Create an effective team
Why do certain teams perform so much better than others? The issue matters not only for business teams; military teams must perform well in combat and emergency medical teams that operate more effectively can save more lives.
One popular, commercially available test created by Meredith Belbin claims that successful teams consist of up to nine key roles with names such as ‘resource investigator’ and ‘monitor evaluator’. However, rigorous research has been intensely critical of this bestselling tool.
Investigators led by UCL professor of psychology Adrian Furnham concluded that Belbin’s ‘test as it is designed does not yield reliable… scores that are related in the way the theory suggests’.
Separately, researchers led by the University of Strathclyde’s Stephen Fisher established that Belbin’s test was ‘extensively employed but psychometrically unsound’. In other words, it should not be considered a useful psychometric test. Thankfully, subsequent research has successfully identified other tools and behaviours that predict high performance.
Early studies quickly revealed that a team’s composition was relatively unimportant in determining team performance. Factors such as number of participants, diversity of skills and employees’ preference for team versus individual work do not in the main affect performance.
Instead, researchers led by Michael Campion at Purdue University identified that certain team behaviours did predict team performance. For instance, workload sharing – the extent to which team members do their fair share – matters greatly.
So, too, does communication (measured by agreement with questionnaire statements such as ‘members of my team are very willing to share information with other team members about our work’) and social support (assessed by agreement with statements such as ‘my team increases my opportunities for positive social interaction’).
Critics may argue that research on high team performance generates mostly obvious results. However, some findings are more counterintuitive. For example, Campion’s research group found that participation in decision-making – measured by agreement with statements such as ‘I have a real say in how the team carries out its work’ – was of only minor importance for team performance. Teams that are simply instructed what to do can in certain circumstances still achieve strong results.
Psychological questionnaires can usefully identify strengths and areas of concern within teams. However, data has shown that team managers’ estimates of team characteristics tend to be less predictive of team performance than employees’ estimates of the same characteristics. Managers often overestimate their own leadership abilities and underestimate problems in their teams that directly affect employees.
To gauge a team’s strengths and weaknesses, then, seek the views of individual team members rather than its manager.
Recent research led by Christina Lacerenza at the University of Colorado Boulder points to the importance of role clarity: having a shared understanding among team members about the way that work should be performed.
However, role clarity does not imply that responsibilities and tasks should be assigned only once and remain unchanging. For example, team members may reach a common understanding about circumstances under which individuals must behave flexibly and take on further tasks.
Team managers who focus too much on team performance may paradoxically reduce the maximum level of performance.
Data collected by management scientist Niranjan Janardhanan and his colleagues showed that team members’ collective motivation to develop their knowledge and master new skills was a better predictor of overall team performance than simply having a desire to perform well.
Managers may therefore achieve better results by emphasising both the need for team performance and that the work should be an opportunity for individuals to develop their skills and grow.
One important technique for improving team performance is debriefing – sometimes called ‘after-action reviews’ in the US Army and the UK’s National Health Service, for example.
In a guided discussion, team members periodically reflect on a specific project or small number of related pieces of work rather than on general performance. By discussing both positive behaviours that helped the team’s success as well as negative behaviours that hindered it, the aim is to identify lessons in order to improve future performance.
Team debriefings do not always achieve their aims. Often, discussions turn away from learning lessons and onto judging individuals and assigning blame. However, when debriefings are structured and run effectively – by an external facilitator, for example, who was not a member of the team – data analysis suggest that debriefs improve performance by approximately 25%.
In practical terms then, debriefing is a relatively inexpensive intervention that can deliver significant benefits.
Author: Dr Rob Yeung is a chartered psychologist and coach at consulting firm Talentspace
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This article was first published in AB magazine December 2022