2.1 Nature of Team Success
One of the prerequisites to studying and understanding teamwork is defining the nature of team
success. Existing research on groups and teams uses a variety of measures to study the
functioning of teams. Often, research examines these internal measures of team functioning and
tries to relate them to external measures of team success.
Measuring the success of teamwork can be difficult. The characteristics that team members and
leaders believe are important for success might not be the same characteristics that managers
believe are important (Levi & Slem, 1996). Team members focus on the internal operations of
the team; they look at the contributions that each member brings to the team and how well
members work together. Managers focus on the team’s impact on the organization; they are
concerned with results, not with how the team operates. There is a danger in using too simplistic
a view of success because it may focus on the wrong factors when trying to evaluate and
improve a team.
According to Hackman (1987), there are three primary definitions of team success, relating to the
task, social relations, and the individual. A successful team completes its task or reaches its
goals. While completing the task, team members develop social relations that help them work
together and maintain the team. Participation in teamwork is personally rewarding for the
individual because of the social support, the learning of new skills, or the rewards given by the
organization for participation.
This multiple definition of team success can be seen in action teams, such as fire crews.
Obviously, completing the task or putting out the fire is an important criterion of success.
However, it is also important that the crews maintain a good working relationship and the crew
members do not get injured in the process. Extinguishing the fire is important, but so is
preserving the ability of the team to fight future fires.
Completing the Task
From a management perspective, the obvious definition of team success is successful
performance on a task. A successful team performs the task better when compared to other ways
of organizing people to perform the same task. Although this definition may seem simple,
measuring the performance of teams can be difficult. For certain complex tasks, there may be no
alternatives to teamwork, making it impossible to compare team and individual outcomes. For
professional tasks requiring creativity or value judgments, there may be no clear ways to
determine which solutions are best (Orsburn, Moran, Musselwhite, Zenger, & Perrin, 1990). One
approach to such measurement problems is to determine whether the products or outputs of the
team are acceptable to the owners, customers, and team members. However, these three
perspectives may not agree with each other (Spreitzer, Cohen, & Ledford, 1999).
Completing a task successfully as a team is a measure of success, but project success is not a
demonstration of team success. Could the task have been completed without a team? What was
the benefit of using a team for performing the task? For a particular task, there is often little
advantage to using a team. In fact, there are disadvantages because time is “wasted” in
developing the team rather than focusing on the task. The advantages of using a team to perform
a task occur when unforeseen problems arise and when the team works together on future tasks.
If a project runs smoothly, people working individually under supervision often can perform the
necessary task. If a project encounters difficulties, however, the value of a team is demonstrated
by the ability of team members to use multiple perspectives to solve problems and motivate one
another during the difficult period. Although a team takes time to develop, as people learn to
work together they are better able to handle future projects. Many of the benefits of creating a
team occur over the long run rather than during the first project the team performs.
Developing Social Relations
Measuring the results of a team’s task performance does not completely capture the definition of
team success. A successful team performs its task and then is better able to perform the next
assigned task. This is the social relations, group maintenance, or viability aspect of teamwork
(Sundstrom, DeMeuse, & Futrell, 1990). An important value of teamwork is building the skills
and capabilities of the team and organization. For this to happen, the team must have good
internal social relations. Performing in the team should encourage participants to want to
continue working as a team in the future.
A team must develop social relations among its members. The social interactions necessary for
teamwork require group cohesion and good communication. Cohesion comes from the emotional
ties that team members have with one another. Good communication depends on understanding
and trust. When team members fail to develop good social relations, they do not communicate
well, have interpersonal problems that interfere with task performance, and are unable to reward
and motivate one another. This limits the ability of the team to continue to operate.
A good example of the problem created when there is too much focus on task performance and
too little on social relations is in the computer development team described by Kidder (1981).
