2 Teamwork

Chapter Table of Contents

A team (or a work team) is a group of people with complementary skills who work together to achieve a specific goal (Thompson[1]).  “A group,” suggests Bonnie Edelstein, a consultant in organizational development, “is a bunch of people in an elevator. A team is also a bunch of people in an elevator, but the elevator is broken.” This distinction may be a little oversimplified, but a team is clearly something more than a mere group of individuals. In particular, members of a group—or, more accurately, a working group—go about their jobs independently and meet primarily to share information. A group of department-store managers, for example, might meet monthly to discuss their progress in cutting plant costs, but each manager is focused on the goals of his or her department because each is held accountable for meeting only those goals. Teams, by contrast, are responsible for achieving specific common goals, and they’re generally empowered to make the decisions needed to complete their authorized tasks.

Some Key Characteristics of Teams

To keep matters in perspective, let’s identify five key characteristics of work teams (Thompson[2]; Alderfer, et. al.[3]):

  1. Teams are accountable for achieving specific common goals. Members are collectively responsible for achieving team goals, and if they succeed, they’re rewarded collectively.
  2. Teams function interdependently. Members cannot achieve goals independently and must rely on each other for information, input, and expertise.
  3. Teams are stable. Teams remain intact long enough to finish their assigned tasks, and each member remains on board long enough to get to know every other member.
  4. Teams have authority. Teams possess the decision-making power to pursue their goals and to manage the activities through which they complete their assignments.
  5. Teams operate in a social context. Teams are assembled to do specific work for larger organizations and have the advantage of access to resources available from other areas of their organizations.

Why Organizations Build Teams

Why do major organizations now rely more and more on teams to improve operations? Executives at Xerox have reported that team-based operations are 30 percent more productive than conventional operations. General Mills says that factories organized around team activities are 40 percent more productive than traditionally organized factories. According to in-house studies at Shenandoah Life Insurance, teams have cut case-handling time from twenty-seven to two days and virtually eliminated service complaints. FedEx says that teams reduced service errors (lost packages, incorrect bills) by 13 percent in the first year (Fisher[4]; Greenberg & Baron[5]).

Factors in Effective Teamwork

First, let’s begin by identifying several factors that, in practice, tend to contribute to effective teamwork. Generally speaking, teams are effective when the following factors are met (Whetten & Cameron[6]):

  • Members depend on each other. When team members rely on each other to get the job done, team productivity and efficiency are high.
  • Members trust one another. Teamwork is more effective when members trust each other.
  • Members work better together than individually. When team members perform better as a group than alone, collective performance exceeds individual performance.
  • Members become boosters. When each member is encouraged by other team members to do his or her best, collective results improve.
  • Team members enjoy being on the team. The more that team members derive satisfaction from being on the team, the more committed they become.
  • Leadership rotates. Teams function effectively when leadership responsibility is shared over time.

Most of these explanations probably make pretty clear intuitive sense. Unfortunately, because such issues are rarely as clear-cut as they may seem at first glance, we need to examine the issue of group effectiveness from another perspective—one that considers the effects of factors that aren’t quite so straightforward.

Group Cohesiveness

The idea of group cohesiveness refers to the attractiveness of a team to its members. If a group is high in cohesiveness, membership is quite satisfying to its members; if it’s low in cohesiveness, members are unhappy with it and may even try to leave it. The principle of group cohesiveness, in other words, is based on the simple idea that groups are most effective when their members like being members of the group (George & Jones[7]; Festinger[8]).

Numerous factors may contribute to team cohesiveness, but in this section, we’ll focus on five of the most important:

  1. Size. The bigger the team, the less satisfied members tend to be. When teams get too large, members find it harder to interact closely with other members; a few members tend to dominate team activities, and conflict becomes more likely.
  2. Similarity. People usually get along better with people like themselves, and teams are generally more cohesive when members perceive fellow members as people who share their own attitudes and experience.
  3. Success. When teams are successful, members are satisfied, and other people are more likely to be attracted to their teams.
  4. Exclusiveness. The harder it is to get into a group, the happier the people who are already in it. Status (the extent to which outsiders look up to a team, as well as the perks that come with membership) also increases members’ satisfaction.
  5. Competition. Members value membership more highly when they’re motivated to achieve common goals—especially when those goals mean outperforming other teams.

