Does Teamwork Make the Dream Work?

Throughout my time in school and indeed the vast majority of my career there have always been two words that fill me with dread:

Group Project 

I think most people clearly fall into 2 camps on the idea of group projects. There are the ones who love the idea of collaborating with others, sharing the responsibility and coming up with an end result as a team. Then there are those who, like me, hate the idea of figuring out who does what, dealing with different peoples expectations, different ways of working and execution and the fact that ultimately we will be judged by the work of others. 

While working as a group may have advantages and disadvantages, it is something we all need to get comfortable with. Harvard Business Review found the time spent by managers in collaborative activities has increased by more than 50% in the past two decades. 

In theory a team should be able to produce better results than someone working alone. But does research really show that teams are more effective than individuals? If so, what is the makeup of those teams that operate at the highest level?

Do Teams have a Bigger Impact?

We all love to celebrate the lone hero. The MVP who stands alone and achieves big results. Research shows however, that time and time again an individual can achieve a lot more with a great team and that high performing teams get far more significant results than someone working alone. 

There are a number of key reasons for this:

Teams take on more challenging projects: From the outset a team of people is much more likely to take on a more difficult project than someone working alone. One reason for this is that social support positively influences what problems we think we can tackle. For example, research shows that when someone is looking at a hill and judging how steep it is, when standing alone they will perceive it as steeper than it really is and more challenging to climb. While standing next to someone (or even just thinking of a friend), however, the hill looks 10 – 20 percent less steep and people are much more confident about their ability to climb it. As Shawn Achor points out in the book Big Potential this makes evolutionary sense. ‘Other people provide resources and support. So, mentally and physically, mountains seem more climbable, successes more achievable, and obstacles more surmountable with others beside it.’ 

Teams broaden what Individuals can do: Teams have more people so naturally they also involve a larger array of skills and knowledge. This increases the variety of situations they can address and their overall effectiveness. A wider range of perspectives will always make a team more imaginative and creative than a single person. 

Teams can be more efficient and effective at producing results: Teams get results from the efforts of many people. This also means they can get results faster because they can complete multiple tasks at the same time. Often team members feel responsible to the other members on their team and so may work harder because they don’t want to let others down or be perceived as the ‘weak link’. 

Teams provide support and reduce burnout: Members of a team report less stress and burnout than those who work alone. Situations appear less stressful when people feel supported and like they are not the only one dealing with the situation. Team members can rely on other people, and they typically receive ongoing assistance and encouragement from other team members as they work on tasks.

While teams can produce much more than individuals there is a disclaimer – not just any team can produce these results. A poor team can easily have issues with division, conflict and discrepancies in the amount each team member contributes. Meetings can easily go off topic and procrastination can significantly impact making critical decisions. It is not just any team that produces more than individuals, it has to be a certain set up that makes them more efficient. So what is it that makes a team work really well together? 

Creating the Dream Team

It is tempting to think that you can create a dream team by just putting the best individual achievers in a group, but it is rarely this simple. In sports, for example, some teams have spent tremendous amounts of money to get all the best players and failed miserably. In 2004-6 Real Madrid famously spent over 400 Million Euros acquiring the best Soccer players only to see the worst short term results in the clubs history. Alternatively, the Oakland A’s spent less on their payroll and won more baseball games than almost any other club between 2000 and 2006. So clearly a high performing team is not just about have high performing individuals on it, at least in sports.

“The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime. ” ~ Babe Ruth

In business, many companies have also tried to figure out what makes a dream team. Google led a quest to build the perfect team in a project code named ‘Project Aristotle’ (a tribute to Aristotle’s quote, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”). They used extensive amounts of data  to examine the traits of 180 Google Teams, looking at factors like personality traits, intelligence and background of the team members. They were interested to see if the best teams were made up of people with similar interests or those with the highest levels of motivation. What they found though is that there is no profile of the perfect team member. They looked at hundreds of thousands of data points and they couldn’t discern any patterns (and Google is pretty good at finding patterns). Individual traits, skills and aptitudes do not predict success on a team. 

Other research has consistently found the same thing. Who is on the team matters a lot less than how the team is structured and how members interact. So what type of team culture works best according to Google and other research?

Psychological Safety: Project Aristotle found psychological safety was the most critical factor to making a team work. Psychological safety on a team means that members can share opinions and ideas without fear of recrimination. Most importantly, it refers to team members simply trusting each other and having a connection that is deeper than just a straight-forward co-worker relationship. 

Equal time spent speaking: Research in the Journal of Science found that in high performing teams, members had what researchers called an ‘‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’’ This presented slightly differently in every team, but ultimately in each high performing team each member wound up speaking for an equal amount of time. 

High Social Sensitivity: Teams function better when members are aware of and value other people’s perspectives and feelings. Social sensitivity refers to being able to know how others feel based on their tone of voice, their expressions, and other nonverbal cues. In the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes test’ people are shown photos of people’s eyes and asked to describe what the people are thinking or feeling. When a team averaged higher level scores on this test then the team also functioned better. These teams also presented with a higher awareness of the importance of social connections. 

There are a number of other factors that also lead to a better working team including:

Dependability – when people feel they can count on their team members to do what they say they are going to do.

Structure and Clarity – when there is a clearly defined structure to the group and clarity in terms of the focus and roles of individual team members.

Meaning and Impact: When members feel they are working on a goal that is important and meaningful, and when they can clearly see the impact of their work.

Group projects can produce more creative outcomes and overall far greater results than individuals working alone. Even better, in this time when divisiveness seems to be a common trend, diversity and teams being made up of people with very different backgrounds, ideas and perspectives, ultimately are far better than teams that are more homogeneous. Diverse groups have better problem solving, make better decisions and are much more innovative.

Being part of a team will lead to improved outcomes for the company, but also improvements for each individual team member. Ultimately teamwork  enhances the skills and learning of each of its members so that over time team members become more knowledgeable and creative by working with others who think differently.

Do you enjoy or dread working in teams?

What are the biggest challenges when working in a diverse team?

What have your experiences been on poor teams and effective teams?


Big Potential: How Transforming the Pursuit of Success Raises Our Achievement, Happiness, and Well-Being by Shawn Achor  

The Wisdom of Teams : Creating the High-Performance Organization by Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith 

The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy by Scott Page

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