Apr 06, 2011

The Science of Teamwork: What Matters in Teams and Team Leaders

Teamwork has been recognized as a key to success in many industries and organizations. The US military, airline industry, health care sector and nuclear power industry are all making major investments in understanding and improving team performance. There is also considerable interest in how "teams of teams," also known as multi-team systems, can work better together, as in the case of federal government agencies coordinating when a natural or man-made disaster strikes.

But, what do we know about teamwork, team leaders and team effectiveness after decades of research?

As part of RCLA's ongoing "Vanguard of Leadership" event series, Dr. Eduardo Salas, the University Trustee Chair and Pegasus Professor of Psychology at the University of Central Florida, offered insight into six hallmarks of high-performing teams as well as research findings on what effective teams do, feel and think.

He began by clarifying the characteristics of a "team" versus a "group." The definitions of a team include that they are: made of two or more people; have multiple information sources; hold common, valued goals; and each member has specialized roles and responsibilities but they share meaningful task interdependencies. In addition, teams have task-relevant knowledge; are characterized by intensive communication; use adaptive mechanisms, and are hierarchically organized. He also drew a distinction between "teamwork skills," competencies that enable people to contribute effectively to teams and "task work skills," which are related to doing your own job correctly (and are a precursor to being able to effectively contribute to a team).

Dr. Salas also outlined the characteristics of the environment in which teams work, from operating under performance/command pressure with limited time to dealing with rapidly evolving, ambiguous situations. He noted that teamwork is dynamic, episodic and multi-level.

Characteristics of Effective Teams

Eduardo Salas shared research on six elements that makes teams work.

1. Cooperation - These are the motivational drivers, or attitudes and beliefs, behind members' orientation toward teamwork and mutual trust (rather than operating as lone actors). According to the research, the more confidence team members have in team efficacy, or the team's ability to complete the task, the better they perform.

2. Coordination - These are behavioral mechanisms that enable team members to work together. In strong teams, members engage in "mutual performance monitoring," or paying attention to what is going on around them so that if a colleague needs help, they can step in and provide support. These "back-up behaviors" make a team more flexible and adaptable in regularly readjusting to new conditions.

3. Communication - These are protocols for exchanging information, with the most effective characterized by closed-loop, timely, precise and clear communications using appropriate terminology.

4. Cognition - This is the common understanding that team members share. Roles and responsibilities for each person should be very clear; everyone should know the team's mission, objectives, norms and resources; and members should have an appropriate level of familiarity with their teammates (not too much and not too little). In addition, top teams engage in "cue-strategy associations," in which cues from the environment trigger someone to act based on shared mental models - an example being the no-look pass in basketball.

5. Coaching - This refers to the importance of the team leader in ensuring the team succeeds. The team leader must promote teamwork, care about team members and set ground rules. In a case of shared leadership, it should be clear when different people should step forward at different moments (for example, people who play various different roles in an emergency room).

6. Conflict - These conflict resolution strategies are based on mutual trust and psychological safety, with enable people to both be assertive about and take accountability for problems.

He noted that two more elements could be added to this list - "culture" and "context."

What Effective Teams Do, Feel and Think

Dr. Salas also shared research findings on team beliefs and behaviors that lead to success.

 They hold shared mental models that allow members to anticipate each others' needs and actions and enable them to coordinate without overt communication.

 They optimize resources by self-correcting their own errors and shortcomings, compensating for each other, and adapting their performance strategies based on the changing environment.

 They have clear roles and responsibilities, manage expectations and understand each other's roles and how they fit together. While these roles are clear, they are also not overly rigid.

 They have a clear, engaging, valued and shared vision. They have a clear common purpose, are energized by their shared mission and can evaluate their current status in terms of the destination they are trying to reach.

 They have strong team leadership. Strong teams are led by someone with good leadership skills and not just technical competence, who cares about team members and can institute and maintain the conditions for teamwork. Team leaders also directly intervene to enact teamwork processes, provide situation updates, set expectations, solicit ideas and observations from team members and seek out opportunities to reinforce effective teamwork. It is also important that team leaders be willing to seek feedback and self-correct first to establish an environment in which others feel safe to do the same. They should also provide behavior-oriented, rather that person-oriented feedback that focuses on solutions, and voice satisfaction at improvements.

 They engage in cycles of pre-brief, performance and debrief. This feedback to each other and as a team enables members to establish and revise team goals and plans, differentiate between higher and lower priorities and anticipate and/or review issues. This process also allows for a periodic diagnosis of the team's effectiveness, from results and processes to morale and energy.

 They develop a strong sense of the "collective" in terms of trust, effective conflict resolution, teamness and confidence. This means they have a strong sense of team orientation, trust other team members' intentions, and develop both confidence in and capacity for collective efficacy.

 They are "workload sponges" that can tolerate stress better, provide back-up behaviors to compensate for spikes in workload, and shift to implicit coordination when communication is inhibited.

 They set expectations well (and are managed). Setting expectations provides the foundation for individual and team corrections, increased shared understanding and awareness and increased satisfaction.

 They engage in "rhythms" of performance. This means they manage time well and prepared for regular events such as fiscal quarters. Dr. Salas also noted that teams tend to kick into gear at the mid-point of any timeline they are given, so if teams have three months to complete a project, they will begin to execute at a month and a half.

 They manage and optimize performance outcomes. They have fewer errors, communicate often enough to ensure that fellow members have the information they need to contribute, make better decisions, and have a greater chance of mission success.

Dr. Salas closed by noting that teamwork continues to be a burgeoning field. The good news is, people and teams can learn to operate more effectively together. In fact, his work with a variety of military, NASA, health and government teams all point to the fact that team training can account for a 20 percent difference in team performance.

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