Innovation. Growth. Security. Success.
These are the outcomes of working as a team, whether in business or on the sports field. Yet teamwork comes with its own set of challenges.
Would you like to know how to leverage the many benefits of teamwork?
Yet avoid its pitfalls, such as lack of communication, poor trust, and personality clashes among team members?
Then this article is for you, as we explore the psychology of teamwork and share actionable habits that can build highly effective teams.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Work & Career Coaching Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients identify opportunities for professional growth and create a more meaningful career.
This Article Contains:
The Psychology of Teamwork: What Makes an Effective Team?
Psychological theory, research, and models provide valuable insights and guidance into effective team building and maintenance in various workplace settings, including schools, hospitals, corporate offices, oil rigs, power plants, and the military (Salas et al., 2018).
Psychology has come a long way in understanding such complex groups—as recognized by a special issue on the “Science of Teamwork” in the American Psychological Association’s flagship journal American Psychologist in 2018.
Teams are vital and commonplace. Because of their prevalence and impact, “our safety, security, comfort, and innovation depend on good teamwork and collaboration” (Salas et al., 2018, p. 593).
Innovation is often the result of constant communication and side-by-side work and takes place “when collaboration translates each person’s creativity into group genius” and conflict is avoided (Sawyer, 2007, p. 13).
But then, what are teams exactly, and how do we define them?
We must begin by understanding what defines a “group.” Within an organization, a group is more than simply a collection of people. Members recognize themselves as a social entity that (Davenport, 2009):
- Interacts with each of its members
- Is psychologically aware of each of its members
- Perceives itself as a group
And yet, teams go further. They share a common goal. With the modern workplace demanding successful partnering across functional and geographical divides, fostering collaborative team working cultures becomes increasingly vital (Davenport, 2009).
Therefore, an effective team has the following attributes (Davenport, 2009):
- Clear understanding of the team’s objectives and goals
- Range of skills and know-how among team members to handle tasks effectively
- Variety of personality types and strengths among its team members
- High degree of respect and trust, both individually and for each other’s contributions to team performance
- An effective recognition and reward system
The points above are helpful because they enable us to distinguish between people working together in groups and those forming effective teams.
When considered together, it’s possible to arrive at the following teamwork definition: “Teamwork can be defined as the ability of team members to work together, communicate effectively, anticipate and meet each other’s demands, and inspire confidence, resulting in a coordinated collective action” (Salas & Cannon-Bowers, 2001, extract).
And a definition of team building might arise as follows:
“Team building is an ongoing process that helps a work group evolve into a cohesive unit. The team members not only share expectations for accomplishing group tasks, but trust and support one another and respect one another’s individual differences” (Team building: Introduction, n.d., para. 1).
Understanding the psychology of group dynamics
“We know what effective teams do, think, and feel. We know what influences team dynamics, and some interventions that help develop teamwork” (Salas et al., 2018, p. 593).
Psychological research has confirmed that the following elements are the minimum prerequisites for an effective team:
- Strong team leadership
- Role clarity
- Mutual trust
- Sound information exchange protocols
- A compelling reason to be a team
Team psychology in the workplace
Several psychological and organizational models and frameworks have grown out of the need to understand and explain how teams form, grow, develop, maintain, and change in the workplace.
The following three early models are valuable for our current understanding of how effective teams evolve (Davenport, 2009).
Bass and Ryterband’s model
Bass and Ryterband’s (1979) model of team development includes four stages and areas of focus:
- First stage: Building trust among team members
- Second stage: Open communication, problem-solving, and decision-making
- Third stage: Motivation and productivity of the team
- Fourth stage: Control and organization where members can work independently
Woodcock’s (1979) model of team development also has four stages:
- The undeveloped team:
Unclear objectives, established policies, and a lack of shared understanding prevail. Mistakes are used to blame others.
- The experimenting team:
The team is willing to take risks and includes more active listening and short periods of group introspection.
- The consolidating team:
The team adopts a systematic approach. Rules and procedures are agreed upon, and improved relationships and methods from the previous stage are maintained.
