I have been working in teams for my entire work career, and I create student project teams in most of my college classes. I’ve also researched and written about teams, and there are some surprising aspects to teams that are often counterintuitive and defy common sense.

Work is Never Evenly Divided. Let me start this off with a qualification. Yes, there might be teams that can more or less evenly divide the workload, but that seems hard to do given the variety of complex and different tasks that take place in most work groups today (simple manufacturing and piecework jobs are exceptions).

I say this despite the fact that that my class project work teams are asked to divide their workload contributions, and the majority say that the workload was perfectly evenly divided. My guess is that the team leader (formal or informal) ends up doing the largest share of the work, and then the percentages drop off from there.

Free-Rider and Social Loafing Effects. One reason why workload is not evenly divided is the tendency toward free-riding. This has been researched as the “social loafing” effect. In groups where individual efforts are pooled into a team measure of performance, there is a tendency for people to exert less energy (i.e., social loafing) than they would when working alone. Therefore, it is very important to assess both individual contributions as well as the team’s output to avoid social loafing effects.

Equal Parts Rarely Make A Whole. Except in very simple tasks, having team members divide the project into quarters (or the fraction based on the number of team members) usually doesn’t work. What you often end up with is a Frankenstein’s monster – a bunch of pieces crudely stitched together, rather than a unified whole. That is why it is important to build interdependence and redundancy into your teams – insuring that the pieces fit together and making sure that someone is watching over the assembling of the end product.

All Team Members are Not Created Equal. All too often, teams are assembled as if they are made up of interchangeable parts. The most effective work teams are carefully built to excel. Careful attention has to be paid to make sure that team members possess the right combination of skills to do the job. Selection of team members is critical along with team building that ensures that you are leveraging team members’ strengths and compensating for weaknesses.

Like-Minded Thinking, or Diversity? How About Both? This is a tough one. You want team members to have common goals – to have the same values and desire the same outcomes – but you also need a diversity of opinions, particularly if the team’s task is a creative one. Leading teams is not easy. You need to encourage independent thinking but also strive to keep the team unified and working toward a common goal. If it were easy, every team would be a winning one, but with hard work, any team can win.

More on teams here.

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