For an increasing number of jobs, the future belongs to teams. Due to the complexity of tasks, the need to integrate multiple perspectives and disciplines into work products and services, and/or the sheer volume of work, more people than ever will find themselves working in teams. For the many who have not been well trained for collaborative effort, the thought of this future can be unsettling. The United States, in particular, is a highly individualistic society where the traditional value of independence in thought and action may clash with the reality of a future of work in interdependent teams.
The research literature often differentiates between work groups and teams. Simply defined, a team is any group of people who engage in interdependent actions in the service of task accomplishment. This definition suggests a number of important points.
First, not all groups are teams. Collectives in which people can work independently with minimal coordination, or with coordination provided outside of themselves through management or other individuals, are not teams. Organizational departments are work groups but are rarely true teams. The need for interdependent effort defines a team and creates boundaries for team membership. Those who need to coordinate their efforts know who is part of their team and who is not. Vendors, suppliers, and contractors can support teams by providing resources or even by doing discrete parts of the work, but if they function independently, they are not part of the team.
Second, teams have a mission or goal that channels their efforts toward an outcome or outcomes. People idly chatting around the coffeepot are not teams, nor are colleagues within the same work unit who work on different projects without the need for significant integration. Third, teams exist apart from organizations as well as within them. Preparation for team-based professional careers may take place through experiences with teams in educational or community settings.
All teams are not alike. Some teams are composed of peers doing similar work that needs to be integrated effectively to create value. They might be peers assigned to a project team on a particular assignment at work or to reach a decision, such as a jury. Other teams are cross-functional, where members have been trained in different disciplines or specialties and come together with others of different specialties to produce a unified product or service. Orchestras, or organizational decision-making teams composed of individuals from different professional specialties such as finance, sales, and human resources, are examples of such teams. As technology expands and organizations become more global in scope, virtual teams are becoming more common. In a pure virtual team, interaction may be conducted entirely through electronic means, including e-mail, teleconferences, and video-conferences, with a total absence of face-to-face contact. The work still requires interdependence, but coordination must be accomplished at a physical distance, which creates additional challenges.
Each of the types of teams described above may be short- or long-term in duration, comprising all or part of a person’s work program. Although each type of team may require different skills for successful performance, two general sets of competencies are important for team members. First, they need competency in their own area(s) of responsibility, whatever that may be, as do others engaged in individually based work. However, in team contexts, a second set of competencies involving the ability to work effectively with others rise in value. Models of team effectiveness typically include a component dealing with team process, that is, how a team combines their individual resources into a product through means of effective coordination, communication, decision making, and conflict management. Though the best of team processes may not be able to overcome a lack of requisite individual member skills, most models suggest that teams may fail to reach their potential if those skills are not effectively integrated through good process.
Effective team processes may be affected by characteristics and behaviors of individual members. In terms of the classic psychological Big Five personality characteristics, the importance of both agreeableness and conscientiousness might be expected to be more prominent in team settings. The ability to get along with others, and for others to be able to depend on you, is critical to the development of trust and cohesion in teams. For characteristics such as extraversion, however, the distribution of a trait across the members may be most important to success. It is good to have at least some people willing to talk, but too many voices actively vying for airtime might be counterproductive. Organizational citizenship behaviors such as pitching in as needed or contributing to non-work-related activities that promote social harmony and liking can also be valued team behaviors. The willingness to not only do one’s own job but to look out for the team’s needs and back up other members can make the difference between success and failure for a team effort.
Team members can also benefit from learning to handle conflict constructively. Coordination with others should produce differences in views that lead to better and more informed decisions. Yet to achieve these superior results, destructive conflict and turmoil within a team needs to be minimized. Individuals need to learn different ways to manage conflict and, where appropriate, to learn to seek integrated, so-called win-win, decisions that address the needs of all parties considered. Team members need to listen to others and be willing to extend themselves to understand the perspectives of diverse others for mutual benefit. In addition, as electronically mediated communication increases in both co-located and virtual teams, the importance of being able to write clearly and succinctly also increases.
Preparation for team-based work can include analyzing one’s own success in team environments and modifying one’s behavior as needed. Prior or in addition to organizational experiences with teams, people can experiment with their own behavior in teams. Getting opportunities to lead teams, to serve as members of effectively performing teams, and even to participate in ineffective teams can all help people better understand the requirements of team-based work as well as their own team skills. Fortunately, schools are increasingly aware of the need to develop team skills and are incorporating team projects into classroom activities, and opportunities to learn better team skills through volunteer work in the community are plentiful.
Even in individualistic cultures, working in teams like these can bring great satisfaction. Anyone who has ever watched a winning sports team celebrate has seen the intense joy and fulfillment that can emerge from collective success. With some additional thought and experience, even those who have been taught to seek and value independent effort and achievement can learn strategies to be successful in team-based work.
- Beyerlein, M. M., ed. 2000. Work Teams: Past, Present, and Future. Boston, MA: Kluwer Academic.
- Cohen, S. G. and Bailey, D. E. 1997. “What Makes Teams Work: Group Effectiveness Research from the Shop Floor to the Executive Suite.” Journal of Management 23:239-290.
- Ilgen, D. R. 1999. “Teams Embedded in Organizations.” American Psychologist 54:129-139.
- Moreland, R. 1998. “Training People to Work in Groups.” Pp. 37-60 in Theory and Research on Small Groups, edited by R. S. Tindale. New York: Plenum.
- Turner, M. E. 2000. Groups at Work: Theory and Research. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- West, M. A., Tjosvold, D. and Smith, K. G. 2003. International Handbook of Organizational Teamwork and Cooperative Working. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.