A cohesive team with goals that are aligned with the goals of the organization is most likely to succeed.  There’s such a thing as too much cohesiveness. When, for instance, members are highly motivated to collaborate in performing the team’s activities, the team is more likely to be effective in achieving its goals. Clearly, when those goals are aligned with the goals of the larger organization, the organization, too, will be happy. If, however, its members get too wrapped up in more immediate team goals, the whole team may lose sight of the larger organizational goals toward which it’s supposed to be working.

Groupthink

Likewise, it’s easier for leaders to direct members toward team goals when members are all on the same page—when there’s a basic willingness to conform to the team’s rules and guidelines. When there’s too much conformity, however, the group can become ineffective: It may resist change and fresh ideas and, what’s worse, may end up adopting its own dysfunctional tendencies as its way of doing things. Such tendencies may also encourage a phenomenon known as groupthink—the tendency to conform to group pressure in making decisions, while failing to think critically or to consider outside influences.

Groupthink is often cited as a factor in the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in January 1986: Engineers from a supplier of components for the rocket booster warned that the launch might be risky because of the weather but were persuaded to reverse their recommendation by NASA officials who wanted the launch to proceed as scheduled (Griffin[9]).

Why Teams Fail

Teams don’t always work. To learn why, let’s take a quick look at four common obstacles to success in introducing teams into an organization (Greenberg & Baron[10]):

  • Unwillingness to cooperate. Failure to cooperate can occur when members don’t or won’t commit to a common goal or set of activities. What if, for example, half the members of a product-development team want to create a brand-new product and half want to improve an existing product? The entire team may get stuck on this point of contention for weeks or even months.
  • Lack of managerial support. Every team requires organizational resources to achieve its goals, and if management isn’t willing to commit the needed resources—say, funding or key personnel—a team will probably fall short of those goals.
  • Failure of managers to delegate authority. Team leaders are often chosen from the ranks of successful supervisors—first-line managers who, give instructions on a day-to-day basis and expect to have them carried out. This approach to workplace activities may not work very well in leading a team—a position in which success depends on building a consensus and letting people make their own decisions.
  • Failure of teams to cooperate. If you’re on a workplace team, your employer probably depends on teams to perform much of the organization’s work and meet many of its goals.  In other words, it is, to some extent, a team-based organization, and as such, reaching its overall goals requires a high level of cooperation among teams (Thompson[11]). When teams can’t agree on mutual goals (or when they duplicate efforts), neither the teams nor the organization is likely to meet with much success.

The Team and Its Members

Like it or not, you’ll probably be given some teamwork assignments while you’re in college. More than two-thirds of all students report having participated in the work of an organized team.  Why do we put so much emphasis on something that, reportedly, makes many students feel anxious and academically drained? Here’s one college student’s practical-minded answer to this question:

“In the real world, you have to work with people. You don’t always know the people you work with, and you don’t always get along with them. Your boss won’t particularly care, and if you can’t get the job done, your job may end up on the line. Life is all about group work, whether we like it or not. And school, in many ways, prepares us for life, including working with others” (Nichols[12]).

She’s right. In placing so much emphasis on teamwork skills and experience, colleges are doing the responsible thing—preparing students for the  world that awaits them. A survey of Fortune 1000 companies reveals that 79 percent already rely on self-managing teams and 91 percent on various forms of employee work groups. Another survey found that the skill that most employers value in new employees is the ability to work in teams (Whetten & Cameron[13]; Lawler[14]). If you’re already trying to work your way up an organizational ladder, consider the advice of former Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca: “A major reason that capable people fail to advance is that they don’t work well with their colleagues.”  The importance of the ability to work in teams was confirmed in a survey of leadership practices of more than sixty of the world’s top organizations (Fortune Magazine[15]). When top executives in these organizations were asked, “What causes high-potential leadership candidates to derail? (stop moving up in the organization),” 60 percent of the organizations cited “inability to work in teams.” Interestingly, only 9 percent attributed the failure of these executives to advance to “lack of technical ability.” While technical skills will be essential in your getting hired into an organization, your team skills will play a significant role in your ability to advance.

