Being on any sort of team requires give and take. We make contributions and sacrifices for the good of the entire group. But, sometimes, things go askew and the term "team player" can become a euphemism for "chump"—the one who gets all the grunt work and puts in the extra hours.
"Sometimes, teams are moving so fast and are so focused on results, they don’t take time to talk as a team about what’s happening," says leadership expert Karin Hurt, author of the blog Let’s Grow Leaders. If no one is articulating their feelings and everything seems to be going great, says Hurt, negative patterns get embedded and can be hard to reverse.
That said, it is possible to be a generous part of a team without being exploited. Here are five key ways to ensure your good nature doesn’t get abused.
Teams need an upfront plan that spells out responsibilities and procedural issues such as how often they’ll meet and how decisions will be made, says Bonnie Hagemann, CEO of the Oklahoma City-based firm, Executive Development Associates. Part of this plan should be a mechanism that ensures everyone has an opportunity to voice challenges and concerns so the more dominant personalities don't get the lion’s share of attention, she says.
If you don’t have that kind of structure on your team, it can be a good idea to backtrack and establish it. That way, you have a system of checks and balances to help ensure work is evenly distributed and no one on the team is facing unaddressed challenges.
Busy work isn’t going to impress anyone. It will only keep you from doing what matters and breed resentment on your part, says Hagemann. Make sure your efforts are focused on doing your best on the tasks that will most benefit your team. Once you have a job description, don’t be the person who jumps to accept every subsequent task.
"It doesn’t make sense for anyone on the team to take on tasks and then be resentful about it," says Hagemann. "Ask for what you need. Sometimes, just saying ‘I’m not great at this’ ends up with other team members volunteering to take on tasks or help you."
Workloads will sometimes be heavier for certain team members. Pause before you push the conflict button, Hurt says. Is this an ongoing pattern or a short-term busy period? If the situation is an anomaly, it might be best to let it go. If you are regularly seeing other team members heading home hours before you can even think about wrapping up for the day, it might be time to find ways to restructure responsibilities.
If you’re stewing about an unfair situation, you need to resolve it as soon as possible, says Hurt. Resentment builds and can affect the quality of your work, energy, and ability to lead. Worse, it can erupt into negative confrontations that aren’t effective.
Resolving the situation usually requires tough conversations about boundaries and individual concerns, says Hurt. And while team members can sometimes be aware of the disparity, in most cases, Hurt finds that team members don't even realize there was a problem.
People on the same team are all working for the success of the project or effort, Hagemann says. Remind your team leader of how you can best fulfill your role and what you need to do that. Team work offers a common ground and, done right, it can create a fertile place to find solutions.