Teamwork vs Individualism: Using Professional Empathy to be a Better Coworker

In the workplace of today, teamwork is common, even mandatory, and generally accepted as best practice in a dynamic work environment.   That being said, the spirit of individualism is alive and well and can lead to moments of tension or awkwardness.  Striking the proper balance between teamwork and individual expression can be difficult.

You have probably experienced individualism push back against teamwork both ways – on the giving and receiving ends.  When someone steps into your work territory your hackles go up.  When you offer help to someone (or even more just do a coworker’s task without prior discussion) you are very surprised (even shocked) when they are not happy about it.

Why in the world would someone not want your input, ideas, creativity, and possibly even genius thoughts to be brought to the table?  There are several possible reasons.  They:

  1. Have their own ideas about the task or project.
  2. Don’t want to appear incompetent or like they need help.  They are concerned about perceptions of their boss or peers.
  3. Are a little bit insecure.
  4. Know their role, have been doing it for a while and are comfortable with the established boundaries.

These same points can be used to measure your reaction as well.  Maybe you are able to see the big picture better than others.  You may understand and appreciate the advantages of hearing, seeing, and experiencing others’ ideas.  Even if this is so, it can still feel strange and awkward when you sense a trespasser.  If this is something you can identify with, use that to help generate a sense of professional empathy.  If someone bristles at your help, then think about why you would bristle at someone else’s help and proceed with caution.

Beware!  When you are helping someone in your organization and you are entering someone else’s territory without permission (or even with permission – vocally or by omission) you may not get the appreciation you think you deserve and you may leave behind a bad taste.

Yes, walls need to be broken down sometimes.  Yes, problems need to be solved creatively. And, yes, collaboration is a good thing.  But tread softly the first time.  Be sensitive to others being hurt or offended.

Ensure that you are working toward a common goal and not just pushing your agenda. I will leave you with these suggested steps in the collaborative process:

  1. Assess the situation.  Be aware of the personalities involved, especially those who have more competitive personalities.
  2. Secure permission to be involved.
  3. Be flexible while being a part of the process and solution.
  4. Allow time for discussion, feedback, and debriefing.




“There are no constraints on the human mind, no walls around the human spirit, no barriers to our progress except those we ourselves erect.” – Ronald Reagan

Appreciating Vultures: How Well-Placed Employees Can Help Your Business Hum

It is easy to not appreciate vultures.  They are decidedly unpleasant looking and known for preying on what almost every other creature would consider inedible.  Whether or not you admire them, vultures do exactly what they are supposed to, expected to, and needed to do.  They have an important role to play in this world.  Webster defines ‘role’ as ‘a part that someone or something has in a particular activity or situation.  Oh, and these scavengers do have a key part.


As I walk early each morning, I have taken on the role of picking up large sticks, limbs, and debris in the road.  I pick up and discard anything that may scrape or impede a car, biker, runner, or fellow walker.  But…when I come across a dead squirrel or other creature, I give it a wide berth.  That, my friends, is the responsibility of the vulture.  He takes care of it so well that the road is clean to the point that by the next day you don’t even know it was ever there.  His featherless head, one that does not easily retain food scraps, is literally designed for the dirty business


It is the very same in the workplace.  Everyone has their role and every role is critical.  Roles that one person does not enjoy or is ill-suited for, is another’s perfect fit.  If roles are well-defined and well-suited to the employees, the operation hums.  If the roles are ill-defined, not so much:

  • Chaos ensues
  • Bickering occurs
  • Communication breaks down
  • Tension is obvious

And the operation no longer hums, if it ever did.


I could stop on my walk and unhappily clean up the roadkill I find, but it’s important to remember that not only will the vulture do it gladly, but also better. When the vulture doesn’t do his job, for whatever reason, someone else has to do it. When this occurs in the workplace, the same issues arise.  The individual ‘picking up the pieces’:

  • Doesn’t do the job as well
  • Resents having to do it
  • Isn’t as efficient at doing it
  • Has to be retrained or reminded about the standards


In managing and leading people, it is important to provide each person with a clear definition of their role, responsibilities, and how they impact the team as a whole.  The what, how, and why are all crucial.  Failing to create clear role definitions – formally and informally – will cost the business in so many ways.  So begin the process today:

  1. Assess your team members’ strengths and weaknesses.
  2. Assign and document responsibilities.
  3. Communicate everyone’s role within the team to the whole group.
  4. Continue to tweak assignments as questions arise or as opportunities for improvement present themselves.
  5. Ask for feedback from team members.
  6. Follow-up and revisit role definitions at least once per year.


If you are not the leader and sense a need for more definition, ask that a clearer process be adopted.  At a minimum, ask for your role to be clarified.  If you are having a conflict with a fellow employee and feel like role definition is a key issue, it is never a bad option to breach the subject directly or with a supervisor as a first step toward resolution.

Whatever you do in your workplace, it is vital for the company’s success.  Each role is crucial and every task a part of the whole. So next time you see a vulture, take a second to appreciate not only their unique skill set, but the great balanced system of the world that provides a role for that skill set.