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Is Your Team Effective?

What scientists working with NASA can tell you about leading your group.

It might surprise you that a blog post on team dynamics would lead with a discussion of the most isolated character in recent American literature. After all, Mark Watney, penned into being by Andy Weir and soon to be brought to life on the big screen by Matt Damon, is the sole being on an entire planet—stranded on Mars.

Or is he stranded? The story is really only partly about the resiliency of this single plucky individual. Rather, it is also the story of how embedded he is in his larger social structure, how the smaller team of his crew and the larger team of NASA and the even larger team of governments and individuals across the globe pool their resources and risk themselves to save him.

This isn't just fiction. No one is stranded on Mars, at least not yet, but planning is underway to send real, non-fictional astronauts to the planet, and NASA cares quite a bit about choosing the right people. People like Mark Watney, who are not just brilliant scientists and able to withstand the pressures of space travel, but also capable of inspiring loyalty and trust in their crewmates.

But of course, NASA is not the only party interested in how to best put together a group of human beings to work smoothly together to achieve a shared goal. CEOs, Division 1 coaches, and Girl Scout troop leaders all share the same motivation.

So what does the science say about the qualities of a good team?

What Makes a Good Team

The first and arguably most important step is the selection of people who will make a good team; whose skills complement rather than duplicate each other, who are capable of clear communication and division of labor without struggle, and who will share some enjoyment of working together.

Mary Shapiro, Professor of Practice in the School of Management at Simmons College, has spent decades studying how people work in teams and found that, perhaps unsurprisingly, we all approach teamwork a little differently. We bring our own biases into the team—into how we communicate, how we divvy up work, and how we evaluate the contributions of others. See if you can recognize yourself or past teammates in the descriptions below.

Shapiro argues that people on teams differ mostly in terms of two dynamics. First, how people- versus task-focused they are. People-focused workers like to work with others, are chatty and friendly and divulge personal details, judge people based on their relationships with them, and are more free-form and emotional in their decision making and workflow. Task-focused workers, on the other hand, prefer to work alone, judge people based on the work they have done, value punctuality and clear lists, and are more analytic and logical in their decision making and workflow.

The second dynamic refers to how present- versus future-oriented a person is. Present-focused people stay in the moment; they take their time to consider all of the details, are patient with themselves and others, tend to think things over before they speak, understate rather than overstate possibilities, and do not like to "rush into things." Future-oriented people, in contrast, love risk and change, are outspoken sometimes to the point of impatience, think while they speak, sometimes exaggerate, and enjoy the adrenaline rush of leaping forward to the next possibility.

As you might imagine, some of these variations will lead to smooth work interactions and some to conflict. If you combine a task-focused, present-oriented person (who enjoys working on current, objective details, with planned meetings and where they can write things out ahead of time) and a people-focused, future-oriented person (who enjoys emotional, big-picture, impromptu interactions), they are going to be at an impasse where they have difficulty understanding how the other works or what the other needs.

At the same time, projects can benefit from combining some of these personality types. If you have only task-focused, present-oriented people on your team, then there is no one to innovate, to think big about the possibilities. On the other hand, if you neglect to include some people-focused workers, there is no one to shore up rapport and camaraderie and make sure that everyone's needs are being met.

The ideal you're striving for is a Scooby Gang, where the team members not only each contribute technical skills that complement each other and add something new to the team, but also in which each team member is providing part of the core dynamics that move the team forward, whether it be the Big Thinker, the Caretaker, the Detail Planner, and so on.

What Makes a Team Work Well

So you've assembled your team, with a good blend of complementary workers. What are some principles you can follow to be sure they work well together?

Research on team interventions shows that team trainings and team-building exercises do improve team effectiveness. These activities range from group goal-setting to specific conflict negotiations to activities designed to amplify trust and interdependence.

Some activities seem well-designed to build teams—to shore up interpersonal interactions and trust, to clarify roles and solve problems. Others seem well-designed to train teams—to identify each team members' skills and knowledge, and have them understand how these will interact in the process of teamwork, and perhaps even have them practice these on sample problems.

But—and this is a big but—the research shows that only some of these interventions are effective, and using others can actually hurt team dynamics. So before you go implementing something you remember your high school gym teacher doing, check out some of the references I've included below for effective interventions.

Back to the Future

So back to the spacemen and spacewomen—what are the psychologists working with NASA working on?

As you might expect, they're planning on some pretty advanced technological approaches to team management. As the astronauts will be isolated, they suggest automated detection of breakdowns in team dynamics that will then trigger the deployment of interventions. How on earth might they do that, you're thinking? By using some of the innovative technology I blogged about here, essentially leveraging wearable technology to monitor variables like heart rate and skin sweating during interpersonal reactions. Alarming changes from pre-recorded baselines could alert a computer program to send a message or employ a team-building program to the stressed individuals or parties.

But despite all this rigorous science and calls for tracking and computerizing every last element of interpersonal interactions, there will always be a little bit of mystery to the best working teams. Some ineffable connection and sense of fellowship. Such a connection can motivate a ship's captain to flout NASA's command and turn around to Mars, risking the crew's life and limb for the sake of one team member.


Further Reading

Harvard Business Review's Guide to Leading Teams (Mary Shapiro).

There's a Science for That: Team Development Interventions in Organizations (Marissa Shuffler, Deborah DiazGranados, Eduardo Salas; Current Directions in Psychological Science).

Teams in Space Exploration: A New Frontier for the Science of Team Effectiveness (Eduardo Salas, Scott Tannenbaum, Steve Kozlowski, Christopher Miller, John Mathieu, William Vessey; Current Directions in Psychological Science).