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ATD Blog

Choose to Be More Than Just a Team Member

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

One thing world-renowned leadership expert Kevin Eikenberry knows from his years of experience is that our work environment influences our ability to see the big picture. Due to the increased number of organizations allowing employees to work from home for some or all of the time, Kevin suggested in a recent ATD Forum ConnectSpark event that it is not enough to simply be a team member; organizations, leaders, and individuals must all do their share to create and sustain a culture in which employees can choose to adopt the mindset of a teammate regardless of where their co-workers are performing the work.

So what is the difference between a team member and a teammate? A person is, at a minimum, a team member through their role on a team. A simple way to figure out if someone has the mindset of a team member or a teammate is to ask them to describe their work. A team member will describe the job that he or she has to do. The focus is usually on their individual tasks only. A teammate will describe the nature of the work and the role they have in working with other teammates to get the job done. They are also able to describe how their work fits into supporting the strategic goals of the organization. Teammates demonstrate a great deal of care for their work and for the work of others on the team. Teammates are engaged employees. If you were to write the mindset of a teammate as an equation, Kevin would say that it would be:

Your Job = Your Work + Your Team

The decision (yes, it is a choice) to be a teammate is at the total discretion of that individual and is far beyond how happy or satisfied an employee seems to be. When employees are not co-located, Kevin refers to them as long-distance teammates. There are three factors (the 3 Ps) that determine an employee’s ability to be a successful long-distance teammate: productivity, proactivity, and potential:

  • Productivity is not about the hours worked. You can be busy for hours and still not produce something tangible. Productivity is about results, outputs, outcomes, and accomplishments. Teammates are productive regardless of where they work.
  • Proactivity includes anticipating future needs and putting the team first and not being insular. Teammates care about how to make their work, work environment, and team environment better, and they strive to identify opportunities and suggest solutions to challenges.
  • Potential is owning your personal development and contributing to the team. Teammates look for ways to stretch and grow beyond what they need to perform in their current role.

Leaders can use several communication tools and techniques to support long-distance teammates. Consider the various options for sending messages in a remote environment and intentionally use the best vehicle for the message to be received. You might have a favorite option, but it might not be the best one for the message. Email is the wrong tool for an interactive conversation. Not every conversation or meeting has to be a Zoom meeting.


Help people build relationships with one another by giving each teammate time, space, and airtime. As Kevin would say, “Set the table for relationships to happen.” For example, consider starting a virtual meeting five or 10 minutes early, similar to the scenario that can occur in a physical workspace when some people show up early to a meeting in a conference room and start chatting. The topics discussed beforehand don’t always have to be work related. In fact, it is often before meetings start where people are discussing vacations, family, sports, and other subject matter that helps them get to know one another better and build camaraderie. Consider paying attention to how many times you hear employees laugh or see them smile before, during, or after meetings.

How many times are you making an effort to interact with others? There is a big difference between an interaction and a transaction. It is the interactions that count the most in building relationships. Kevin makes a deliberate effort to interact with four of his teammates each day. There may be several different methods used for those interactions (ideally a phone call, video call, or in-person meeting), but the focus is on building relationships and demonstrating care for others rather than on reaching out to someone to ask for something you need to get your work done. Ask someone how their day is going. Ask what you can do to offer help. Ask someone to brainstorm with you who you know enjoys brainstorming. Contact someone to thank them for their contribution and recognize their effort.


An organization cannot create employee engagement, nor can a leader make an employee on their team engaged. However, an organization, its leaders, and other teammates can all work together to promote the benefits of choosing to be an engaged employee or teammate. Side effects include enjoying work more, seeing the bigger picture, building stronger relationships, seeing and seizing opportunities, increasing productivity, and getting noticed more. Choose wisely, and remember leaders are teammates too.

Additional Resources

About the Author

Mariam Hutchinson is an independent leadership development consultant and coach with a passion for developing leaders of all ages and stages in their careers using a strengths-based approach. Previous roles include serving in various management and leadership positions on Learning and Development teams for Booz Allen Hamilton and Maximus. In addition, Mariam has a combined total of 20 years of experience in program management and training roles for the financial services, non-profit, and higher education industries.

Mariam holds an M.S. in Organization Development and Knowledge Management from George Mason University and has facilitated numerous leadership and team development programs using tools like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, DiSC, Insights Discovery, and CliftonStrengths. She also holds certificates in Leadership Studies, Instructional Design, Coaching, and is a Silver Level Certified Kirkpatrick Professional and has presented at industry conferences hosted by ATD and The Conference Board.

She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and two boys, ages 10 and 8. Mariam is currently focused on getting her kids through the remainder of their 100% distance learning school year. In addition to independent consulting and coaching, Mariam will be participating in a cohort-based program in the fall focused on leadership coaching for organizational well-being and serving as a volunteer for L&D Cares.

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Miriam, thanks for reinforcing how important it is to stay connected and be supportive at work. I sometimes get so busy trying to keep up with the added work that I neglect my teammates.
Thanks for your comment Jody! I think it is safe to say you are not alone in that situation. We have all been there. It can be a bit of a mindset change to also think about reaching out to others at work as part of work and being a good teammate. Good teammates will also reach to you when they notice they haven't heard from you in a while. The fact that you took time to read this and reflect for a moment already tells me you're a good teammate. All the best to you and your teammates!
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