To be team-ready or not to be team-ready—that is the question. Or, to put it in plainer terms, the question is not whether you’ll find yourself working as part of a team. You will. The question is whether you’ll know how to participate successfully in team-based activities.

What Skills Does the Team Need?

Sometimes we hear about a sports team made up of mostly average players who win a championship because of coaching genius, flawless teamwork, and superhuman determination (Robbins & Judge[16]). But not terribly often. In fact, we usually hear about such teams simply because they’re newsworthy—exceptions to the rule. Typically a team performs well because its members possess some level of talent. This doesn’t mean, however, that we should reduce team performance to the mere sum of its individual contributions: Members’ talents aren’t very useful if they’re not managed in a collective effort to achieve a common goal.

In the final analysis, of course, a team can succeed only if its members provide the skills that need managing. In particular, every team requires some mixture of three sets of skills:

  • Technical skills. Because teams must perform certain tasks, they need people with the skills to perform them. For example, if your project calls for a lot of math work, it’s good to have someone with the necessary quantitative skills.
  • Decision-making and problem-solving skills. Because every task is subject to problems, and because handling every problem means deciding on the best solution, it’s good to have members who are skilled in identifying problems, evaluating alternative solutions, and deciding on the best options.
  • Interpersonal skills. Because teams are composed of people, and because people need direction and motivation and depend on communication, every group benefits from members who know how to listen, provide feedback, and smooth ruffled feathers. The same people are usually good at communicating the team’s goals and needs to outsiders.

The key to success is ultimately the right mix of these skills. Remember, too, that no team needs to possess all these skills—never mind the right balance of them—from day one. In many cases, a team gains certain skills only when members volunteer for certain tasks and perfect their skills in the process of performing them. For the same reason, effective teamwork develops over time as team members learn how to handle various team-based tasks. In a sense, teamwork is always work in progress.

What Roles do Team Members Play?

Like your teamwork skills, expect your role on a team to develop over time. Also remember that, both as a student and as a member of the workforce, you’ll be a member of a team more often than a leader . Team members, however, can have as much impact on a team’s success as its leaders.
The key is the quality of the contributions they make in performing nonleadership roles (Whetten & Cameron[17]).

What, exactly, are those roles? At this point, you’ve probably concluded that every team faces two basic challenges:

  1. Accomplishing its assigned task
  2. Maintaining or improving group cohesiveness

Whether you affect the team’s work positively or negatively depends on the extent to which you help it or hinder it in meeting these two challenges (Whetten & Cameron[18]). We can thus divide teamwork roles into two categories, depending on which of these two challenges each role addresses. These two categories (taskfacilitating roles and relationship-building roles) are summarized in the table below: “Roles that Team Members Play”[19].

Class Team Projects

As we highlighted earlier, throughout your academic career you’ll likely participate in a number of team projects. Not only will you make lasting friends by being a member of a team, but in addition you’ll produce a better product. To get insider advice on how to survive team projects in college (and perhaps really enjoy yourself in the process), let’s look at some suggestions offered by two students who have gone through this experience (Nichols[20]; Feenstra[21]).

  • Draw up a team charter. At the beginning of the project, draw up a team charter (or contract) that includes the goals of the group; ways to ensure that each team member’s ideas are considered and respected; when and where your group will meet; what happens if a team member skips meetings or doesn’t do his or her share of the work; how conflicts will be resolved.
  • Contribute your ideas. Share your ideas with your group; they might be valuable to the group. The worst that could happen is that they won’t be used (which is what would happen if you kept quiet).
  • Never miss a meeting. Pick a weekly meeting time and write it into your schedule as if it were a class. Never skip it. And make your meetings productive.
  • Be considerate of each other. Be patient, listen to everyone, communicate frequently, involve everyone in decision making, don’t think you’re always right, be positive, avoid infighting, build trust.
  • Create a process for resolving conflict. Do this before conflict arises. Set up rules to help the group decide whether the conflict is constructive, whether it’s personal, or whether it arises because someone won’t pull his or her weight. Decide, as a group, how conflict will be handled.
  • Use the strengths of each team member. Some students are good researchers, others are good writers, others have strong problem-solving or computer skills, while others are good at generating ideas. Don’t have your writer do the research and your researcher do the writing. Not only would the team not be using its resources wisely, but two team members will be frustrated because they’re not using their strengths.
  • Don’t do all the work yourself. Work with your team to get the work done. The project output is not as important as the experience of working in a team.
  • Set deadlines. Don’t leave everything to the end; divide up tasks, hold team members accountable, and set intermediary deadlines for each team member to get his or her work done. Work together to be sure the project is in on time and in good shape.

