The science of teamwork

February 9, 2023
What makes good teams is now being elevated into a science, as firms value predictability over pot luck, finds Peter Crush

How is it that teams comprising equally bright, outgoing, and professional people can respond to tasks with outcomes that are so substantially different?

For years this conundrum has baffled HR commentators, work and productivity experts alike. And rightly so. If excellence really is down to luck, it’s not a very stable sounding strategy.

It used to be about recruiting the best people

To make performance more predictable, organisations have traditionally focused their efforts in recruitment – moving selection away from academic achievement, to attempting to understand people’s competencies.This, in theory, allows firms to gauge people for their predicted capability.

But – as organisations have found to their cost – all this profiling for potential often breaks down when they put individuals together in teams, and unexpected conflict appears. As Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar famously wrote; “If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up; if you give a mediocre idea to a great team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something that works.” The key is therefore knowing what a ‘great team’ is to start with.

The science of teamwork

And so it is that a huge new study into the science of teamwork is starting to evolve. Contributions so-far have included everything from ‘colours theory’ [defining people as either red, yellow, green or blue, with specific characteristics for each] – whereby for the best results, teams are assembled according their colour type – to looking at the role size and social structures play.  

“We are all certainly becoming much more conscious of the importance of teams,” says Samreen McGregor, executive coach and author of Leader Awakened. “Sixty percent of my work involves working with executives in trying to work out what makes better teams – and it’s tricky, because there’s still not enough emphasis on viewing them as more of an ecosystem.”

According to McGregor, teamwork needs more academic rigour because all too often it is thought of as a ‘sensation’ people feel – something which isn’t always accurate (harmonious teams may not do great work). Her own contribution is her theory that current analysis of teams is still far too ‘task’ orientated. (Task work, in her opinion, can still be independent of other team members).

She says: “Better organisations will look first at what everyone needs to do to achieve a goal –which things need to be parked, and which need to be embraced – what I call concentrating on the mortar rather than the bricks.”

Conflicting ideas

Hers, of course, is one theory amongst many, and throughout the years, numerous ideas have clashed. Way back in the1970s organisational behaviourist Richard Hackman, argued that what mattered most in successful teams was ‘not’ the personalities, attitudes, or behaviours of team members, but the ‘enabling conditions’ teams need to enable them to thrive – things like having a compelling direction; having goals that people care about and having support.  

Firms like Pixar are modern-day advocates of this. “Our philosophy is:You get great creative people, you bet big on them, you give them enormous leeway and support, and you provide them with an environment in which they can get honest feedback from everyone,” said Catmull of its approach. Under an umbrella of purpose, small teams are created so staff can exchange feedback, refine ideas, but do it in a shared and egoless manner. Teams comprise directors, writers, artists, and storyboard people. When Harvard Business Review looked into what make its teams work, it noted how the development department strategically put people in teams to assess social dynamics, problem-solving ability, and the group’s extent of collaboration rather than the quality of their idea output.

But other theorists say good team performance is precisely about managing the prevailing personalities and traits of people. Suzanne Bell professor, industrial & organisational psychology at DePaul University inChicago suggests surface-level attributes (age, gender, reputation), matter less than members' personality traits, values and abilities. She argues that something as innocent as a person’s mood can have seismic impact – with a pessimistic team member having the power to hugely and negatively influence the way a team views its goals.

Understanding teamwork matters even more

In a business world that is much less predictable, predicting good teamwork only matters more.

Because of this, it’s not just academics that are trying to work this stuff out, but actual organisations too. NASA is right now developing algorithms to try and identify crew members most likely to be suited to long-distance space missions.

One of the largest studies was conducted by Google. Known for recruiting the brightest and the best, it had long banked on brainpower alone being its guarantor of success. But, like many companies, it was soon baffled why hiring the best, and sticking them in a room together didn’t always achieve the desired results. Nicknamed ‘Project Aristotle,’ the research studied hundreds of Google’s teams, to determine why some wavered while others were winners.

