Beating the Drum for Teamwork, or: Achieving more Together

Team Teamwork Teambuilding

Complex tasks require successful teamwork. Whether old hands at working with one another or newly brought together, a good team is capable of achieving things that a single individual could not possibly bring about on his or her own. But what makes for a good team? How does working together function at its best, and which factors have a positive impact on a team’s success? Read more below about seemingly obvious truths and noteworthy aspects of teamwork.

Even before walking into the Yellow Room, as Meeting Room 2 is called, Florian could see through the glass wall that the mood in the space was positive. Four of the six team members were already gathered there and were contentedly and diligently preparing their documents while Doris, the team leader, was using the whiteboard to diagram the steps leading to the next milestone. She was an excellent team leader who understood both how to motivate her team about their work on the shared project as well as manage the responsibilities and deadlines in a transparent way. Florian felt confident that he could expect another constructive meeting.

Is teamwork "in"?

Whoever takes the time to follow current discussions about teamwork will encounter a profusion of contrary points of view. On the one hand, teamwork is euphorically praised as the perfect instrument for cooperation, productivity, and economic success in the so-called knowledge age. On the other hand, there is a great deal of disillusionment. Instead of the independently operating group of experts working together towards a common goal, we seem to often end up with a chaotic bunch, revealing poor leadership, aimlessness, and an absence of a sense of responsibility.

Let’s take a step back: The complexity of the tasks demanded in many areas has grown markedly in the past few decades, whereas the amount of time available to complete them has diminished. Cooperation became necessary, and teamwork was endorsed as the ideal method, one that was superior to the traditional forms of cooperation that had been used within the framework of pre-defined processes. In practice, though, teamwork has increasingly come to be seen as an ostensibly foolproof means of achieving success that can pretty much be left to its own devices. And critics argue that this lack of structure has had a negative impact on its effectiveness.

Pros and cons

Successful teamwork undoubtedly offers numerous advantages that go above and beyond the simple division of labour. Various employees’ knowledge sets and experience are put to better use, networked, and combined. The flow of information is improved. The varied input of motivated team members can markedly enhance creativity and innovation. It is already well known that good ideas often result from conversational exchanges and, equally so, that people working together produce better solutions. The common goal binds a team together, and their sense of identification with the jointly produced outcomes and with the company grows. And another thing: the simple presence of other people (even without any actual collaboration) results in people completing simple tasks more quickly and more effectively. Psychologists call this phenomenon "social facilitation" and offer numerous explanations for it. When these people go a step further and work together, then nothing stands in the way of extraordinary outcomes—or, as TEAM-fans would put it: "Together Everyone Achieves More."

That is the ideal case. Working in a team can, of course, be less of a great thing when people start to think teamwork means: "Great. Someone else can do it." Even if there are no employees who actively or consciously refuse to pull their own weight, that phenomenon which is called "social loafing" in social psychology can still appear. When a group is working together, the individual contribution of each separate team member is less evident (example: rowers in a racing shell), and the physiological exertion of each is thereby reduced. This is why there can be a fall in productivity even in the case of uncomplicated tasks. But there is some good news, too. When the task is complex, then the result is just the opposite: the exertion resulting from anonymity as a part of a team leads to an improvement in performance.

The diverse team

The composition of the team is crucial in determining success. Team composition is often determined in practice according to people’s place in the hierarchy or their availability. But the related theory can provide a few tips about how this could be done more effectively. Although some of these tips are controversial.
Take, for example, the variety of types of people. One often hears the advice that teams should be composed of the most diverse group of people possible, not just with respect to the different divisions of the organisation they may work in, but also with regard to their cultural backgrounds, gender identity, and (less often taken into account, but equally important) age. Thus team members bring a variety of perspectives to the group and produce fresh, diverse ideas. It is also a good idea to ensure that the team consists of both extroverted and introverted personalities since, when properly included, both types can provide advantages.

