Find out whether your organisation truly enables collaboration, and learn 5 ways you can improve your teamwork.
Teams: small, large, or global; specialist or cross-functional; short-term, project-related or spanning the length of some peoples’ careers. Whatever their shape and nature, it is a documented tenet that business success requires the sound functioning of the organisation’s teams. It follows that employees are expected to be both participative and top-notch team players.
But teamwork is neither easy for individuals nor routine in companies. Accepting that it is a multifaceted mix of skills and art, recent learnings about collaboration are helpful to both individuals within teams as well as organisational leaders.
Components of collaboration
In his book Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performance, Harvard University organisational psychology professor Richard Hackman suggests there are four conditions necessary for a team to thrive: it needs to have a compelling purpose, its structure must be appropriate to the reasons for the team’s existence, the organisational context should fully enable the team, and the team itself should function expertly. If these conditions aren’t in place, Hackman says, then it’s a team in name only and is unlikely to consistently deliver high performance.
The exception proves the rule. Spain’s recent triumph in the FIFA Women’s World Cup was accomplished despite a complete relational breakdown between players and coaching staff. The country’s football governing body has long been unsupportive, and is now in disrepute. This is a mini case study on the importance of resilience, determination and emotional intelligence of the team members themselves. And why, sometimes, high performing teams have near-undefinable, almost magical qualities.
It also proves that the most important ingredient for high-performance teams is purpose. This gives each individual, and the collective, its motivational power – strong enough, for Spain’s footballing women, to overcome other internal obstacles. For Australia’s women’s 4 x 100 swim relay team at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the urge to win propelled the team to a world record; notably, each swimmer also clocked a faster time than she had ever achieved when swimming in individual races. The explanation: the bonding dynamic, a form of affiliation-linked, inspirational motivation, within closely-knit teams.
Sporting examples abound, but a clear and inspiring mission gears business success too. In one of many studies, and the subject of the book Firms of Endearment, companies that passionately emphasise their purpose deliver significantly higher revenue growth or return-on-investment (ROI) than peer organisations.
Groups, or real teams?
Precisely how they do this is down to the business model and unique functioning of each company. However, a common characteristic is a culture that values and enables collaboration. This is far harder to achieve than it is to claim. Putting in place learning and development (L&D) platforms, regularising team meetings and company-wide information sharing, instituting feedback channels and recognition programmes: these are elements of a collaborative culture, but they may not be enough. Often, collaboration is only surface-deep, in which case people are operating as teams in name only, and are more properly called working groups.
Probing deeper, what indicates whether genuine teamwork threads through an organisation? Real teams are characterised by the following traits:
Transparency and trust. There is a greater prospect of successful collaboration and improved outcomes when information is shared, when people are confident this is so, and they believe their colleagues have the best interests of the group at heart.
In a Harvard Business School teaching experiment, behavioural scientist Francesco Gino pairs students and tasks them to share an orange. The catch is that – without the partner’s knowledge – each individual student is told what they will be using the fruit for: one to squeeze for a drink, the other to zest as a cake ingredient.
Inevitably, most teams complete the experiment amiably and efficiently, each ending up with half an orange. But this solution is suboptimal, meeting both their needs only partially. Some teams negotiate exhaustively, one person ending up with more of the orange based on force of personality or perseverance. (The other is unlikely to want to team up with him or her again.)
Only a few teams, those who transparently discuss each other needs, arrive at the real win-win solution.1 The exercise teaches the collaborative gains of mutual trust and openness.
Diversity. The full power of collaboration happens when a range of skills, knowledge bases and perspectives are brought to the team’s tasks. Varied backgrounds, life experiences and cultural lenses may also be valuable. In a sense, the only useful commonality within a team is its purpose.
Full inclusivity. If all employees don’t feel empowered to wholeheartedly participate in the team, its potential will be capped. Further, without a sense of psychological safety, situations could be costly where people do not believe they are free to speak up to either prevent or resolve a problem.
They are not very big. Although this is the subject of debate and is surely dependent upon the company, its sector and the team’s tasks, the general conclusion from research is that optimised teams are no larger than 6. Beyond that number motivation gets fragmented and administration becomes unwieldly, cutting into the team’s efficiency.