Initial results were not encouraging. It mapped 180 teams, looking at everything from members’ educational backgrounds, gender balance, how often they mixed outside the office; what hobbies they had, and whether teams had overlapping members.Nothing statistically significant showed that having a mix of specific personality types or skills or backgrounds made any difference. Some of its highly successful teams knew each other well; but other high performing teams were made up mostly of strangers. Some interrupted each other constantly; others didn’t. Some had extroverts; some had introverts. The results seemed to make no sense.

Key teamwork ingredients?

Over time several observations did emerge though. Five key dynamics were eventually found that appeared to set successful teams apart from less successful ones: those that provided good psychological safety (letting people speak up without embarrassment); a sense of dependability (being able to count on each other to do good work); having structure & clarity (with goals made clear); having meaning, and knowing that the work they are doing matters.

Google’s own data has since revealed that Individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave, are more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates; are more likely to bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives. Team members that kick off every team meeting by sharing a risk they’ve taken in the previous week report improving their psychological safety ratings by 6% and structure and clarity ratings by 10%.

“I think what these and other studies potentially all drive at is that ‘context’ is so important for teams,” says senior VP at The Economist and coach, Jeremy Kourdi.

“Context is about the issue teams are facing. It’s neglected, but important.” He adds:“This is even more vital now, because the world is in a sort of paradox –people are highly networked, and yet also extremely lonely. Teams are more obviously comprised of people who have a ‘different truth’ or ‘lived experience’ to that of their colleagues. That’s why it’s so important for leaders to tune into this. It’s only when teams get to know each other, and can understand that everyone’s on their side, that high performance follows.”

So what is science really saying about teamwork, and are there some myths we can bust?

Teams need harmony? BUSTED:

Assembling people who all agree won’t necessary produce better results. Richard Hackman, late Edgar Pierce Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology at Harvard University found disagreements were good for teams, as long as they were well handled well and focused on the team’s objectives. A review of theoretical and quantitative studies in Sage Publications showed that teams that are able to engage in productive task conflict – including expressing disagreements and working under a certain amount of tension – tended to be more innovative.

Teams need diversity? CORRECT!

Research by Gartner finds teams that have diverse membership (and therefore diverse approaches), make decisions that are up to60% faster, and have 12% higher performance. The same survey suggests collaboration is also improved by 5%. It argues different experiences create better strategies and its implementation tends to be better too. Frans Johansson, author of The Medici Effect, argues the most innovative ideas happen at “the intersection” – the place where ideas from different industries and cultures collide. Data from McKinsey supports this. It finds teams comprising members from diverse backgrounds (gender, age, ethnicity, etc.) are more creative and perform better by up to 35%, compared to more homogeneous teams.

The more people we bring in, the better: BUSTED!

More isn’t always best. Data actually finds small teams work the best – with five often being noted as the perfect number (as called for by academics including Wharton University’s Katherine Klein). The reasoning goes that anything smaller than this creates awkward team dynamics; while anything higher and the contribution each person is able to give declines. (This is the so-called Ringelmann Effect – the tendency for individual members to become less productive as the size of a group increases). It’s also been observed that the larger the team, the greater the tendency for ‘social loafing’ – that is members deciding they don’t need to pull their weight quite so much.

In teams, everyone is a leader: BUSTED!

The notion that everyone in a team has an important contribution is correct, but the suggestion that every team member can lead is not. A 2018 study at Portland State University looked at the impact leadership played in team performance. It found a strong correlation between teams that had ‘transformational leaders’ (those that motivate employees and enhance productivity and efficiency with communication and high visibility), and team performance. It said: “Leadership behaviours which involve building trust, inspiring a shared vision, encouraging creativity, emphasising development, and recognising accomplishments is positively related to how team members feel about reaching that extra mile and achieving goals.”


Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

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