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New science on teamwork

Well, not so new, about ten years old now, wondering though why it hasn’t caught on. I read an article in Talent Management Magazine while researching an assignment for Strategic HR for my MBA studies. In summary, the following statements are false about teamwork:

  1. In terms of staffing workgroups, the most important attribute each member brings to the team is his or her unique technical skills and abilities.
    • As I have always thought it is more important to be able to work in and with a team not necessarily the skills and abilities; System’s Theory corroborates good teamwork is critical to organisations success. Specifically team spirit, morale, cooperation, communication, providing and accepting feedback.
  2. The measure of a team’s characteristics is the average across the team,
    • Depends on the situation, sometimes a team can only go as fast as the weakest link but a strong leader or individual can drag the team along. We used to do this in adventure racing, for example; we would tie with a bungee cord the weakest person to the strongest person. You could do this some of the time in some of the disciplines.
  3. Demographic diversity is essential,
    • Scientific research indicates that demographic diversity does not always improve performance, it might even make it more difficult to work together. It is more important to have a phsycologically diverse team in particular over time.
  4. Each member must have their unique ideas; idea diversity is best for teams,
    • The research points towards it actually being more difficlut for teams to operate effectively when mental models are too diverse. I can think of several teams I have witnessed teams where the ideas are so different there is more arguing than collaborating.
  5. Member’s must be masters of their jobs,
    • Training within a team environment is much more effective. I am sure you will have learnt most of your skills and most valuable lessons within a team environment, I certainly have. Applying what I learn straight away also works best.
  6. Team are more effective when each is a specialist at their specific task within the team. In other words redundancy should be minimised.
    • Depending on the task at hand, the research shows that cross training team members on functions actually imporves the teams overall effectiveness as each person understands each others role better.
  7. The best team structrures have high levels of task interdependence.
    • Partly true for teams that do the same things day in and day out example in manufacturing.
    • For teams found on projects task interdependence is less of a factor in highly effective teams.
  8. Teams make better decisions when the leader weighs each team member’s input equally.
    • Consensus should weigh up the relative value of each members input.
    • Here feedback is a very important mechanism for building trust in the decision making abilities of members. Leaders who have good mechanisms in place to get feedback and measure past performance is crucial to a team’s decision making.
  9. Rewarding on an individual basis in teams creates competitiveness and is bad.
    • I think sports teams are a good example of this. In the National Rugby League some players are paid more than others and based on some very different criteria. Some players are simply not as good as others and those players feel it is worth to just play with the better and more gifted ones.
    • I like working with smart and enthusiastic people who I can learn from and achieve great things together.

Teamwork, in my opinion, is a critical organisational capability, it doesn’t seem to be taught or valued in the main stream. There is limited research on the subject, the researchers in their paper are even critical of their own textbooks, with only eight pages out of 750 odd mentioning teamwork. I would also add there is no mention of several important theories, Frederick Herzberg’s Hygiene Theory and System’s Theory.

Why isn’t this research making it into mainstream practice?



Hollenbeck, John R., D. Scott DeRue, and Rick Guzzo. 2004. “BRIDGING THE GAP BETWEEN I/O RESEARCH AND HR PRACTICE: IMPROVING TEAM COMPOSITION, TEAM TRAINING, AND TEAM TASK DESIGN.” Human Resource Management 43, no. 4: 353-366. Link
  • Steven Heaton 8 October 2014, 1:33 pm

    Overall nice post Tim. Thanks for sharing. However there are a couple of points I’d like to add (I’ll try and keep this brief and we can discuss it later 😉

    I’d argue that skills and teamwork are equally as important. Too often it seems teamwork is placed above all else. I’m in no doubt it’s very important but a tightly knit team of fools still won’t get the job done right. Ideally you want a team of competent individuals with a strong leader, e.g. an orchestra.

    In a similar vein ‘diversity’ gets a bit of a run around. It strongly depends on the objective. If want you need is creative input or competitive analysis then ‘same think’ is a very bad thing. (Numerous examples on a wide range of scales, up to and including going to war). In other circumstances though, having everyone with the same mindset can make combining effort a lot smoother.


    PS: Reductionist knows how a car works, a Systems Thinker knows how a car works and can explain a traffic jam 🙂

    • Tim 8 October 2014, 5:27 pm

      Good points, the paper does go into how skills are important, their research though indicates not as important. In the same way you point out a bunch fools won’t get the job done it is also true that very skilled and or smart people not working together will also end in tears.


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