In today’s society the idea of “teamwork”, “team spirit” or being a “team player” is frequently seen in job advertisements. Employers are aware of the success focussed teamwork can achieve, but if you were asked how a team operates and functions would you be able to give an informed answer? Psychologist Rainer Niermeyer explores the intricacies of teamwork and hopefully offer an insight into how important it can be within the workplace.
There are a number of different types of collaboration that can form a team. The one defining factor that links all of these together is the synergistic effect of the “whole being more than the sum of its parts” (Christian von Ehrenfels). The requirements in terms of speed, quality and complexity that employees need to fulfil these days are almost impossible to achieve through individual performance.
The success of teams relies on the combination of its members differing skills. Teamwork requires the integration of personal skills such as expertise, social competence and personality. Of course the functioning of a team is not always a smooth transition. Like most situations where people come together in groups, sooner or later conflicts will inevitably arise. Conflicts can occur on the factual level due to team members not agreeing on the objectives or different views exist concerning the approaches and methods used to achieve these goals. Conflicts at the relational level can also arise because of unclear roles and initial unsuccessful efforts to build relationships. However a successful team is able to identify these conflicts and act upon them accordingly and ultimately use them to their advantage.
It is also important to be aware of certain situations and weaknesses that can place teamwork at a disadvantage when compared with other methods of getting work done. For example in some decision making situations the cost-benefit ratio may be unfavourable and sometimes too much willingness to compromise can lead to a reduced chance of success. In order to combat these weaknesses there are a number of needs that need to be taken into account when deciding whether or not a team should be established. This can include having the eligible employees prepared and willing to cooperate and defining the organisational requirements of the team.
One of the most vital things to consider when working within a team is the need for goals. Without goals there can be no real teamwork. However it is important to be both visionary and realistic when formulating the team’s goals. The team must be able to clearly define its contribution to the greater whole as this not only motivates the team members but offers clarity in cases of doubt.
When assembling the team there are a number of things that need to be considered such as the ideal size. This is a question that cannot be accurately answered and this point can be illustrated perfectly with the tug of war phenomenon. The collective pull strength increases linearly for the ﬁrst seven people in the team. Beginning with the eighth person, the team‘s total strength increases to a lesser extent. From the eleventh person on, the team‘s total strength is actually reduced: In this case, uncoordinated “tugging” increasingly leads to friction losses, which reduce the team‘s total strength. This example shows how important the correct team size is. The team size should therefore ﬁrst and foremost depend on the extent of the team‘s task at hand. It makes little sense to allow everyone who‘d like to “join in” to be part of the team. It‘s not conducive to the success of the task to enlarge the group simply for reasons of politeness.
After the initial stages are over it is important the team continually develops and evolves. This process normally occurs through the four stages of forming, storming, norming and performing. These phases often merge seamlessly into one another and there is a certain degree of overlap. So in order to prevent the team from failing, enough space must be allotted to team development in all phases of this process - not only during the actual task performance.
In conclusion, whereas in the 1970’s visions of team-oriented companies prevailed, the recent success of focused teamwork clearly demonstrates its superiority compared to other forms of collaboration. Teams deliver various skill sets to quickly solve a complex problem. They‘re flexibly deployable, rapidly assembled, relatively easy to dissolve and provide a quick flow of information.
This article was a summary of the white paper ‘Leading Teams and Ensuring Success’, sponsored by Citrix. Author Rainer Niermeyer is a psychologist and heads a human resource division at Kienbaum as partner and member of the executive board. He specialises in developing personnel strategies and change processes as well as coaching.