re more familiar with everyone’s material at this point.”  So I presented, and I continued to do so for the duration of the project.  Soon I found myself being called into the manager’s office along with the team lead, to offer my opinions and insights about the project.  If I ran into my manager in the hallway, she’d ask me about the project even if the team lead wasn’t there.  I was never invited to a status meeting with my manager unless the team lead was present – I never replaced the team lead, nor would I have wanted to be put in that position.  However, one day my manager told me about an upcoming project in a different area, and asked me if I’d like to lead it.

“Good” Politics

The word “politics” is like “cholesterol”, in that it usually causes a negative initial reaction. But like cholesterol, there are both good and bad politics. Good politics are actions that set you up to be successful, or that promote you, without hurting others. There’s nothing wrong with that if it’s done properly. For example:

  • If you’re looking for work, company selection is critical in today’s environment to ensure there’s a good fit between your skills, interests, expectations, and attitude. If your company does not measure and value collaboration and teamwork, then assume it’s a big red flag on what they value (or don’t value).
  • Once employed, it’s critical to understand the environment and do a 360 environmental scan. Understand the people you work with. Learn what works and what doesn’t.
  • Manage expectations. Perception = expectation vs. reality. If reality is less than expectations, you are not perceived well. If reality exceeds expectations, then you are perceived well. Make sure reality really exceeds expectations, and you will be viewed as performing above and beyond. When working on your performance reviews, don’t list everything under the sun. You want to be able to DO more than you list on the PLAN. List less, do more. List general items in the plan, and then be specific when you list the results a year later. It will more clearly point out how you’ve exceeded your goals. Remember – you have to exceed your own job requirements as well as exceed the performance of your peers.
  • Be very clear on the quantifiable metrics you will be measured against – get them in writing. If they don’t exist, meet with your manager and get his/her perspective and write it down with quantifiable metrics. Check this with your manager to verify. If you don’t know where you’re going or how you’ll be measured, it’s really hard or impossible to do your job. (Incidentally, this is a good thing to practice with partners/clients who are important in the organization or will impact your review.)
  • Don’t rely on friends for feedback for your performance review. Most managers will not give weight to feedback from people they know are friends. Instead, they will ask the people in other areas for their impressions of your work. If you’ve reached out to those people and helped them do their jobs, those comments will be positive and your manager will give them much more weight than comments from people they know are your friends. So, seek out contacts in other areas, and find out how you can help them do their jobs. Find out what they need from you, and supply it.
  • Communicate. As stated earlier, use a variety of methods and do it regularly. Face time seems to work best. If you are having trouble getting face time with your manager, schedule a separate meeting with him/her to walk through your accomplishments and provide status.
  • Have regular check-in meetings with your manager to be sure you are on the right track, and be ready to make mid course direction changes. Document your conversations, and share your understanding with your manager to get agreement.
  • To maintain a good working relationship, never surprise your manager. No matter what. If you don’t trust your manager, you may not want to lay all your cards out on the table – but the assumption at that point is that there is no good working relationship.
  • If you can do this without being threatening (in the spirit of problem solving) write a report on monthly or quarterly successes and publish it beyond your manager. Give your manager the first draft so he/she can help you edit it or include other items.
  • Know your manager’s manager. Be sure they know you and your work. Do this in a politically correct way. Again, not threatening. This will help ensure your manager’s manager doesn’t question the good review your manager gives you. It may also help improve your review if your own manager hasn’t boosted you enough.

As a manager at one company, I ran into almost every one of these points with just one employee.  I always tried to keep informed about what my team was doing.  But with this woman, it turned out to be very difficult – even with regular communication.  Our weekly touch-base meetings and her status reports indicated that her documentation responsibilities were going well, and the quality of her work was about what I expected.  After a while, however, a number of people started coming to me and telling me she was behind on her deadlines, and seemed to have dropped the ball on one manual entirely.  She also wasn’t speaking with the software developers on the team, and nobody understood how she was getting any information at all.  To make matters worse, my own manager had heard these rumblings and had already placed this woman on the list of low performers.  He asked me why I hadn’t come to him myself with this information.  Things were not good.  I went to investigate.

My investigation turned up some interesting information.  Early in the project, her part of the product had changed, and some new software developers had been assigned. She was getting her information from them. The schedule had been delayed, again in her area only.  Two of her manuals had been merged into one – and in fact she had completed it, not dropped the ball on it.  I asked why she hadn’t told me any of this, and she replied that I appeard to be so busy that she decided it was best to report only the key facts – that her deliverables were on time and going according to plan.  I asked her why she hadn’t mentioned any of this to the other writers on the team, and she said, basically, “I work on a completely different part of the project.  It doesn’t affect them, so what business is it of theirs what I’m doing?”  I fixed it all, but what a mess!  I told her from now on, I needed to know just a little more detail, no matter how busy she thought I was!

The Bottom Line

We’ve just covered some helpful tips to help you balance teamwork and individual recognition. Practicing these tips doesn’t take too much energy, and the payoff is always positive. In addition to working the system in your own company, you should also be prepared for the “just in case” times. Maintain a good profile on LinkedIn. Keep an active personal network. And it’s wise to interview several times a year to keep yourself fresh, and test your marketability. Wherever you end up, the bottom line is that you’ll need to behave like a team player, while promoting yourself as an individual. Sadly, the system in most companies today perpetuates a “kill or be killed” environment. To survive you have to play, but you have to do it nicely.

The author: Alan Troup is a guest contributor for Roseto Sprouts. Alan has more than 14 years of experience at Cisco, both as a technical writer and as a manager supporting teams of writers, editors, and illustrators worldwide.  He has worked in Silicon Valley in the Technical Writing field for 25 years, for a variety of companies – from startups using WordStar to large corporations using XML content management systems.

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