This blog is on topics of interest to early career professionals who work with people with disabilities. Blog contributors have diverse perspectives on leadership, professional development, and success in changing systems to better serve people with disabilities and their families. For more information on Early Career Professionals, check out the website:

03 June, 2013

How High-Fives Help and Other Tips to Improve Multidisciplinary Teamwork

Jonathan Jenkins, MA - Predoctoral Psychology Intern at Cambridge Health Alliance/Harvard Medical School and former LEND program graduate.

As I reflect upon what to write for this blog entry, I am reminded about the immense amount of advice that I have received along the road towards completing my doctoral degree this August.  Upon that journey, one of my main areas of professional growth was learning how to find my own voice within groups and finding out where I fit when working together with various professionals to serve the medical and social challenges of families in need.  Through being mindful of my own area of growth, I have been able to incorporate several new skills that have assisted me in becoming more valuable to the families I serve when partnering with other professionals and more excited about these opportunities for collaboration and professional growth.

Charisma is Queen/King.  My father gave me great advice before I attended my first ever job interview for a position with a nonprofit focused on character enrichment for children.  When asking him what I should do at the interview, he reminded me that my resume/qualifications made me attractive for the position but that the true test of my worth to the company was my personality.  During that conversation, he spoke about how important it was for me to be that guy who they could count on to not only be able to handle that “3am-worst-case-scenario” because of my professional knowledge, but that my personality and disposition could actually make the “3am-worst-case-scenario” less of a crazy ordeal for the staff as a whole.  The ability of a team member to provide serenity during times of chaos or the ability of that person to galvanize others into action is paramount.  In the social service field this is particularly important given the many crises that organizations often face, whether it is in the lives of our individual patients/clients or with the actual structure or daily operations of the company itself.  Being known as the organization’s anchor, you will become indispensible and someone who will
be exposed to various opportunities for professional growth.  Being able to provide calm during the storm also allows people to work more productively and that could assist in the goal being reached quickly and with less unnecessary strife and conflict.

High-Five and High-Five Often.  Be a cheerleader, everyone likes a high-five.  When you see someone doing something positive at the organization, whether it is personal or related to work, make sure you let that person know that you recognize his or her awesome accomplishment.  Although we are all adults and would like to say that we have given up childish things like consistent praise, I will be the first to admit that I feel fantastic after someone gives me even the slightest bit of credit for a job well done.  This demonstrates to me that a) this person is interested/invested in my success, b) that successful behavior gets noticed by her/him or the organization as a whole, and c) that I will be more aware of what that person does in the future so that I can return the high-five to them when they accomplish a goal. 

The ability to be a cheerleader on your team helps foster camaraderie and an appreciation of success.  This positive atmosphere not only helps the organization but it also can translate to creating an improved environment for the patients/clients served.  If the population served is able to tell that those within the organization are a cohesive group and are excited about coming into work then that may encourage clients/patients to join in the positive atmosphere and become more involved in their own care.  This type of camaraderie also helps the organization gain more access to the community as a whole.  With patients/clients seeing the members of the organization as approachable, fun-loving, and warm they may be more willing to have the organization gain access to particularly “shy” areas of the community that maybe were previously nervous about seeking medical or social services from the organization.

Work with the People Whom Posses Talents You Don’t.  The best way to learn skills to progress professionally is to diversify your skill set and that cannot be accomplished by working only with likeminded people.  By limiting yourself to working only with similarly talented people, there is little opportunity to be inspired to dream differently about how to accomplish tasks and to creatively problem-solve.  Additionally, working with the same people and solving the same tasks may become overly repetitive and could lead to boredom or burnout, both outcomes being ones that can diminish your productivity and your ability to serve the community with a high degree of energy.  Through branching out and allowing ourselves to be humbled by others’ skills, we present ourselves with the opportunity to be spurred into growing in new and different ways by igniting our own competitive juices.  Again, as high-achieving individuals, we also recognize and appreciate how Darwin spoke about failure being a catalyst for evolution in animals and this is no different when speaking about one’s professional growth. 

These situations also provide great networking opportunities where new connections can be forged and further collaboration can occur for later projects.  While working with this new partner you may discover that her/his talents greatly dwarf anything you could accomplish in this particular area.  That realization is not a sign of defeat or surrender but recognition that to successfully accomplish the task it might be beneficial for you to step to the side and let this individual’s given talents shine.  Not only will that then allow the task to be accomplished correctly, but also you have just provided someone the opportunity to show their worth, which will pay dividends later when they may encounter a problem where you could be seen as a resource.

Know the Bounds of Your Competence.  There are a lot more things that I cannot do then that I can do and I am okay with that because I can do some things pretty darn well.  Just as one should have confidence in what they can do, they similarly need confidence in what they cannot do.  In my own life, it has often been those times when I took on a task way above my competence that I failed and failed miserably.  This is not to say that people should not challenge themselves, but that they should make sure that they are qualified to partake in each particular challenge.  Not being mindful of the potential skills necessary for particular tasks could have devastating consequences for the individual, the organization, and the community served.  As high-achievers, we must all remember that it is okay to not be all things for all people.  Through knowing how to do several things really well, we are providing a great gift to our communities while still allowing for professional challenge and growth.

It is Okay to say “No.”  “No.”  Now you say it…
I of all people have trouble saying “no” so I sympathize with others like me who have trouble with this simple two-letter word.  When I say “no,” I am worried about two things: disappointing the person who asked for my help and missing out on an awesome experience.  Where saying “yes” too much gets me into trouble is when I become overworked and have my hands in too many projects to be able to do any of these projects successfully.  I am doing nobody any favors by just being present if I cannot utilize my talents to the extent necessary to accomplish the task.  What has been helpful for me in this arena is to provide a thoughtful explanation as for why I cannot participate in the project.  This releases me from the guilt of declining their invitation or call for help while also giving them the opportunity to develop other ways in which I can be helpful.  There is no harm in being both strategic and realistic about your involvement in particular tasks because your success not only impacts your own professional identity but also the service delivery of the organization.

The 19th century American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm,” and this is no different in our field.  By approaching opportunities for collaboration with tenacity and excitement, we can enliven our professional communities and spark both tremendous change in society and great professional growth in our lives.