Author: Keaton A. Fletcher
Teams are ubiquitous in modern organizations; they are used to accomplish production, deliver healthcare, develop new products, provide customer service, execute military operations, and explore space. Increasingly, individuals are working in teams that are embedded in a more complex, networked, multiteam system. The prevalence of teams and multiteam systems in the modern workplace has spurred extensive research on the conditions, characteristics, and processes that contribute to high levels of team and multiteam system performance. In this short note, I describe key findings and their implications for building and developing effective teams.
Although definitions vary, work teams are typically defined as groups of two or more individuals who work together for the purpose of completing a task or organizational objective. Multi-team systems refer to teams of teams that work in coordinated fashion to accomplish complex organizational goals.
The voluminous research on teams can be usefully organized using a dynamic Input-Mediator-Outcome framework (e.g., Ilgen, Hollenbeck, Johnson, & Jundt, 2005). Inputs refer to the team member attributes (e.g., personality, skills, knowledge, preferences, etc.), task demands, available resources, and characteristics of the environment or context (e.g., supportive organization, isolated confined environment) available to the team. These inputs in turn affect the conditions in which team processes develop and unfold. During the process phase, teams develop shared knowledge and thoughts, experience different affect and motivational states, and develop strategies for accomplishing the task and managing their environment. Together, these processes and emergent states, collectively referred to as mediators, convert team inputs to outputs. Outputs include literal task outputs, like widgets, marketing campaigns, or research ideas; but can also include attitudinal and cognitive outcomes such as job and team satisfaction or learning. Moving into the next performance cycle, then, these outputs act as inputs, determining the new starting conditions for the team.
In the modern workplace, two inputs have received the greatest research attention: Who is in the team, and what is the context in which the team works? In a review paper, Goodwin and colleagues (2018) highlight findings that confirm the value of well-staffed teams: such teams perform better than would have been expected by simply adding together the individual’s contributions. This finding runs contrary to previous work (e.g., Bedwell et al, 2012) suggesting that teams lose productivity due to the additional coordination and communication demands, thus emphasizing the value of starting with the right people. One important aspect of team inputs concerns team member diversity. Although diversity is often thought of in terms of surface-level characteristics, such as sex, age, or race, findings by Bell and colleagues (2018) indicate that such characteristics have a less powerful impact on team performance than diversity of deep-level characteristics, such as values, experiences, and personality. In a related vein, teams often need members who bring different knowledge or competencies to the table, ensuring that the team can complete complex and dynamic tasks (Mathieu, Wolfson, & Park, 2018). Recognizing this, for example, a project sponsored by the U.S. Army developed a team optimal profiling system, to match individual abilities and traits to teams where the individual is most needed and would best fit (Donsbach et al., 2009).
The context in which a team works represents a second major input to team function and effectiveness. Context is a broad term that refers to the physical, psychological, social, and task factors that make up the environment in which the team works. In the healthcare setting for example, work teams in intensive care units tend to change membership frequently and often operate in stressful environments that are not physically conducive to strong teamwork (Ervin, Kahn, Cohen, & Weingart, 2018). However, primary care teams are typically characterized by relatively stable membership, routinized teamwork, and (compared to ICU teams) less exposure to death and dying (Fiscell & McDaniel, 2018). Yet both ICU teams and primary care teams, are typically comprised of individuals from a variety of disciplines and professions within medicine and healthcare. Further, the team context may also differ as a function of industry or task. For example, research teams who need to innovate and collaborate, often across great distances (Hall et al., 2018), differ greatly from astronaut teams who must work in isolated confined environments (e.g., Landon, Slack, & Barrett, 2018), or disaster response teams who need to coordinate with multiple other interprofessional teams in rapidly changing and often ambiguous settings (e.g., Power, 2018). Identifying the key resources and constraints of the context in which the team operates in tandem with team composition to affect team effectiveness and performance.
Team Processes and Emergent States
Team inputs alone rarely univocally determine team performance. Teams operate over space and time, allowing for the development of processes and emergent psychological states that mediate the input-outcome relationship. Teams engage in two types of behaviors: taskwork and teamwork. Taskwork is any behavior that focuses on the task itself (e.g., goal setting, performance, situation analysis) while teamwork is any behavior that focuses on the interpersonal relationships within the team (e.g., emotion and motivation management, conflict management; Marks et al., 2001). Although teamwork occurs at all points in a team’s life, taskwork is further differentiated into transition and action periods. Specifically, taskwork often occurs in cycles that begin with transition periods—times in which the team evaluates past performance and plans for future performance—and then shift into action periods—times in which the team executes their plans.