This approach has much to recommend it, especially when it comes to creativity. But such a team must first come together and learn how to work together. People need a good deal of time to get to know one another. Team members don’t know right away where each other’s strengths and weaknesses lie, and without this knowledge, various potentials may not be exploited to the fullest. When someone makes a contribution, which statements are based on facts, and which on suppositions? Sometimes it has been noticed in practice that people with similar backgrounds tend to interact with one another more frequently even outside of the workplace, which can have positive effects on trust and the feeling of cohesion in the team. When a team is full of members who trust each other, then many insecurities fall to the wayside. Strengths, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies are well-known and they can be accounted for and then built upon from the very beginning. There may already be a set of procedures and tools that team members are accustomed to and well-versed in using and which therefore need not be explained in detail. In ideal cases, a basis for trust already exists.

But what if both approaches could be combined? A well-acquainted, diverse team would be ideally situated to succeed.

The superpower

Let’s stick with the topic of team members’ different strengths. Keith Yamashita, the founder of SYPartners, a company that supports leadership teams during times of important transition and change, believes the proper use of individual strengths is a crucial element for successful teamwork. One of his tips: Find your "superpower", your true talent, and spend the bulk of your time using this strength. This approach is put to intensive use at SYPartners. Depending on which tasks need completion or how the work is proceeding at a given moment, people will be brought into the project to contribute their special talent at that point when it is needed. Examples include creative thinking, motivation, being able to simplify complex ideas, systematic thinking, or conflict resolution. If each person can contribute his or her own particular strength when it is most needed, nothing stands in the way of the team achieving great things.

Roles and perspectives

This approach brings to mind the theory that when working in teams, people will take on certain roles—consciously or unconsciously—according to their own dispositions and behavioural characteristics. Examples include information seekers, innovators, implementers, perfectionists, and motivators. Those building teams in practice would be well advised to aim for a good mix of various roles. Most successful teams have at least one analytical thinker on board. Of course, there are also roles that can be impediments to success because of their destructive tendencies.

When it comes to team work, especially with those teams that are well practiced in working together, it is important to purposefully change the perspective every once in a while. Otherwise there is the risk that the team could get off course, above all if there are persuasive or dominating personalities in the group. Looking at the project from a variety of perspectives should therefore be an essential (!) part of teamwork.

Boundary-drawing and competition

One more question does come to mind: Should you keep professional and private separate? This is often recommended so as to prevent conflicts. Then again, doing things together, even if it is just sharing a meal, can improve trust. This is ultimately what the numerous teambuilding seminars come down to in practice, too. Or is this just a pretence of privacy? Another example would be when a team member is in the middle of a personal crisis: How should the team deal with this? It could be that the colleague will really hunker down in his or her work as a result, but if he is not that "type", then he will probably end up being less productive. In these cases, it is advisable to simply accept temporary fluctuations and to show flexibility in the way the team reacts. This could include a reshuffling of tasks or capacities, for example. The timetable may also then need to be adjusted. In any case, support is what is called for here—no "You have to get this done regardless". Taking that attitude not only contributes little to success, but would ruin the work environment, even in a more general way after the immediate project.

Competition is a delicate topic. Whereas some people are of the opinion that a healthy competition should be encouraged among team members, others believe the opposite. A team is a team, everyone works together and not against one another. Increased performance and individual bonuses are not motivational, but instead tear the team apart since everyone is then concerned only with their own benefit.

Point of contention: virtuality

There is a similar level of disagreement among people on the question of which are better: teams that meet together in person or those that are connected virtually? Should people work together using diverse internet-based teamwork, online meeting and task management tools, chat programs or video conferencing, or is it better to meet face-to-face? Where does the work get done more quickly: online or sitting around the same table? In which environment do ideas develop more effectively? There’s no question that if the object is a team composed of members with various backgrounds, but these types of people are not available on-site, then digital cooperative work is frequently more practical. Face-to-face contact is indispensable, though, for getting to know one another and promoting a sense of cohesion among the team and trust.

