The role of teams in organizations has been growing, spurred by globalization and aided by communications technology. Teamwork has become a standard structure and process in most organizations today. Leaders and management consultants often assume that a team approach to work produces superior results. Yet, research shows a "mixed bag" to support that contention.

Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, identified the following key reasons why teams can become a liability:

  • Absence of trust: Team members are not open and honest with each other;
  • Fear of conflict: Conflict is avoided and conversations become veiled and guarded
  • Lack of commitment: Team members rarely buy in or are committed.
  • Avoidance of accountability: Team members hesitate to confront their colleagues on actions and behaviors that are unproductive.
  • Inattention to results: Team members put their personal interests and careers ahead of the team and organization.

Steve Kozlowski and his colleagues recently published their teamwork research in The Journal of Applied Psychology, Personnel Psychology and Psychological Science in the Public Interest. They point out that the role of teams has been idealized, yet also implicated in many political and military catastrophes. They also cite apparent contradictions between our focus on group work in organizations and our education system and general society, which emphasizes individual performance.

Although organizations place great value on teamwork, the way organizations make us of teams often runs against evidence about what works. For example, most organizations reward people with compensation and benefits based on individual performance rather than team performance. These rewards often actually inhibit team members' willingness to work together and help one another.

Kozlowski and his colleagues examined the past 50 years of research literature on teams and identified factors that characterize the best teamwork. They concluded that what team members think and feel is as important as what they do. The research indicates that part of the glue that binds people to their team leader is emotional, and that emotional states in team members can be viral, affecting others. The kind of feedback given to teams is also critical and affects performance. Kozlowski reported that feedback directed to individuals only in a team resulted in higher individual performance at the expense of team performance, and vice-versa.

We would also assume that team members place a high value on cooperation and collaboration. In fact, we often assume those people who willingly follow the team leader are more likely to be cooperative than people working alone. Not so according to recent research by psychologist Piers Fleming and economist Daniel Zizzo, of the Centre for Behavioral and Experimental Social Science at the University of East Anglia (UEA) who published their research in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. Piers and Zizzo contend that people who don't conform are most likely to work together for the great good, whereas people who conform to social norms may be actually less cooperative. The researchers argue their research has significant implications for teamwork in the workplace.

Fleming adds, "Contrary to our predictions, conformity does not equal co-operation." He also stated in his research, "If someone is less conformist they make take a lead and put in more effort, so then others may be prepared to put in more effort themselves, and the individuals and the team benefit." Fleming and Zizzo conclude that conformity, which is often a feature of teamwork, can be positive or negative, depending on what is being conformed to. This conclusion is consistent with other research that identifies negative aspects of team cooperation by Kozalowski, such as false confidence, unsound decisions, a "crowd mentality" and fear of dissention.

Despite the importance of cooperation and collaboration in teamwork, very little attention has been given to educational training programs from public school to graduate university programs from the perspective of guiding teamwork and the use of influence and persuasion. If teamwork is as important as leaders claim for organizational results, they would be advised to understand in greater depth the science of teamwork and implement best practice, as well as resolve the inherent conflict between the focus on individual rewards and feedback and those for teams.

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