Researchers and practitioners must also move beyond understanding what teams do to begin understanding what team members think and feel. These emergent states arise within the team due to interpersonal interactions (Kozlowski & Chao, 2018). For example, as team members work together they develop a shared understanding of the task and environment, as well as a working understanding of who knows what within the team. These two cognitive emergent states, known as shared mental models and transactive memory systems, respectively, capture the development of common knowledge across team members over time. Shared mental models and transactive memory develop in a continuous fashion and change as the team continues to interact, and degrade when the team disbands. Another example of an emergent state is psychological safety (Edmondson, 1999)—a team climate in which individual members feel comfortable expressing their opinions and dissent without fear of ridicule or repercussions. In modern organizations which are increasingly flatter, and increasingly global (meaning team members may come from cultures with different levels of comfort with conflict and power distance), understanding how to create a strong sense of psychological safety is particularly important. Research findings suggest that higher levels of transformational leadership, interdependence among team members, role clarity, and support from peers can improve levels of psychological safety within teams (Frazier et al., 2017), further implying that interventions designed to highlight each individual’s unique role and how it fits within the team, while also selecting and training team members and leaders to improve levels of social support, can improve psychological safety, and ultimately team outcomes.
The most salient team outcome is team performance on some organizationally-valued criterion (e.g., number of homes sold, patients served, etc.). However, because teams operate over time and produce outcomes repeatedly over the life of the team, we must move beyond team performance to consider how teams affect the knowledge/beliefs, affective states, and health outcomes of team members. Much work has been done examining how teams can better learn from their experiences and performance episodes, through interventions like debriefing (Lacerenza, Marlow, Tannenbaum, & Salas, 2018). It is also important that team members experience a sense of satisfaction with, and commitment to their teammates, the team as a whole, and the organization (e.g., Kirkman & Shapiro, 2001). Although evidence is beginning to accumulate on how teams influence affect and work attitudes, relatively less is known about how team processes influence worker health outcomes (e.g., cardiovascular disease, stress, sleep). In the modern, increasingly health-conscious, world, it is imperative that researchers begin to understand these connections.
The ubiquity of teams is changing the human experience of work. Multi-team systems, in which work is accomplished by teams of teams organized in a variety of structures, places new demands on employees charged with coordinating their work within a team with progress made in other teams. In many cases, individuals may also belong to multiple teams. These developments are challenging scientists and practitioners to think differently about teams, and to address new questions related to the structures and processes that promote communication and coordination between teams while at the same time sustaining a strong culture of psychological safety, inter-team collaboration, and productivity.
The costs of failure to understand and identify the processes and obstacles involved in multi-team systems is vividly exemplified by experience of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Lockheed Martin Astronautics that sought to launch a $125-million orbiter to Mars. One team provided all calculations in metric units, while the other provided all calculations in the English system, resulting in a miscalculation that led to the disintegration of the probe in the atmosphere of Mars in 1998. Had either of these teams been working in isolation, this communication error would not have been an issue, but the project likely could not have succeeded. Had the multi-team system been better designed with a stronger culture, or understanding of the inputs, processes, and outcomes between and within the teams, perhaps this issue would have been mitigated. As the Mars orbiter example demonstrates, research to aid the design and identification of key processes in the development of effective multi-team systems has practical implications for the individual, the organization, and society.
- Team composition is more than skin deep. Surface level characteristics (e.g., gender) are generally not as important as deeper characteristics (e.g., attitudes) in effective teams.
- Context matters. There is no single most effective team structure; effective teams are those which can respond and adapt to the demands of their environment.
- Teams are more than the sum of their parts. Effective teams transform inputs to valued work outcomes through different processes and emergent psychological states that occur during action.
- Team membership is an experience that provides individuals with a lens through which events, interactions, and behaviors are understood. Team membership affects what team members know and how team members think (attitudes), feel (affect), and behave. These features work in unison to influence team performance.
- Teams change over time as a function of the events, interactions, and competencies that develop and occur within and across teams.
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