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The Science of Teamwork

Five actionable lessons from the lab.

Thirty-two years ago, our world experienced the worst nuclear disaster in human history at a nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union called Chernobyl. This was bad—a Level 7 event, with several times more radioactivity than the U.S. unleashed bombing Japan in WWII. One hundred and twenty thousand people were evacuated. For nine days, winds carried toxic dust clouds across Central and Southern Europe. It had an estimated death toll of 4,000-10,000 lives. Five million people still live on heavily contaminated lands today.

What most people don’t know is that the team of engineers at the helm in Chernobyl that day was the best of the best. They were a highly experienced, respected, award-winning team. And yet they unintentionally brought on unprecedented destruction.

Now, no one team member made any egregious mistakes. But how they functioned or malfunctioned as a team caused the disaster. In other words, the best possible team failed fantastically.

How is that possible?!

Fortunately, over a century of systematic research on groups and teams have yielded a host of valuable insights on what makes for more and less effective teams. Of course, is there is way too much info to cover in a blog post. So for now, I have cherry-picked the top 5 most actionable insights from decades of research on teams.

Lesson 1: The Set-Up—Initial Conditions Matter Most

Research on how teams evolve over time has taught us one important thing—their beginnings matter most. That means that two teams with very similar starting conditions can end up with completely different levels of functioning and outcomes due to very slight differences in how they begin. Scientists call this a sensitivity to initial conditions.

For example, researchers studying strategy teams at IBM found that the emotional climate established by teams in the first few minutes of their encounters tended to persist and become very resistant to change. Others have found that the personalities and values of organizational founders—like Henry Ford, George Eastman of Kodak, and Anita Roddick of Body Shop—often have a significant effect on the organization’s culture—even decades later—long after they are gone. So beginnings matter for teams.

Now there are a variety of technical reasons for this—positive feedback loops and self-organizing processes—but essentially these early conditions create an environment that is more supportive of actions and behaviors that are consistent with how they started—and so they self-perpetuate and eventually amplify small differences between groups. The point is that the remaining conditions I will now specify are best introduced in the beginning of a launch a new team—or at some new transition point in the life of a team—as they help set the course for a particular journey for the team.

Lesson 2: Cooperation Rules

Google recently conducted an elaborate multi-year study on team productivity—run by their People Operations Department—called Project Aristotle. Hundreds of teams were studied and assessed on multiple dimensions to identify the secrets of their most highly functioning teams.

At first, they thought that they might be able to identify an algorithm for combining the best mix of types of individuals that make up great teams. They couldn’t.

Eventually, they identified one condition that mattered the most to team functioning—how teammates treated one another—particularly something referred to as psychological safety. This is defined as a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking’’ and ‘‘will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up.’’ So higher levels of psychological safety help teams to thrive.

However, establishing psychological safety in a team is hard to do. You can tell people to respect each other and listen more and be sensitive to how their colleagues feel. But the kinds of people who work at Google are often the ones who became software engineers because they wanted to avoid talking about feelings in the first place.

Fortunately, decades of research suggest that one condition matters most for promoting psychological safety—cooperative goals.

At our center at Columbia—the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution—we have learned from decades of research that introducing cooperative tasks, rewards, and goals to teams is critical to establishing psychological safety and better productivity—particularly when teams work in a highly competitive environment. They also promote more trust, better communication, more sharing of resources, and more liking of team members. And yes, this is exactly what Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Sesame Street, and our kindergarten teachers told us for years: Cooperation rules!

Lesson 3: Conflict and Difference are Essential

However—and this is an important caveat—too much cooperation can actually be dysfunctional for teams and can lead to groupthink and inertia and sub-optimization—where the goals of the team start to supersede those of the organization. This is part of what happened in Chernobyl. They were so confident in their team that they got cocky and broke the rules—and no one spoke up.

So effective functioning teams also need conflict—where differences of opinions, ideas, values, cultures, thinking, or experiences—clash with one another. Now conflict has a bad reputation in teams and organizations—because it can mess things up completely. And it makes most of us crazy anxious. But—under the right conditions—conflict can provide the energy and motivation necessary to do things better.

Think of it: Without conflict, we don’t learn. We are not forced to think carefully or creatively, or to innovate or enact social reforms. So the question is not whether conflict is good or bad for teams—it is whether it is managed so that we can channel its energies effectively. And guess what is the primary condition that leads to that? Cooperative relations!


Lesson 4: Teams are Emotional.

...because teams are made up of emotional people! And conflicts both trigger emotions and are processed through our emotions. Research on conflict in marriages, business teams, and communities shows that feelings of positivity and negativity in our relationships “pool” over time—creating emotional reservoirs that can either provide a buffer in difficult times or a land mine. If there is enough positivity—rapport, trust, liking, friendships—in a team, then the members are more likely to be able to learn from their conflicts and make important adjustments. Without these emotional buffers, the sting of negative encounters overwhelms us and drags our team down.

But teams also need conflict to learn and grow and make good decisions. So what matters most is the ratio of positivity-to-negativity that has built up in teams. Does your group have a sufficiently positive emotional bank account? The most high-functioning business teams have a ratio of about 3.5:1 positive to negative encounters. Marriages need closer to 5:1.

These emotions have also been shown to have a strong physiological effect on us. In fact, team bonding has been found to release the brain chemical oxytocin in humans, which is also linked to experiences of empathy, generosity, and orgasm.

Lesson 5: Adapt with Integrity

I should probably end on orgasm, but I want to share one other finding on teams.

Charles Darwin reportedly said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” It is a truism that teams that fail to adapt to important changes in their host environment will perish. There is ample evidence of this. Facebook is facing this challenge today.

However, one of the other important findings of the Google study is the vital importance of meaningful, impactful work to team functioning. In the highest-performing teams, members feel that they are working on something that is personally important to them and that their work matters. Makes sense, right?

However, these two basic team functions of adapting to changing circumstances and maintaining a sense of integrity in our work often are at odds with one another—and either extreme of being too responsive to change or too stuck in a high-minded ideology can lead to a team’s demise.

This, I suggest, is what we are witnessing in the extreme partisan politics in Washington today. We are seeing either politicians that change their minds daily because of shifts in the polls or rigid, dogmatic ideologues that are ignoring critical changes in our world.

The good news is that America has many of the conditions for effective team functioning:

  • Our founders set the initial conditions for rule of law, civil discourse, and effective problem-solving.
  • Our constitution begins with the premise that we are united in our quest to form a more perfect union—a pure cooperative goal.
  • Our motto E Pluribus Unum (out of many, one) emphasizes that our diversity, our difference, is our best source of strength
  • And despite the high levels of animosity many of us currently hold for members of the other team (Fox News vs. MSNBC), we do have a long history of compassion and unity that we can build on.

The challenge for Americans today is to find a way to respond to the current divisive trends that still allows us to maintain a sense of genuine integrity. That is how Team USA will survive and flourish.

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