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What Makes A Team?

What Makes A Team? By Ruth Donde
Both positivity and connectivity play important roles in the performance of business teams. So forget Facebook, why not do your social networking in teams, say Ruth Donde and Graham Hart in this article on what science knows and what business does, which appeared in Employment Today Magazine, November 2012.

There is no I in TEAM. Together Everyone Achieves More. Yes, we expect you have all heard these rather trite comments before; however, there are few areas of human endeavour where teams don’t feature somehow. It could be argued we are mildly obsessed with teams and the concept of team working. How can we explain this preoccupation with teams?

The emerging field of social neuroscience is based on the idea that human brains are ‘wired to connect’. Daniel Goleman in The New Science of Human Relationships puts a persuasive argument of the importance of demonstrating empathy and building rapport for effective collaboration. He goes on to state, rather obviously, that rapport emerges as a consequence of the quality of the social interaction. And this social aspect is what we want to concentrate on in this article—after all, engagement is a voluntary process and a prerequisite for collabora- tion and effective team working.

Groups vs teams

So how do we distinguish between groups and teams? Teams are used as an organising principle for structuring organisations, but seldom has a word been used so often in organisations and yet been so misunderstood.

Getting a group of people together does not make a team. We have known for a long time that teams can be very effective at achieving tasks and we have also known that higher performing teams seem to be somehow greater than the sum of their parts. For a group to be a team there are has to be purposeful collaboration and specifically that means:

  • Two or more people working interdependently towards a common goal;
  • The team develops products that are the result of the team’s collective effort and involves synergy—the property where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

If you accept either of those concepts, then a group that doesn’t operate interdependently (but may have the same manager or be located together) is still a group and not a team. That may, of course, be fine as not all situations require a team approach. However, don’t expect synergy from groups of individuals. If you want teamwork then give the team the work to do!

Emotional engagement

One interpretation of what Goleman is saying (we are wired to connect) is simply that “Sharing is caring and caring aids sharing!”. We knew team working was a social phenomenon, we just didn’t realise until recently what that meant for emotional engagement and team performance.

Research conducted by de Vries et al in 2010 shows that communication styles and job climate make a difference in knowledge sharing within organisations. Results show that team members’ agreeableness, extraversion, job satisfaction and performance beliefs have positive implications for willingness to share knowledge with one’s team members.

Reciprocity and trust come into the equation too, playing key roles in willingness to share. Agreeable communication styles encourage trust, and trust increases the likelihood of cooperation. Agreeableness also creates positive emotion in others and may create stronger emotional attachment and commitment to the relationship.

So an organisational or team culture can potentially create emotional engagement—far more powerful than transactional engagement. The two aren’t often separated when considering engagement in the workplace.

It is becoming clear that both positivity and connectivity play important roles in the performance of business teams. (Connectivity is the ratio of positivity to negativity in a team interaction). What seems to be required are teams that are able to tap into the power of positivity—not Pollyanna-level optimism, however, as there still needs to be a presence of negativity to still keep grounded and realistic.

Groups that have extraverted communication styles are more likely to generate the enthusiasm present in transformational teams—this has benefits of extra effort and motivation, which can be contagious, inspiring others.

So the power of team work is related to a level of shared emotional engagement to the task and processes, which facilitates an optimum contribution from the individuals in the team.

For the team to be effective it still means that the right people with the right diverse experiences, outlooks and capabilities are present in the team, but without emotional engagement much of that value cannot be accessed by others and collaboration is hit and miss.

Team development and social risk

Clearly, team working is a social phenomenon and neuroscience informs us that our brains are designed to pay a lot of attention to social issues and be attuned to the possible threats from others. As a biological imperative it does make a lot of sense, particularly if your very survival is dependent on others.

You may be familiar with Tuckman’s 4 Stages of Team Development, but it becomes more understandable if you look at it through the lens of ‘social risk’. The brain’s attention to social risk has a number of significant consequences if we perceive the risk is high:

  • We find it harder to collaborate with others we are unsure of;
  • We run the risk of operating more emotionally than rationally;
  • We are less creative.

So much of why teams are not performing is social in nature, related to lack of trust and fear of conflict and general lower levels of engagement with the task. Check out Patrick Lencioni’s 5 Dysfunctions of a Team if you would like to read more on this topic.

Shared goals

The concept of shared goals is, of course, critical for team working and highly relevant to those working in the social context of organisation. By shared goals we mean many people working interdependently as a team on one goal. Without goal clarity it is almost impossible for a team to perform at a high level. Where there is clarity, and a team works on one goal, a common phenomenon called the outsourcing of effort is seen.

When you know other people are working on the team with you, it seems you tend to outsource, to work a little bit less hard on the pieces of the goal that other people can also help with, but not on those pieces that only you can. (This is different from social loafing, seen in a classic social psychology experiment where people playing tug of war pull less hard than when they’re just on their own—knowing that others have their back.)

Outsourcing of effort is a very specific kind of process which is very efficient in the context of teamwork. People allocate different performance tasks to different colleagues in the group depending on their strengths, which is very logical and is something people do almost automatically. Team members’ often have no idea that they are doing it and report that they’re working as hard as they can on all aspects of the task.

Another interesting finding from research is that those who relied on other team members for help on their own goals felt an increased level of commitment to the team goal compared to those who didn’t rely on their team members for goal support. Collaboration seemed to build engagement.

From an organisational perspective, when you see other people as similar to yourself and/or trust them, it increases your motivation to work on shared goals. It may decrease your total effort, but it increases your efficiency in your goal, and can enhance outcomes—less is more. We also know that effort doesn’t necessarily enhance performance.

Learning from team members like us

When we watch our team members make progress, we learn from that progress, and we feel like their intentions are our intentions. We also feel that their errors are our errors. This finding is related to the mirror neuron system (MNS), which is the network of brain regions that is shared between witnessing an action and performing that action.

More abstractly, the MNS seems to be involved in helping us create meaning and interpret the overlap between our own intentions and other people’s intentions. These kinds of overlapping intentions facilitate a coordination of effort and collaboration. The overlap is even more extensive when you feel that person is similar to you.

Similarity is relative. You don’t have to actually be similar to other people for your brain to treat them as similar, you just need to have similarity on some dimension that is perceived to be relevant in the current situation. For example, assigning people to have the same coloured avatar (e.g. everyone on the team is blue) is all that is required to form a group identity (this is the so-called ‘minimal group paradigm’). The blue team will perceive the other people in the group as more similar to them compared to people with avatars of a different colour. We like to be in groups, and we seek similarity with others to encourage this, even on superficial characteristics.

People don’t necessarily commit to organisations, but rather to other people. We’re fundamentally social creatures, so it makes sense that working together in teams increases commitment, which in turn increases liking, which in turn increases commitment further, and so forth.

This lesson can be valuable in team coaching. Identify common identities and shared goals, and then let individual team members determine their own sub-goals and work to their own strengths and motivations in order to morse efficiently fulfil the goal. This is a far cry from the many top down paternalistic approaches alive and well in organisations.

By putting more attention on allowing the social cohesion of groups to develop and then overlaying the necessary systems and processes to support collaborative effort, you just might get on track towards developing a high-performing team.