Improving Teamwork: 9 Things to Consider

“Finding good players is easy. Getting them to play as a team is another story.”

Casey Stengel, NY Yankee’s Manager
 

Anyone who has led or worked as a team will likely recognize the truth in Stengel’s statement above. Those of us involved in implementation understand intuitively how critical collective effort is for success.  Academic research confirms this intuition; findings from a variety of investigations support the link between better teamwork and better team outcomes (Siassakos, 2011; LePine, 2008).

That said, as practitioners, we may not have a firm grounding in what it is, exactly, that helps or inhibits teamwork. Have you ever challenged yourself to articulate in detail what makes for effective teamwork? It's not an easy task! Even those of us who go to the effort of researching teamwork may find it daunting to draw practical insights from the effort.

Enter Eduardo Salas and colleagues. 

They put together a fantastic article that specifically aims to translate available research on teamwork into guidance for practitioners (Salas, 2014). Given that the article is 25 pages long, I thought a summary of the main ideas from it would be useful!

I offer the summary in two parts. The first, below, provides an overview of how to think about teamwork.  Part Two, forthcoming, will focus on more on “how to do it”, outlining practical tips for applying the research in your organization.  Please note, while the summaries are strongly informed by the work of Salas et al., I have also drawn from other research, and I have adapted ideas and language to make them more practitioner friendly. 

BREAK IT DOWN: THE WHO, WHAT AND HOW OF TEAMING

Salas and colleagues note that we can hyper-focus on taskwork when working with and as a team, overlooking the essential idea of teamwork (2014).  What’s the difference?  Let’s break it down and clarify what we mean by team while we are at it. 

  • Team: A group of individuals who are dependent on one another to achieve a common goal. 
  • Taskwork:  The team’s efforts to produce deliverables to achieve its common goal. 
  • Teamwork:  The integration of the behaviors, thoughts, feelings and attitudes of team members as they collaborate to complete tasks to achieve a common goal.  

Put simply,  we can think of teams, taskwork and teamwork as the who, what, and how of teaming, respectively.

Finally, keep in mind that the importance of teamwork is likely a function of the degree of interdependence on the team.  In other words, the more that collaboration is required for the team, and individuals within it, to be successful, the more teamwork matters (Dechurch, 2010). 

UNDERSTANDING THE PARTS THAT MAKE THE WHOLE

An imperfect, but still useful tool
At the core of their article, Salas and colleagues offer a nine-part “heuristic” that summarizes key findings from research to date on teamwork.  It’s worthwhile to remind ourselves of the definition of a heuristic because the word is a perfect descriptor for what is provided in the article.  “An approach to problem-solving, learning, or discovery that employs a practical method not guaranteed to be optimal or perfect, but sufficient for the immediate goals” [Emphasis added] (Wikipedia, 2016).

Not perfect or final, but a helpful guide for understanding and improving teamwork nonetheless. What more can we ask for?!
 
When thinking about teamwork, Salas and colleagues suggest we keep in mind ALL of the nine factors below, which they offer with no intended hierarchy (2014):  

  • Cooperation: The motivational drivers of action on the team, such as attitudes or beliefs.
  • Conflict: The perceived incompatibilities in the views or interests held by individual team members.
  • Coordination:  The “orchestration of the sequence and timing of interdependent actions,” amongst team members. 
  • Communication:  The dynamic process of sharing information amongst team members, which influences their attitudes, understanding, and behaviors. 
  • Coaching (Leadership): Behaviors related to setting goals and supporting the team to achieve them.
  • Cognition (Shared Understanding):  Shared understanding, developed through the interaction of team members, about roles and responsibilities, team objectives, and the skills & abilities offered by individual team members.  
  • Composition:  Characteristics of individual team members that are relevant to effective team performance, such as knowledge, skills, attitudes, and diversity.
  • Context:  Situational or environmental characteristics that impact team behavior and team outcomes. This can include things such as uncertainty, available resources, autonomy, as well as one's physical working environment. 
  • Culture:  Assumptions that are shared amongst a group (team, organization, country), which are reflected in “individuals’ values, beliefs, norms for social behavior, and artifacts.”

