What Leaders Don’t Know Could Hurt

Decades of research on teams and teamwork reveal valid and practical principles for designing and rewarding teams — and they may surprise leaders.

Virtually every organization considers teamwork vital to its future success. Teamwork is pivotal in capabilities such as innovation, customer-centricity and agility, and is vital for talent management initiatives like diversity, collaboration and organization design.

Fortunately, decades of research has unearthed practical guiding principles that have proven valid in different settings. Yet this research is often overlooked by talent leaders because it appears in “academic” journals. What’s even more unfortunate is the findings often go against leaders’ common assumptions. This is the heart of the “evidence-based management” movement.

Sometimes researchers distill their findings into practical guidelines. I teach my MBA students simple but valid teamwork guidelines using an article by scholars John Hollenbeck, D. Scott DeRue and Rick Guzzo. They distilled team research into quiz questions.

How many of these would your leaders answer correctly (True or False)?

The most important attribute a team member brings is unique technical abilities. (False) Research suggests that teamwork skills, such as cooperation, communication and giving and accepting feedback, are often more pivotal than individual technical skills.

The best measure of a team’s characteristics is the average across all members. (False) Team performance may hinge more on the minimum level (the weakest link will determine success), the maximum level (the best team member can pull along the rest), or the variability of levels (the key is a diversity of perspectives, such as in product innovation requiring several disciplines). Sometimes what matters most is the consensus (such as defining the team’s goal).

Demographic diversity in a team is essential to high team performance. (False) Too much demographic diversity can increase turnover in teams. Demographic diversity effects also seem to diminish with time, while psychological diversity (values, beliefs, skills) effects increase with time. Matching diversity to the task is important; some tasks benefit from diversity in some skills, while others benefit from diversity in different ones.

Team members should have their own unique idea about the tasks and how to accomplish them. (False) Diverse ideas can enhance team performance, but better-performing teams develop shared mental models when it comes to defining their task, how to accomplish it and which team members are experts in each area.

Team members should be masters of their own job before being placed on a team. (False) Research suggests that one of the best ways to learn is by interacting with others on a team, rather than learning on one’s own. But supportive and skilled team leaders are pivotal to maximizing such learning.

Incentives based on individual performance create divisive competition and reduce team performance. (False) The right reward structure depends on the type of team and its task. Cooperative incentives enhance convergent tasks such as building consensus, but individual incentives enhance divergent tasks like generating original ideas. Competitive rewards enhance team speed, while collaborative rewards enhance team accuracy.

I suspect that most leaders would get these questions wrong. How much organizational value is lost because of that ignorance? 

But typical HR systems don’t analyze collaboration skills, team leader skills, the trade-offs between individual expertise and catalytic combinations, the match between diversity and the task or shared mental models. Today’s HR systems use a structure developed when individuals worked mostly independently in particular jobs.

The systems track individual skills, pay and training; they map individual positions; or they generate position-specific reports on head count, turnover, pay ranges and skill requirements. 

When you create a team of individuals from particular positions, nothing changes in most HR systems because the same people are still in the same jobs. In reality, of course, everything changes and your success lies in the combinations, but most HR systems reveal little about that.

Ironically, decades of research shows how to measure every one of these things. Is it time to use past research to bring your team management into the future?

This article originally appeared in Chief Learning Officer's sister publication, Talent Management.