Teams – Effective or not?


Over the past couple of decades there has been an increasing focus on teams and how critical they are to business success. The sheer amount of management and organisational development literature on this topic is overwhelming, with the majority claiming that teams are sacrosanct – the be all and end all. But are they?

Most of the literature claims that you need teams to be effective, for problem solving, for innovation, for maximising effectiveness and efficiency. The majority of organisational structures around the globe are built on the basis of teams, including my own. However, as the Harvard Business Review identifies in their book, “Building Better Teams’, a significant body of research conducted by J. Richard Hackman, the Edgar Pierce Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology at Harvard University, and a leading expert on teams, reveals that most people are notoriously inept at team work, and most don’t enjoy it. He goes so far as to say that for a lot of teams, most members can’t even agree who is in their team and what their purpose is – frightening findings.

The value of teams –Taught from a young age

We are taught from a young age about the value of working in teams, and of team work. For example, Hackman quotes a multiple choice question from a standardised fourth grade exam in Ohio. “When people work together to build a house, will the job probably a) get done faster, b) take longer to finish, or c) not get done.” The correct answer of course was a) get done faster. I also reflect on my days of secondary, undergraduate and postgraduate tertiary study where, increasingly I have noticed a greater prevalence of team-based projects and assignments. I know it’s not politically correct to admit it, but the thought of those makes me immediately anxious as I reflect on the majority of negative experiences I’ve had in these situations.

As Hackman explains, he doesn’t doubt the fact there is always the possibility that teams will produce something extraordinary. However, sadly, more often than not his research demonstrates that what most produce is mediocre. So he questions whether having a team is better than having no team at all.

We are judged on our ability to work in teams

In terms of suitability for roles and progression, we are judged quite heavily on our ability to contribute to teams and work effectively within teams. Being a HR Practitioner with 20 years experience, there are very few role descriptions and/or capability and competency frameworks I’ve seen (or developed) that do not include this as a critical responsibility or skill.

However, as Hackman points out, there are many things that individuals can do better at on their own and that there are occasions, particularly with projects requiring creativity, where collaboration can be a hindrance rather than a help, for example where they create ‘group think.’ He also gives an example of a team where being team player was so highly valued that, when planning for and embarking on a new project, individual team members did not put their concerns or opposing views forward for fear of disrupting the team, and being seen by others not to be team player. The team embarked on their new project, which failed due to the very reasons which individual team members did not share.

The role of the devil’s advocate

Whilst this highlights one of the downfalls of teamwork, it also demonstrates how true collaboration could have reached a better solution. More importantly, it demonstrates the importance, when working within teams, of speaking your mind and having the courage to put your ideas forward, even if you think those ideas may be negatively perceived. We need ‘naysayers’, ‘devils advocates’, ‘black hats’ – whatever you like to call them, for teams to be truly effective.

Fiona Stockwell