There’s an old saying among sports coaches:
“A champion team will defeat a team of champions.”
However, as much as we value the ideals of teamwork and connectedness, there’s also the alternative notion of the “rugged individual” or “prima donna,” who stands out from the crowd and succeeds without help from anyone.
Our culture often places more value on a single talented person than on a cohesive team that has no standout star.
Research has to ask, what is better: one standout player or a cohesive team of average performers?
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Effective Team vs. Star Performer
Imagine the following scenario: You’re an extremely wealthy person admitted to a hospital because of a serious heart condition. You need a lifesaving operation and because of your influence and financial status, you are given the option of having a world-renowned surgeon flown in to operate on you.
In those circumstances, we’d all go for the star performer over settling for the standard team of residents, right? Maybe not.
Researchers Robert Huckman and Gary Pisano from Harvard Business School challenged the status of freelancing experts in a 2006 study. They measured the success rates of more than 200 cardiac surgeons working in 43 different hospitals, specifically examining the patient survival rates of highly experienced freelancers compared to those of surgical teams.
After analyzing more than 38,000 procedures, Huckman and Pisano found that the performance of individual heart specialists did improve significantly with practice and experience—but only at the hospitals where they did most of their work. When the same surgeons left their usual teams to work at different hospitals, their success rates returned to baseline.
This study suggests that working within a bonded team of colleagues helps develop interactive routines that harness the unique talents of each team member.
The authors concluded that elite performance is not as portable as previously thought and is more a function of the “familiarity that a surgeon develops with the assets of a given organization”—a nice way of saying that their stars only shine with the support of their colleagues (Huckman & Pisano, 2006).
Huckman, along with colleagues Staats and Upton, reinforced these findings by compiling data from studies of other professional settings (2009). In a study of software development projects, team familiarity (the average number of times that each member had worked with every other member) was a better predictor of project success and on-time delivery than the total experience of individual team members.
In a study of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, fatigued crews were placed under simulated pressure to test their effectiveness. The crews who had flown together in the past made significantly fewer errors than fresh crews who had never flown together (1986).
Positive psychology has always emphasized the personal benefits of social relationships and connectedness to others. Now we can say that connectedness makes good business sense, too—it has the potential to improve organizational performance at the highest levels.
Psychologist and business professor, Adam Grant, nicely summarized the above findings in his 2013 book by saying:
“So once we get the right people on the bus, let’s make sure they spend some time driving together.”
The Value of Teamwork
From an evolutionary standpoint, it’s easy to understand why humans work well in teams. If our ancestors were unable to get along in a group, they would be unlikely to survive very long.
This can be seen in species who share common ancestors with humans. You won’t see an alpha male monkey walking alone without their followers, for example. Once you are in a team, you get stronger.
Under the VIA (Values in Action) personality test, which gives an inventory of a person’s character strengths, teamwork is considered a strength in the “Justice” category. People who have teamwork as their top strength usually are “loyal and dedicated teammates and work hard for the success of the group,” (VIA Institute on Character, 2016).
Having a penchant for teamwork ensures that members of society don’t just focus on themselves, but make sure entire groups of people function well.
Different from other strengths that could be cultivated by yourself, teamwork is all about others. Based on the findings of the character strengths in organizations, they found that individually-focused strengths like creativity are unlikely to occur with other-focused strengths like teamwork.
When you work in a team, you’re shifting the focus from you to others.
What Is an Effective Team?
So, we know that teams can be highly effective. But certain team structures work better than others.
Working with other people doesn’t mean that you’re working as a team. Real teamwork implies collaboration, communication, and acknowledgment of a common purpose.
Hence, a group is more than just a gathering of people, and not all groups are teams. Teams are, in fact, a very particular kind of group in that they’re interdependent and focused on structure and activities.
One of the definitions of a team that is used in psychology is this one:
“A team is a group of two or more people who interdependently seek to meet a common purpose, often through problem solving, in order to meet their own and their organization’s goals. At a minimum, a team should be a cooperative unit and, at its best, a team is a collaborative unit.”
To build a strong team, trust is essential.
“Trust is a psychological state that implies positive expectations regarding the intentions, attitudes and behaviors of others towards oneself in situations that may imply some uncertainty or ambiguity.”
In the context of organizations, for example, we can look at trust in three different forms or stages:
- Trust based on an estimate: weighing the pros and cons of trust;
- Trust based on information: behavior is influenced by our previous experiences (positive and negative);
- Trust based on identification: we trust more readily in others with whom we identify.
We also know that an environment with low levels of trust will lead to:
- Contradictory information;
- Hidden agendas;
- Unmet expectations;
- A system with a higher level of control and vigilance.
Teamwork also requires the ability of facilitation. Business writer Tom Wujec found that when presenting groups with the “marshmallow challenge,” a simple team-building exercise that instructs people to build towers out of marshmallows, dried spaghetti, masking tape, and string, they scored much better if executive administrators were included.
“Because they have special skills of facilitation, they manage the process. They understand the process. Any team who manages and pays close attention to work will significantly improve the team’s performance” (Wujec, 2010).
Most of the time a team is simply a group of people working in the same office space. Each person has his or her own strengths and skills. Each could succeed and do great on their own.
Such a group needs a facilitator to ensure that each person’s skills are being utilized, and that they are working toward the same goal.
Andrew Carnegie once said:
“Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.”
Seven Core Components of the Psychology of Teamwork
So what does it take to build an effective team? According to the TESI (Team Emotional and Social Intelligence) Model, there are seven skills that will contribute to effective team functioning:
1. Team Identity
A group with a strong team identity demonstrates belongingness, a desire to work together, and a sense of clarity around the role of each member. Groups with strong team identity also have high degrees of loyalty.
A high level of motivation corresponds with the energy and responsibility levels of the team, and whether competition is working for or against the team. Having a motivated team requires knowing and meeting desires, setting stretch goals, reinforcing success, and being persistent.
3. Emotional Awareness
A team’s emotional awareness encompasses the amount of attention the team pays to noticing, understanding, and respecting the feelings of team members. Emotional awareness is a critical factor in motivation, productivity, and a team’s ability to collaborate, making it central to the success of every team.
Intuitively, we know that communication is an essential factor for a group of people working together. It provides feedback and guidance on how well each of the team members listens, encourages participation, and discusses sensitive topics.
5. Stress Tolerance
A team with good stress tolerance knows how well it’s doing in managing the pressures of workload, time constraints, and the real need for work-life balance.
6. Conflict Resolution
Assessing a team’s conflict resolution means examining how a team processes disagreement and whether the team is able to deal with adversity as a way to enhance its functioning, rather than being caught up in the conflict. It’s essential for productivity and creativity.
7. Positive Mood
A team with a positive mood has is built on foundations of encouragement, a sense of humor, and an expectation of success. Positive mood is a major factor in a team’s flexibility and resilience, and it’s the heart of a “can-do” attitude. It influences how energized the team’s attitude is.
According to this framework, the result of applying these skills is sustained productivity and emotional and social well-being for the team. Isn’t that what we all want?
In the words of Henry Ford:
“Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”
Are you part of an effective team? What can you do to start developing these skills? Leave a comment below.
This article was written by Catarina Lino and Brad Desmond.
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- U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Crew Factors in Flight Operations: III. The operational significance of exposure to short-haul air transport operations. By H. C. Foushee, J. K. Lauber, M. M. Baetge, & D. B. Acomb. Moffett Field, CA: NASA, 1986. (NASA Technical Memorandum 88322).
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