Introducing the Science of Teamwork

By Nancy Davis Jun 17, 2013

CHICAGO--Psychologists have studied teamwork for decades, so turn to the science when trying to improve performance, Eduardo Salas urged.

Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) 2012 Michael R. Losey Research Award winner spoke to members of the Society’s Special Expertise Panels on Sunday.

The award honored his innovative research that helps managers foster teamwork in organizations, implement team training strategies and advance team effectiveness.

Many industries continue to invest money and resources in teamwork. There is still a lot of research going on because of the growing complexity of the tasks that teams do, he said. Salas cited aviation, health care, oil, sports and government organizations, including the military, as supporting his work.

In “Teamwork: What Matters in Practice,” the trustee chair and Pegasus professor of psychology at the University of Central Florida explained that academics distinguish between groups and teams. Teams have high task interdependency, experts in a variety of disciplines or fields, and a hierarchical organization. “It’s different than a brainstorming group.”

Salas identified these seven characteristics of teamwork:

Cooperation. “Good teams develop collective efficacy and have a strong team orientation,” he said; therefore, “a lot of organizations are looking at selection” criteria for team members.

Coordination. “Team members ask, ‘What can I do to help you?’ ”

Communication. There is an “information protocol and clarity.”

Cognition. “Good teams have clear roles, and team norms are clear,” Salas explained.

Coaching. “Team leaders promote and share ground rules.”

Conflict. “To resolve conflicts,” he said, “teams have to have psychological safety granted by the leaders.”

Conditions. Organizational norms and support should benefit teamwork.

Salas, who is a program director of the university’s Institute for Simulation and Training, said researchers have identified 170 models of teamwork in a multidisciplinary field where investigators study real teams and simulations. Ideally, he noted, good teams’ performance must be recognized—and their behavior reinforced—and they must have access to resources and information.

Salas outlined 10 attributes of high-performing teams:

Clear roles and responsibilities. Members understand one another’s roles and how they fit together.

Compelling purposes. These teams share goals and visions and have clear common purposes. Members are energized by shared missions and can evaluate the team’s status in terms of progress.

Coaches. Leaders promote, develop and reinforce positive behavior. They directly intervene to implement teamwork processes, provide situation updates and set expectations.

Mutual trust and familiarity. Team members manage conflict well, have strong team orientation, trust other members’ intentions and strongly believe in the team’s collective capability.

Team norms. These should be clear, known, appropriate and define “what is acceptable around here.”

Shared understanding. Team members often share mental models, anticipate one another’s thoughts and can coordinate without overt communication, Salas noted.

Self-correcting. Teams should “huddle” and “debrief” regularly to provide feedback.

Settled expectations. Team members know “who does what and why.”

Shared information. Their knowledge often includes “unique” information.

Supportive conditions. “You can have the best team in the world, but if the organization isn’t aligned to support teamwork, it doesn’t make any difference,” Salas concluded.

Nancy Davis is and editor of HR Magazine.


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Post a Job


Join us for the largest and best HR conference in the world, June 23-26, 2019 in Las Vegas.



Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect