In the Talent Game, Teams Trump Individual Stars


By Christina Folz April 30, 2014

NASHVILLE, TENN.--Companies that do it well are more than 10 times as likely to reach high financial goals as those that don’t. It’s a key skill that is already familiar to the generation that will comprise the workplace of the future. It does not require more than average intelligence but cannot work without diversity—of background, thought and perspective.

“It” is collaboration, an essential ingredient to success and a focus of the third and final day of SHRM’s 2014 Talent Management Conference & Exposition. “If you want to get the best from people, it’s not about IQ or productivity,” said keynote speaker Margaret Heffernan. “It’s about the glue that’s happening between people.” Heffernan is an entrepreneur, CEO and author of A Bigger Prize: How We Can Do Better Than the Competition (PublicAffairs, 2014).

That wasn’t always clear to Heffernan, who tried early in her career to adopt the ruthless, competitive mindset that she had observed all around her—until she realized that it didn’t seem to be helping her drive results or engagement. “If you step back for a second, you realize that the results of this pervasive competitiveness are discouraging,” she said. In schools, there is an epidemic of cheating; in sports, doping has become pervasive; and in business, hyper-competitiveness has led to infighting and backstabbing.

What works better is to bring people together in diverse collaboration teams. There is a body of evidence indicating that groups are more productive than individuals working alone—even when those individuals are outstanding performers. In fact, according to MIT research, “the highest achieving teams didn’t have average higher IQ and weren’t characterized by super soloists,” Heffernan said. Rather, the best teams:

  • Are socially responsive to each other and pick up on one another’s cues and body language.
  • Collaborate and contribute more or less equally.
  • Operate in a climate of safety that encourages unfettered creativity and divergent thought. “That doesn’t happen in companies where people are afraid,” Heffernan said.
  • Provide unvarnished feedback. “You need everyone around you to be candid and participate,” she said. “You need colleagues to come prepared to argue and debate.”

Heffernan said that, while some people have questioned whether the collaborative mindset encourages slackers, she believes it’s just the opposite “Collaboration isn’t about chumminess,” she said. “It’s about owing each other your best.”

Many high-performing companies are now incorporating collaboration into their DNA. For example, Arup, a global structural engineering firm responsible for the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing and other innovative structures, has a culture of knowledge-sharing and collaboration. In addition, 40 percent of profits are given to all employees.

Such “high freedom” companies share a number of characteristics:

  • A culture of generosity, in which people view being asked for help as a compliment.
  • Managers who are fastidious about giving credit.
  • A highly diverse workforce.
  • Healthy work styles and the recognition that the brain is a piece of equipment that needs to be refreshed regularly.

“We’re at a moment of real sea change here,” Heffernan said. “We know we can do more together than we can in isolation. When we’re able to do that, we reach our highest potential.”

Creating a Collaborative, ‘Millennial’ Culture

In another session about how to “Millennialize” your organization, Brad Karsh, the president of JB Training Solutions in Chicago, pointed out that Generation Y is already highly skilled at collaboration. But more than any other age group, Millennials are accustomed to group school projects, sports teams, and other organized activities that draw on the strengths of diverse people working collaboratively. In fact, Karsh said, they often prize group success more highly than individual achievements.

Finally, speaker and author Joe Gerstandt underscored the importance of creating a collaborative culture where people feel safe enough to express honest opinions and dissent. Although companies succeed or fail based on the decisions they make, often they have no explicit process in place for how to make those decisions and how to handle conflict. That needs to change if we want to create organizations and teams that collaborate effectively. “Diversity of thought, experience and perspective is the engine that drives group creativity and decision-making,” said Gerstandt.

You can start by getting clear on how you make decisions and sharing that info with everyone involved in the process, Gerstandt advised. Encourage honesty. Try appointing a devil’s advocate if you’re trying to make people feel more comfortable accepting dissent.

If all else fails, you might try asking one of your new Millennial hires for help.

Christina Folz is the editor of HR Magazine.


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