As our team continues to grow at Steople, we face some of the same challenges with teamwork that we regularly tackle with you and in your organizations.  How do we keep this team cohesive, preserve our culture and maintain high-quality work, while also building a diverse team to fuel innovation and growth?  We want cohesion and great collaboration, and we work hard to nurture and grow our “dream” team.

Given the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world that we live and work in, combining our knowledge and skills to reach goals has become the preferred way to work.  However, thriving as a team is not always natural or easy.  It’s complex, just like the world we live in.  As psychologists who believe in evidence-based practice, we draw from our training in human behavior and group dynamics, and we turn to current research on teamwork to inform our teamwork efforts.

Teamwork is a hot topic.  Research is growing and we are now better able to pinpoint what works well and what does not.  In fact, the American Psychological Association published a special issue of the American Psychologist in 2018 comprised of 21 articles detailing what scientists have learned to date about working in teams, along with running a cover story in September 2018 issue of the Monitor on Psychology summarizing significant findings from these same articles (“The Science of Teamwork: New Research on What Makes Teams Gel or Undercuts Their Success”).

Since scientific articles are a tough read for many AND we love to share good info, I am outlining my key takeaways from a recent read of the literature on teamwork.  Hopefully these will provide you with good food for thought in cultivating your own dream teams:

  1. “Deep-level” factors matter more than “surface-level” attributes.
  2. The ideal team composition depends upon the context and objectives.
  3. Good teamwork is different than good taskwork.
  4. Frequent, direct communication is best when teams are multi-disciplinary and fluid in membership.
  5. Small teams are great for generating ideas, while larger teams are better at developing them.
  6. Diverse teams fuel innovation and agility but face unique team functioning challenges.

“Deep-level” factors matter more than “surface-level” attributes.
According to Dr. Suzanne Bell, an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist at DePaul University in Chicago, the “deep-level” factors of individual team members are those that you can’t see at a glance – things like member’s personality traits, values and abilities.  These have a much bigger impact on work teams than “surface-level” attributes (age, gender, reputation, etc.), although both matter.

Bell states that “deep-level” factors shape the ABC’s of teamwork:  attitudes, behaviors and cognitive states.

  •  A – Attitude

Attitude matters.  One person’s mood and outlook can spread throughout the team – in either a positive or negative way.  For example, a pessimistic team member could negatively influence the way the whole group views its goals.

  • B – Values

People who value teamwork tend to be more confident and cooperative in team settings.  When team members are high in conscientiousness, they are also better at self-regulating their teamwork.

  • C – Cognitive States (Thinking)

Groups composed of high-ability members who are able to learn, reason, adapt and solve problems are more likely to work well together.

The ideal team composition depends upon the context and objectives.
What is the preferred combination of “deep-level” factors? According to Bell, it depends:

  • If the team is innovating and designing a new product, she recommends building a team with diverse thinkers who bring a range of knowledge, skills and abilities to the project.
  • If the team is aimed at improving efficiencies, diverse attitudes might be less critical.

On the horizon are algorithms to help organizations create effective teams for specific goals.  Once perfected these could be valuable tools for creating the best possible team compositions from the outset.

Good teamwork is different than good taskwork.
From U.S. military research teams, we have learned that the distinction between taskwork and teamwork is an important one:

  • Taskwork – The work that must be done to complete a mission or assignment;
  • Teamwork – The interrelated thoughts, feelings and behaviors of team members (i.e., team cohesion, shared mental models).

According to Dr. Gerald F. Goodwin (U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences) and his colleagues, how well people work together may be more important than how well they work on the tasks.  He refers to this as team cognition, which is essentially what teams think, how they think together and how well synchronized their beliefs and perceptions are.  Team cognition is what allows team members to understand intuitively how their teammates will think and act, whether on the battlefield, in a surgical suite or on a basketball court.  This is important for teams that need to quickly adapt to dynamic circumstances without much opportunity for communication.

Frequent, direct communication is better when teams are multi-disciplinary and fluid in membership.
Research on teamwork in healthcare informs us about working well on multi-disciplinary teams.  The stakes are high for teams functioning in medical settings – how well or not a medical team is coordinated affects patient safety and quality of care.  They face unique teamwork challenges in that they are multi-disciplinary and fluid in membership – meaning that members change on care teams from one patient to the next and/or at shift change.

Dr. Michael Rosen and colleagues at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, stress that clear roles, clear goals and a clear plan of care are crucial and are fundamental to good collaboration.  Their research shows that implementing procedures such as multidisciplinary rounds improves communication between physicians and nurses and decreases length of stay for trauma patients.  In outpatient settings, team “huddles” before a patient visit to coordinate care plans and short debriefings at the end of the day to share what worked and what didn’t can boost performance among team members and improve patient outcomes.

Small teams are great for generating ideas, while larger teams are better for developing them.
Studies on use of team collaboration in scientific research settings show an emerging pattern that supports this.  Small teams appear best for generating ideas that shake up the status quo, for instance, while larger teams are better at further developing those big ideas.

Diverse teams fuel innovation and agility but face some unique challenges in team functioning.
Cross-disciplinary, multicultural, and/or geographically diverse teams can be great for fueling innovation and creativity.  “Team members from different cultures can each bring in something unique, which can result in a better team product than any one person could have thought of on their own,” explains Dr. Jennifer Feitosa of the City University of New York, Brooklyn College.  Although diversity appears beneficial in terms of creative output, it can also bring unique obstacles for team functioning:

  • Members may have different ways of thinking and doing things, and they might not understand where each other is coming from;
  • Trust may be slow to develop; and
  • Cultural differences can include differing norms and preferences for leadership styles and for conflict management that may oppose one another.

The recommendation to prevent differences from becoming obstacles is to create a “hybrid” culture for the team by establishing team norms that aren’t entirely my way or your way but, instead, are a little bit of everyone’s.

Whew!  The sheer volume of information available now on teamwork is huge, but researchers still have more questions to address.  I hope you’ve all found a nugget of new information here to consider and use when creating and managing teams in your organizations.  And, as always, let us know if we can help and have a great week!