Assuming these factors are in play, and the company has enabling structures and a supportive culture, would it be right to assume sound teamwork will follow?
Again, not necessarily. For effective, high-performing teamwork things may need to be taken up a notch. Goals need to be stretched so that the collective stays innovative and on a growth trajectory. Rote or patterned thinking needs to be prevented, which may require regular new hires, project switching, or management changes. In some industries, too, it will be critical that certain teams have regular role rotation so that the group knows precisely what each member does.
These sorts of considerations clarify the importance of leaders, without whom collaboration may be happening but will likely be neither excellent nor sustained at a high-performance level. From big-picture direction to day-to-day coaching to in-the-moment decision-making, good leaders coax optimum results from the team. The best leaders bring an inspirational quality to the group. Interestingly, too, like the teams themselves, they work through a combination of fresh, unusual thinking and rigorous attention to the basics.
The former is often more impactful and appreciated. But consider how important the latter is – things like processes, communication, clarity. In a 2005 case study involving a hospital death in Birmingham, England, routine surgery went tragically wrong when the surgical team came unstuck. The doctor was new and didn’t physically cross-check surgical equipment and its positioning in advance with the surgical nurses. When procedures took unexpected turns he didn’t immediately seek their opinions; he called in a range of other doctors who tried interventions he had already performed. With multiple doctors present, none then felt sufficiently senior or definitively in charge to make critical decisions, and consensus was prioritised over action.
The example clarifies the importance of team cohesion, which the leader is responsible for forging. To this end, in large teams or the enterprise as a whole, newer, data-led thinking is for leaders to identify “swarm harmonisers.” Taking the phrase from biology, in his book Making Decisions former international cricket selector Ed Smith explains the idea: swarm harmonisers are individuals whose presence in a team “statistically improves the collective output of everything around it.”
Teamwork is tricky
If you find teaming up difficult, that’s because it is. Even when the company’s culture and processes enable teamwork, misunderstandings and shortcomings can compromise the functioning of an individual’s efforts at collaboration, and therefore diminish the team’s overall performance. These 5 considerations will sharpen your contribution to any team:
- Know yourself. Everyone has traits that can contribute to a team, as well as those that may be problematic – even conflictual. Developing so-called soft skills, including emotional intelligence, will foster both self-awareness and awareness of others, which will help to better manage team situations.
- Become a better listener. Communication is fundamental to collaboration, but we think of communication as conveying information whereas it is also about absorbing it.
Close listening will improve interaction with colleagues, but truly attentive listening requires putting ego aside, and suspending judgement. This creates empathetic relationships, in turn allowing more space for ideas and their proper, collaborative consideration.
- Cultivate your strengths. You are in the team for a reason. Striving to master the skills and attributes you bring to the team will make you even more valuable. Your efforts are likely to encourage other team members to do the same, building the collective capability and elevating its output towards high performance.
- Be prepared to lead. There are times when decisiveness, or action, is critical. Somebody needs to step up – remember, leaders do not necessarily have to be experts at the team’s discipline or role, nor experienced. The willingness to take responsibility counts for much in any collaborative context. (And if you are a leader, encourage others to step into the role, too. Excellent, collaborative leaders are strong enough to follow when it makes sense for the end-goal and when it allows others to grow.)
- Equally, be prepared to say ‘no’. Collaborative team cohesion does not imply a default to consensus. Indeed, consensus, if it pushes people to easy, lowest common denominator solutions, can be an enemy of optimal collaboration.
Know, too, that being a team player certainly does not mean picking up the slack for others, nor, even, necessarily helping them in their role – at least not regularly. Collaboration’s goal is quality, productive collective output, which may require your colleague to struggle in order to grow, and more adept or experienced team members to prioritise other critical aspects of the team’s work.
The concept of collaboration, ideas about what makes a team, and how its performance should be evaluated, have altered significantly in the last decade. Corporate structures are changing to embrace these new principles and better enable collaborative work in digitally transformed environments.
Further, remote or hybrid work, people’s dramatically different expectations of employers, and indeed how work itself should be reshaped in the twenty-first century, also have fundamental implications for how teams are conceptualised and what they should be doing.
Career-oriented people should be keenly aware of these forces, trends and shifts. And, in any company, teamwork almost certainly needs work.
In partnership with Dave Gorin