Rules, team leadership, phases

A clearly formulated, written statement of the assignment and clear ground rules are essential for successful teamwork. It’s even better if the team itself takes part in establishing the rules. And "taking part" is what is key here. No team can overrule the team leader—at least this much of the traditional hierarchy needs to be preserved even in a team. Once established, these rules are not simply vague recommendations, but must be taken seriously. There is no room for individual interpretation. And only in extreme cases may these rules be adjusted or altered later in the process.

One of the central rules is the clear division of responsibilities within the team, and there are numerous examples of projects that have failed because this was not taken seriously enough. Each person must know precisely what he or she has to do and by when, and that this responsibility is his or hers alone. Problems in teamwork frequently result from a lack of distinct boundaries being drawn between competencies. Just because certain team members occupy equivalent places in the organisation’s hierarchy does not mean that they are equally qualified to take every decision. To put it bluntly: if the decision has to do with what is technically feasible, then it is not the marketing expert who makes the call, but the IT staff person. This does not in any way rule out the possibility that they can come to an innovative solution together. But when it comes to certain tasks, there needs to be a hierarchy, even within a team. If several people work together on a particular aspect, then there is no room for ambiguity when it comes to who is responsible for taking decisions in those cases where there are doubts, as well as who is responsible for specific deliverables and who is "simply" actively working with the group.

A good team leader is essential for progress. Without one, the work will quickly descend into chaos and a lack of productivity. He or she provides direction, sets parameters, is responsible for a structured planning of the project and the division of tasks and responsibilities, assumes the overall responsibility for the project, and acts as a moderator. Team leaders need a sixth sense for recognising the mood of the group and must intervene whenever it is necessary. This demands a great deal of vigilance, without which the group will find conflicts creeping in.

There are distinct phases that a team goes through related to this. It makes little difference whether, following Bruce Tuckman’s formulation, they are called "Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing and Transforming", or whether they are designated with terms such as orientation phase, organising phase, etc. The team has to adjust when it comes to content and has to allow for sufficient space and time for each phase (and the developments within each phase). This can look quite different depending on the team and the task. In writing about teamwork, the phase in which the first conflicts arise is often seen as particularly important. If these conflicts are simply swept under the rug, they will pop up later and can ruin the team’s chance of success.

Informal communication

Studies demonstrate that informal communication is an essential factor for successful teamwork. This can happen during tea breaks, at events attended together, or on other occasions. As important as formal meetings, deadlines, and intensive cooperative work are, many ideas arise in informal meetings where information is exchanged, background factors are discussed, and familiarity with one another naturally evolves. Not only creativity, but also productivity, flourishes in spaces that have a relaxed atmosphere.

Spatial requirements

This much is clear: teamwork needs a conducive environment, and that has to do with space, too. Ideally there are a variety of spaces available that invite team members to collaborate. So you can chose between withdrawing into the conference room to make use of audio visual equipment, spending uninterrupted time with planning and spreading out documents, or meeting in a central area for a spontaneous chat and exchange of information. A certain amount of screening off from one’s surroundings is conducive for uninterrupted conversations, but a conference room that can fit 50 people may not be the ideal choice in every case. Smaller spaces, designed and outfitted with an eye to inspiration and functionality, are frequently a far better option.

Since atmosphere and motivation are decisive when it comes to success, both in large projects, and equally in daily collaboration, the rooms and zones available for work should be designed in the most attractive way possible. Small details such as a sufficient number of connection plug boards or whiteboards often prove to be incredibly useful. Sometimes when progress seems to come to a standstill, it can help to change spaces. This is equally true of project teams and people working on their own. It is often worthwhile to have access to these types of zones and spaces even for tasks that may not officially fall under the rubric of teamwork. Spatial infrastructure, after all, plays no little part in supporting communication and interaction, essential aspects of the modern working environment.


Ronnie Heiner