PUTTING THE NINE FACTORS TO WORK FOR YOU

Teamwork is an interconnected network of factors, which vary in influence depending on the context. 
As I do for implementation in general, Salas et al. argue that we should consider teamwork as a whole made up of interconnected factors, each of which is conceptually as important as the other (2014).  In other words, there is no 'one thing' or 'most important thing' to remember about teamwork — remember it all!  Multiple factors are at play, which we should weigh carefully when creating and supporting teams. In any given context, some may be more important than others, but in the absence of a particular application, think of them as equal. 

How to put it to work for you:  Each of us is naturally inclined to focus on certain things, e.g., “It’s all about communication!”  You can use the set of nine factors to identify your blind spots and holistically assess each team situation.  This will put you in a better position to identify the most effective actions to take based on current circumstances, not just your preferences. 

How well a team works is a function of the traits of the team, the processes the team uses, as well as influences from the current environment. 
Salas and colleagues loosely organize their nine factors into three categories:  emergent states, processes, and influencing conditions. The definition of these three states seems necessary for research purposes; however, my recommendation for practitioners is to not pay too much to the categories themselves or what fits into each.  Rather, hold onto the general idea that there are different types of factors, that can influence one another, to impact how teams work.

A metaphor may help make sense of this. Consider high-altitude baking. To produce an edible cake, you must make adjustments to account for the difference in air pressure at higher altitudes. It simply doesn’t work otherwise.  The altitude is an influencing condition. The tastiness of the cake, regardless of altitude, is also affected by the quality of the ingredients used (emergent states or properties) and your technique in putting them all together (processes).  All three need to be exercised appropriately to produce the optimal result. Same goes for teamwork. 

How to put it to work for you: Start thinking about teamwork when you are creating a team and don’t stop until you have completed your close-out debrief.  Factors such as team member selection and organizational culture will impact how well the team works together, as will vision setting, communication protocols, and technical skills.  

Don't wait until you have an obvious problem.
As I’ve written countless times in the past (e.g., see here and here), efficient and effective action is only possible when supported by careful thought and understanding.  Proactively take time, when you are not facing a crisis or obviously poor performance, to consider your team in light of the nine factors offered by Salas and colleagues.  Where do you see areas of strength? Where are there challenges? What would you like to understand in greater depth?  What concrete actions will you take over time to strengthen the team?

For help in answering the last two of those questions, look for Part Two in this series on teamwork, forthcoming. In it, I’ll review each of the nine factors in greater detail, providing an overview of how each impacts teamwork and some specific ways you can use research findings to improve performance on your team. 

REFERENCES

Dechurch, Leslie A., and Jessica R. Mesmer-Magnus. "The Cognitive Underpinnings of Effective Teamwork: A Meta-analysis." Journal of Applied Psychology 95.1 (2010): 32-53. Web.  Find the article here.

Lepine, Jeffery A., Ronald F. Piccolo, Christine L. Jackson, John E. Mathieu, and Jessica R. Saul. "A Meta-Analysis Of Teamwork Processes: Tests Of A Multidimensional Model And Relationships With Team Effectiveness Criteria." Personnel Psychology 61.2 (2008): 273-307. Web.  Find the article here.

Marks, Michelle A., John E. Mathieu, and Stephen J. Zaccaro. "A Temporally Based Framework and Taxonomy of Team Processes." The Academy of Management Review 26.3 (2001): 356. Web. Find the abstract here.

Salas, Eduardo, Marissa L. Shuffler, Amanda L. Thayer, Wendy L. Bedwell, and Elizabeth H. Lazzara. "Understanding and Improving Teamwork in Organizations: A Scientifically Based Practical Guide." Human Resource Management 54.4 (2014): 599-622. Web.  Find the article here.

Siassakos, Dimitrios, Robert Fox, Joanna F. Crofts, Linda P. Hunt, Catherine Winter, and Timothy J. Draycott. "The Management of a Simulated Emergency: Better Teamwork, Better Performance." Resuscitation 82.2 (2011): 203-06. Web.  Find the abstract here.