Team work: what you need to know that no-one tells you

Our columnist Matthew Reeves on what he's learnt about team work from his own somewhat unusual experiences

When they work well, teams are powerful tools for harnessing individual knowledge and skills and using them to create finely-tuned monsters - hungry for success, gobbling up everything around them, and then excreting lumps of hot cash. They perfectly tap into the human desire to be part of a tribe that survives and wins.

That's the vision anyway, but I've found that in reality team work means many different things to different businesses and even within businesses, and not all teams are like this one.

In fact, there's only one type of team that will help you be successful. So to prosper in the workplace, you need to be able to spot teams that fall into this category.

Think of your favourite sport team, an emergency room operating theatre, or a startup. Usually in these environments, everyone pretty much pitches in with everything, as needed.

When the team comes out ahead, it's assumed that everyone did a good job so everyone gets the credit. It's a fast track to success, but also a high-risk option because when teams like this fail, the same principle applies.

The worst type of team, being a member of which can kill your career, is one where everyone focuses solely on their defined and structured duties that have been carefully carved out from the team's overall workload and delegated to "the appropriate person" - doing so is often a whole job in itself

Here there's a security blanket in case of failure: you won't necessarily be blamed if things go wrong as the axe will fall on the person who's judged to have made the fatal error. But when the team comes out ahead, only certain people get the credit and the consequential success.

So because the fortunes of individuals and the team are not totally aligned, these teams are riddled with politics. They spend their energies on recording and allocating tasks to ensure there's no shirking and that everyone know's who responsible for what to the point where actual work ceases to happen in favour of "process".

You can go down this career path, competing to see who can get the most credit for the least work. But it's Dignitas for intelligent graduates' careers, so I'd advise you not to fall into this trap.

Yes, whatever your career aim, you'll probably have to join a team at some point. But whether it's the M&A team, the marketing team, or the West Country cider apple derivative trading team, make sure you're not on a cruise ship where everyone wants to be captain, but instead on a specialised ice-breaking vessel heading into uncharted waters, where the outcome of the voyage as a whole is more important than who happens to be steering.

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