How to Improve Teamwork

By Dori Meinert Jan 27, 2017
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​Effective collaboration is key to helping organizations achieve their goals. 

But creating and maintaining strong teams is easier said than done. There’s just too much work to do on a daily basis—deadlines to meet, reports to file, bosses to satisfy. Committees are frequently viewed as sucking up precious time, while generating few results. 

So how can teams boost their performance? 

Research on group dynamics shows that teams perform best when their members agree on rules related to goals, roles and norms, says Mario Moussa, who teaches business executives at Wharton School’s executive development program. Where is the team going? Who’s doing what? How should team members work with each other?

“Teams that spend time talking out those three things tend to do better,” says Moussa, co-author of Committed Teams: Three Steps to Inspiring Passion and Performance (John Wiley & Sons, 2016) with Madeline Boyer  and Derek Newberry. 

“As soon as people get together in any kind of group, they start putting rules together,” says Newberry, a business anthropologist and Wharton lecturer.

The highest-performing teams understand the importance of constructing those rules carefully and deliberately. 

“If they don’t, they might not get the kind of culture they want,” says Newberry, who advises corporate leaders on the human factors that drive organizational effectiveness.

[SHRM members-only Toolkit: Developing and Sustaining High Performance Work Teams]

According to the authors, the three steps to building better teams are: 

Commit to the goals, roles and norms for guiding the team’s direction. Do you have a shared vision? Choose specific goals with clear and measurable targets. Take into account the team members’ values. What will inspire them? What’s in it for them? 

Roles should be well-defined and should utilize the skills and interests of each person.

It’s also important to establish norms, which are the rules that help you manage communication, decision-making and conflict. Even when we think we understand, we misinterpret others’ intentions and fail to recognize our own assumptions about the way work should be done, the authors say.

Check alignment between the agreements that the team members made and what they are actually doing. “Because your team behaviors become habit, it can be really hard to see when things get out of alignment. You have to be a really good observer of your own culture,” Newberry says.

Enlisting the help of an outside onlooker could help you see the gaps between what your team members are saying and what they’re doing. Or appoint a team member to play devil’s advocate and ask the tough questions. But first, you must create a psychologically safe space so that team members feel it’s safe to speak their minds, he says. 

Two common biases frequently lead to teams getting off track. When a project is successful, teams seldom bother to investigate processes that might have produced negative results under slightly different circumstances. This is called “overvaluing outcomes.” Another common bias is “motivated blindness,” which occurs when team members don’t look for problems because their paychecks depend on a project’s completion. 

The solution? Search for evidence that disproves your beliefs to ensure that you are not letting your own interests cloud your judgment, the authors say.

Close the gap between what team members are saying and doing. To bring the team back into alignment with its goals, determine small, specific steps the team can take to get back on track. Carve out time to work on them, and be realistic about the obstacles you might encounter along the way, Moussa says. Highlight the positive impact the changes will have.   

Dori Meinert is senior writer/editor for HR Magazine.

Illustration by Laura Bruce for HR Magazine.

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