Exercises

  1. Think back to a time you’ve been assigned to be on a team for a class assignment. How you could have used something you learned in this reading to make that experience more positive for either you or the rest of the team.  Your instructor may ask you to turn this in on the day the reading is due.
  2. Have you ever been on a team that constructed a team charter upon being formed? If so, discuss a specific way in which it was helpful to your team. If not, discuss a situation in which it would have been useful for your team to have done so.  Your instructor may ask you to turn this in on the day the reading is due.

  1. Thompson, L. L., Making the Team: A Guide for Managers (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2008), 4.
  2. Thompson, L. L., Making the Team: A Guide for Managers (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2008), 4.
  3. Alderfer, C. P., “Group and Intergroup Relations,” in Improving Life at Work, ed. J. R. Hackman and J. L. Suttle (Palisades, CA: Goodyear, 1977), 277–96
  4. Fisher, K., Leading Self-Directed Work Teams: A Guide to Developing New Team Leadership Skills, rev. ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill Professional, 1999).
  5. Greenberg, J., and Robert A. Baron, Behavior in Organizations, 9th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2008), 315–16
  6. Whetten, D. A., and Kim S. Cameron, Developing Management Skills, 7th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2007), 497.
  7. George, J. M., and Gareth R. Jones, Understanding and Managing Organizational Behavior, 5th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2008), 371–77.
  8. Festinger, L., “Informal Social Communication, Psychological Review 57 (1950): 271–82.
  9. Griffin, E., “Groupthink of Irving Janis,” 1997, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3791464?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents (accessed January 6, 2020).
  10. Greenberg, J., and Robert A. Baron, Behavior in Organizations, 9th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2008), 317-18.
  11. Thompson, L. L., Making the Team: A Guide for Managers (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2008), 323-24.
  12. Nichols, H., “Teamwork in School, Work and Life,” iamnext.com, 2003, http://www.iamnext.com/academics/groupwork.html (accessed September 1, 2008).
  13. Whetten, D. A., and Kim S. Cameron, Developing Management Skills, 7th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2007), 498-99.
  14. Lawler, E. E., Treat People Right (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003).
  15. Fortune Magazine, “What Makes Great Leaders: Rethinking the Route to Effective Leadership,” Findings from the Fortune Magazine/Hay Group 1999 Executive Survey of Leadership Effectiveness, http://www.lrhartley.com/seminars/great-leaders.pdf (accessed January 6, 2020).
  16. Robbins, S. P., and Timothy A. Judge, Organizational Behavior, 13th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2009), 346–47.
  17. Whetten, D. A., and Kim S. Cameron, Developing Management Skills, 7th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2007), 498-99.
  18. Whetten, D. A., and Kim S. Cameron, Developing Management Skills, 7th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2007), 498-99.
  19. Adapted from David A. Whetten and Kim S. Cameron, Developing Management Skills, 7th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2007), 517, 519.
  20. Nichols, H., “Teamwork in School, Work and Life,” iamnext.com, 2003, http://www.iamnext.com/academics/groupwork.html (accessed September 1, 2008).
  21. Feenstra, K., “Study Skills: Team Work Skills for Group Projects,” iamnext.com, 2002, http://www.iamnext.com/academics/grouproject.html (accessed October 11, 2011).

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Introduction to Industrial Engineering by Bonnie Boardman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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