- The mature team:
The team achieves high flexibility and appropriate leadership for different situations, and prioritizes development for continued success. Trust, openness, honesty, cooperation, confrontation, and reviewing results become the norm.
Tuckman’s (1965) model of team development includes five stages:
During the initial stage, team members come together. They may be anxious and unsure, and there are few rules.
This is the stage of disagreement, including frustration and potential confrontation, where team members are more confident to express themselves and challenge each other.
This is when group identity, guidelines, and norms are established. Emotions are expressed constructively.
The team has created structure and cohesiveness to work effectively and can now concentrate on achieving its objectives.
In this final stage, the team reflects on their time together and may disband.
As with individuals, team performance in sports can benefit from time spent building psychological capital, which comprises four key elements (Luthans et al., 2015):
Furthermore, according to positive psychology consultant and performance coach John Yeager, sports teams collectively benefit from coaching focused on each element to build the psychological capital required to boost their combined performance.
Once achieved, they “maintain a healthy culture and find an effective balance between holding athletes accountable and supporting each other” (Yeager, 2021, p. 223).
Recommended read: Positive Psychology in the Workplace
7 Habits of Highly Effective Teams
Managers can sometimes view team collaboration as a “black box,” only considering individual team members’ characteristics without looking inside the process itself (Sawyer, 2007).
Keith Sawyer (2007, p. 13), a psychologist at Washington University, says that his research shows “the secret to understanding what makes a collaboration successful lies inside the box, in moment-to-moment interactional dynamics.”
This understanding led him to rethink group innovation and creativity, identifying the following seven key characteristics (or habits) of effective, creative teams along with suggested actions for moving innovation forward (Sawyer, 2007):
- Innovation emerges over time.
Successful innovation requires its members to combine the right ideas in an appropriate structure, bit by bit.
ACTION: Encourage team members to take time each day/week to brainstorm and share new ideas and establish a structure for combining and building on those ideas over time.
- Successful collaborative teams practice deep listening.
Team members often spend too much time planning what they will say and how to respond in meetings and too little time listening to and observing others.
ACTION: Prioritize active listening and observation during team meetings and discussions. And provide opportunities for team members to practice deep listening skills.
- Team members build on their collaborators’ ideas.
Through deep listening, team members take on and evolve each idea further.
ACTION: Recognize the potential of other team members’ ideas and accept the importance of collective ownership to drive forward problem-solving.
- Only afterward does the meaning of each idea become clear.
While it’s tempting to attribute an idea to one person, its full importance results from being taken up, reinterpreted, and applied by the whole team. “Participants are willing to allow other people to give their action meaning by building on it later” (Sawyer, 2007, p. 15).
ACTION: Emphasize the importance of evolving and adapting ideas as a team, rather than attributing them to one individual.
- Surprising questions emerge.
“The most transformative creativity results when a group either thinks of a new way to frame a problem or finds a new problem that no one has noticed before” (Sawyer, 2007, p. 16).
ACTION: Encourage team members to question assumptions and think outside the box by regularly posing surprising or unconventional questions during meetings and discussions.
- Innovation is inefficient.
Improvised innovation will make more mistakes, but it can be phenomenal when the team gets a hit.
ACTION: Recognize that innovation can be inefficient and messy but emphasize the potential for breakthroughs.
- Innovation emerges from the bottom up.
Teams start with the detail, improvise innovation, then work up to the big picture.
ACTION: Foster a bottom-up approach to innovation, starting with small details and building toward the bigger picture.
While all seven are characteristics of an effective team, they are also actionable tasks within the process where team members play off each other (Sawyer, 2007).
2 Real-Life Examples of Effective Teamwork
The following are two high-profile examples of the immense potential of effective teamwork, especially when the stakes are high (Keup, 2022; Allen, 2022).
One giant leap for humankind
The Apollo 11 mission in 1969 is a prime example of teamwork at its finest.
While the world celebrated the achievement of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, the success of the mission resulted from the efforts of a much larger team.
The mission planners, scientists, engineers, and technicians, numbering around 400,000, worked tirelessly for years to make the moon landing a reality. The team’s cohesion was strengthened by the astronauts’ close collaboration with these groups, emphasizing the importance of human connection in any team.
