3 Things You Don't Understand About Teamwork

Since your earliest playground games, you've probably been working with peers in groups to accomplish more than you ever could alone. Humans are social animals who interact with each other from an early age, so you'd think that our ideas of how to get the most out of a team would develop effortlessly -- and correctly.

It may seem like teamwork is commonsense, but our everyday understandings of how to work optimally together can be wildly out of whack according to a new book by Harvard psychology professor, J. Richard Hackman called Collaborative Intelligence: Using Teams to Solve Hard Problems. In a recent teaser for the book posted on the HBR blog, Hackman gave six examples of common beliefs about teams that turn out to be entirely wrong. Here are three of the best:

  • Harmony helps. Smooth interaction among collaborators avoids time-wasting debates about how best to proceed. Actually: Quite the opposite, research shows. Conflict, when well managed and focused on a team's objectives, can generate more creative solutions than one sees in conflict-free groups. So long as it is about the work itself, disagreements can be good for a team.
  • It's good to mix it up. New members bring energy and fresh ideas to a team. Without them, members risk becoming complacent, inattentive to changes in the environment, and too forgiving of fellow members' misbehavior. Actually: The longer members stay together as an intact group, the better they do. As unreasonable as this may seem, the research evidence is unambiguous. Whether it is a basketball team or a string quartet, teams that stay together longer play together better.
  • Teamwork is magical. To harvest its many benefits, all one has to do is gather up some really talented people and tell them in general terms what is needed--the team will work out the details. Actually: It takes careful thought and no small about amount of preparation to stack the deck for success. The best leaders provide a clear statement of just what the team is to accomplish, and they make sure that the team has all the resources and supports it will need to succeed.
For a more in-depth discussion of these misconceptions, as well as the other three, check out the complete post. On BNET previously, we've covered the backlash against teams, including a post on the popular book titled I Hate People which claimed teamwork is for suckers and research out of Wharton and INSEAD which found teamwork can kill good ideas. Hackman's post sheds an interesting light on these sorts of anti-teamwork posts. Perhaps the issues with teamwork raised by those in favor of working solo would be alleviated if they only understood how teams should really work?

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(Image courtesy of Flickr user Luigi Mengato, CC 2.0)