Teamwork in the workplace: The science behind teams and collaboration

By Evan Bleier
The Brief
There’s more to teamwork than trust falls and ice breakers. In fact, there’s a science behind it, and it’s worth your time to study up.    

Since 1980 there have only been nine NBA teams that have won the league finals. There are 30 teams in the NBA. That means that 30 percent of the teams have won 100 percent of the championships. The reason? The Lakers, Celtics, Bulls, Heat, 76ers, Rockets, Mavericks, Spurs and Pistons have had some luck, sure, but they’ve also mastered the art of team building.

Whether you’re an entrepreneur or an architect, running a startup or a Fortune500 you know effective and efficient teamwork habits are essential to your organization’s long- and short-term success. Thing is, great teams don’t just happen by accident. And if you think building a winning team is more art than science, think again.

The scientific study of teams is a developing field but has grown enough in popularity, at least in the rather meta-sounding area of “science of team science” (in other words, the study of how team-driven science works), to support an entire conference —the Annual International Science of Team Science (SciTS)—now in its fifth year. Team scientists examine how groups organize, communicate and work together to achieve scientific milestones that would otherwise not have been attainable.

Understanding how teams work shouldn’t be the purview of science nerds alone. In fact, it mustn’t be. Collaboration and innovation go hand in hand; being able to take someone else’s perspective may even make us smarter and leads to more creative solutions for your organization. To that end, here are five habits of highly successful teams that might help you make some breakthroughs of your own:

1. Create cohesion. Team members don’t have to be best friends, but they do have to be able to work together without conflict. There is bound to be some competition and rivalry in almost any group, but successful team members are able to push those issues to the back-burner and treat one another with respect.

2. Develop a common cause mind-set. If everyone is working towards and focused on achieving the same goal, the odds are far better that the goal will be met. “They call it familiarity for the greatest good,” psychologist and former NBA player development senior director Yolanda Bruce Brooks told the Dallas Morning News. “You know you won’t stand alone and achieve goals. Everyone is there to support you.”

3. Emphasize communication. Researchers at MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory have found the “it factor” that makes successful teams gel is communication. Teams that click have higher levels of “energy and engagement outside formal meetings.” Encourage team members to take coffee breaks together, have water cooler conversations and chat away from their workstations.

4. Assign tasks intelligently. In a study about team-based incentives, researchers found that while incentives did improve overall team performance, it was only because efficient workers were given the incentivised tasks. Match up team members with tasks they can do well and then let them go to work.

5. Share both credit and blame. It turns out that the interplay between credit and blame in a group can influence organizational behavior as well as be influenced by it. The handling of wins and losses within a team can “be a powerful, positive force for organizational evolution and change,” according to workplace consultant and organizational psychologist Ben Dattner. Acknowledge accomplishments within the group, but avoid assigning individual blame when the group experiences failure. 

Evan Bleier is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Maxim, Huffington Post and United Press International. He is a frequent contributor to this blog.
RelSci helps create competitive advantage for organizations through a crucial yet vastly underutilized asset: relationship capital with influential decision makers. 

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