Wikipedia is the epitome of teamwork in the digital age. It’s a collaborative engine of knowledge that is constantly evolving, thanks to the efforts of an army of volunteer writers and editors.
Unlike traditional encyclopedias, Wikipedia is constantly updated and open to debate and challenge, making it a dynamic and accurate source of information.
While the scale of this teamwork is almost incomprehensible, the site runs smoothly, with errors quickly discovered and corrected. Everyone who has landed on the site is considered a part of the team, making Wikipedia a perfect example of how teamwork can achieve great things in the digital age.
5 Traits of high performing teams
10 Barriers to Teamwork
Understanding what stops or limits individual and group performance can help us build and maintain motivated, resilient, and highly effective teams.
The following 10 barriers can present themselves in real-world team environments (Haas & Mortensen, 2016):
- Poor understanding of roles and responsibilities
Team members may not fully understand their roles and responsibilities, leading to confusion and lack of accountability.
- Insufficiently defined goals and objectives
Team members may not clearly identify what they are working toward, leading to uncertainty and lack of motivation.
- Poor decision-making processes
Teams may lack effective decision-making techniques and strategies, leading to delays and suboptimal outcomes.
- Resistance to change
Team members may resist change, leading to a lack of flexibility and stagnation.
- Lack of accountability and ownership
Team members may not feel accountable for their work and the team’s success.
- Lack of resources or support
Teams may not have the necessary resources and support from leadership to achieve their goals effectively.
- Inadequate leadership
Teams may not have effective leadership, leading to a lack of direction and guidance.
Team members may be reluctant to challenge the opinions and ideas of others, leading to poor decision-making and an absence of creative thinking.
- Lack of trust and psychological safety among team members
Team members may be hesitant to share their ideas and concerns due to a lack of trust in their colleagues or fear of being judged and rejected.
- Inadequate communication
Team members may not be effectively communicating with each other, leading to misunderstandings and conflicting priorities.
10 Team-Building Skills for Successful Teams
The following is a list of 10 vital skills for building high-performing and successful teams; they prioritize cohesion, good communication, and are goal focused (Haas & Mortensen, 2016; Steps to building an effective team, n.d.; Boogaard, 2022):
- Clear communication
Encourage team members to speak openly and honestly and actively listen to one another’s ideas and perspectives. Provide training and resources to help team members improve their communication skills.
- Trust and accountability
Create an environment where team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable with one another. Hold team members accountable for their actions and decisions and provide them with the support and resources they need to succeed.
- Adaptability and flexibility
Encourage team members to be open to new ideas and ways of working. Be willing to pivot and change course when necessary.
- Emotional intelligence
Provide training and resources to help team members better understand and manage their own emotions and those of others.
- Active listening
Encourage team members to fully engage, pay attention to what others are saying, and respond thoughtfully.
- Conflict resolution
Teach team members how to navigate and resolve conflicts constructively and effectively.
- Goal alignment
Ensure that individual goals align with the team’s overall objectives and that everyone works toward a common purpose.
Teach team members how to assign tasks and responsibilities to one another effectively to maximize their strengths and capabilities.
Teach team members how to identify problems and develop practical solutions.
- Empowerment and autonomy
Give team members the freedom and support they need to take ownership of their work and make decisions. Provide regular feedback and coaching to help them improve their skills and advance in their careers.
Resources From PositivePsychology.com
We have many practical resources for you as a manager or leader supporting your team as they form, develop, and attempt to avoid some challenges of group dynamics.
Our free resources include the following:
- GROW model
Use the power of the GROW model to define team goals and boost motivation and cohesion.
- Do the Hula
In this novel and fun exercise, the group learns the value of team cooperation.
- Stepping Forward
Use this activity to begin and end team building by clarifying expectations for the day.
Our Emotional Intelligence Masterclass© helps boost teamwork by teaching staff to handle emotions better. The training improves communication, relationships, decision-making, job satisfaction, motivation, and overall wellbeing. It also enhances the emotional intelligence of the coach, making them better equipped to lead teams.
The Positive Relationships Masterclass© strengthens teamwork using the “Six Pillars of Positive Relationships.” It offers practical techniques to enhance communication and maintain healthy relationships, leading to improved coaching skills and a thriving workplace.
You will learn the key aspects of positive relationships and explore science-based ways to categorize the different types of positive network members and grow social capital.
Not only that, but we also have specific articles that delve into team-building topics; for example:
- 15 Communication Exercises and Games for the Workplace
- Active Listening: The Art of Empathetic Conversation
- The Importance, Benefits, and Value of Goal Setting
And lastly, if you’re looking for more science-based ways to help your team develop their strengths, check out this collection of 17 strength-finding tools. Use them to help others better understand and harness their strengths in life-enhancing ways.
A Take-Home Message
Research in the psychology of teamwork has shown that effective collaboration can lead to improved productivity, creativity, and job satisfaction among team members (Sawyer, 2007; Salas et al., 2018).
When teams experience a sense of belonging and purpose in their work, they are more likely to achieve their goals and be motivated to perform at their best. It can also lead to improved organizational outcomes, such as achieving goals, making better decisions, and providing higher levels of customer service.
Great teamwork relies on successful team building—the process of creating a cohesive, high-performing team capable of working together successfully. Effective team building can reduce conflicts, turnover, and absenteeism among its members by fostering a positive culture and improving overall morale.
As a manager, you can encourage the best out of your teams by creating a supportive and inclusive environment, encouraging clear communication, and promoting trust, accountability, and active listening.
Additionally, you can provide training and resources to help team members develop the skills they need to work well together, such as problem-solving, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence. In our resources section, we provide a recommended selection of free and paid resources—all well worth it to build your own highly effective team.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Work & Career Coaching Exercises for free.
- Allen, V. (2022). Teams that changed the world. WorkStyle. Retrieved January 20, 2023, from https://www.workstyle.io/top-performing-team-case-studies.
- Bass, B. M., & Ryterband, E. C. (1979). Organizational psychology (2nd ed.). Allyn & Bacon.
- Boogaard, K. (2022). 7 essential teamwork skills. Work Life by Atlassian. Retrieved January 23, 2023, from https://www.atlassian.com/blog/teamwork/teamwork-skills-accelerate-career/amp
- Davenport, H. (2009). Groups and teams. In I. Brooks (Ed.), Organisational behaviour: Individuals, groups and organisation (pp. 111–155). Essay, Pearson.
- Haas, M., & Mortensen, M. (2016). The secrets of great teamwork. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved January 20, 2023, from https://hbr.org/2016/06/the-secrets-of-great-teamwork.
- Keup, M. (2022). 9 inspirational teamwork examples. ProjectManager. Retrieved January 20, 2023, from https://www.projectmanager.com/blog/teamwork-examples.
- Luthans, F., Youssef, C. M., & Avolio, B. J. (2015). Psychological capital and beyond. Oxford University Press.
- Sawyer, K. (2007). Group genius. Basic Books.
- Salas, E., & Cannon-Bowers, J. A. (2001). Teamwork and team training. In N. J. Smelser & P. B. Baltes (Eds.), International encyclopedia of the social & behavioral sciences (pp. 15487–15492). Elsevier.
- Salas, E., Reyes, D. L., & McDaniel, S. H. (2018). The science of teamwork: Progress, reflections, and the road ahead. American Psychologist, 73(4), 593–600.
- Steps to building an effective team. (n.d.). Retrieved January 23, 2023, from https://hr.berkeley.edu/hr-network/central-guide-managing-hr/managing-hr/interaction/team-building/steps.
- Team building: Introduction. (n.d.). Retrieved January 24, 2023, from https://hr.berkeley.edu/hr-network/central-guide-managing-hr/managing-hr/interaction/team-building/introduction.
- Tuckman, B. W. (1965.) Development sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63, 384–399.
- Woodcock, M. (1979). Team development manual. Gower.
- Yeager, J. (2021). The coaching zone: Next level leadership in sports. Yeager Leadership Press.