The team successfully developed a new computer system. However, in the stress of competition
and time pressure, the team members burned themselves out. At the end of the project, everyone
was happy about the success, but the team members no longer wanted to work together. Was the
team a success? Yes, it completed its task, but it failed to develop social relations that
encouraged successful teamwork in the future. The capabilities of the team were lost at the end
of the project because of its exclusive focus on the task. The organization benefited by getting a
new computer system, but it did not improve its ability to use teams to successfully design
computer systems in the future. This type of project burnout is all too common in contemporary
Benefiting the Individual
The third aspect of team success concerns the individual. Participating in a team should be good
for the individual. Teamwork should help improve an individual’s social or interpersonal skills
(Katzenbach & Smith, 1993). In the workplace, being in a team with members with different
expertise or skills should broaden an employee’s knowledge and make him or her more aware of
other perspectives. In addition to personal development, participating in a team should further an
employee’s career. Successful contributions to a work team should be reflected in the
employee’s performance evaluations (O’Dell, 1989).
Working in teams helps satisfy people’s social and growth needs. People enjoy working in teams
because it increases the social and emotional support they receive. Teams can be great learning
experiences. Team members share their knowledge and expertise. As they learn how to be good
team members, they also develop communication and organizational skills.
Obviously, these personal benefits are more important to some people than to others. People vary
in their social needs; those low in social needs will be less rewarded by teamwork. Some people
already have good team work skills, whereas others are not interested in learning these skills.
Also, the social and learning benefits from teamwork primarily come from successful teams.
Working in dysfunctional teams may teach members only how to avoid working in teams in the
In addition to personal benefits, participating in a team should help an employee’s career in the
organization. Unfortunately, this often is not the case. Most organizations focus on managing
individuals rather than on managing teams. Even when most of an employee’s time is spent
collaborating in a team, the typical performance evaluation system focuses on what an individual
produces rather than on the success of the team. Being a good team player may go unrecognized,
while people who distinguish themselves and stand out are rewarded. This conflict between
individual and team success is a major unresolved problem for teamwork in many organizations.
(Approaches for dealing with this conflict are discussed in Chapter 16.)
2.2 Conditions for Team Success
The success of a team depends on four conditions (Figure 2.1). First, the team must have the
right people to perform the task. Second, the task must be suitable for teamwork. Third, the team
must combine its resources effectively to complete the task. Fourth, the organization must
provide a supportive context for the team.
Figure 2.1 Model of Team Interaction
A team’s performance depends on the qualities of the individuals performing the task. First, the
team must contain people with knowledge, skills, and abilities that match the task requirements.
However, the team’s members must also have the necessary group process skills to operate
effectively. This relates to the social skills and personalities of the team members. Although
there are many factors to consider, team leaders are often constrained in their personnel selection
Some teams fail because their members do not have the needed knowledge, skills, and abilities to
perform their tasks. Good teams have good team members. In their study of highly successful
groups, Bennis and Biederman (1997) determined that much of the success of these groups was
due to the leaders’ ability to recruit highly competent team members. High-performing leaders
are not afraid to hire people who are more skilled than they are themselves.
Part of creating an effective team is making sure it has the necessary diversity of knowledge and
skills. Interdisciplinary research teams are more productive than teams whose members have
similar backgrounds. Teams whose members have differences of opinion are more creative than
like-minded teams. Management teams whose members have different backgrounds are more
innovative than are homogeneous teams (Guzzo & Dickson, 1996). However, diversity alone is
not always a benefit to teams. The advantages of diversity are seen when members are both
highly skilled and committed to their team’s goals.
There is no guarantee that having many highly talented team members will lead to a high
performing team (Swaab, Schaerer, Anicich, Ronay & Galinsky, 2014). For example, in studies
of basketball and other sports teams, having many high performers can lead to conflict and
coordination problems that reduce performance compared to teams with fewer high performers.
In interdependent sports, such as soccer and basketball, performance can decrease when there are
too many high performing athletes, while in more independent sports like baseball, performance
increases with more high performing athletes. This is why team member selection should
consider both task related and teamwork related skills.
Teams require that team members have the skills to work together as a team. Interpersonal skills,
problem-solving skills, and teamwork skills may be used as selection criteria for team members,
may be taught to team members, or may be inducted through the use of facilitators (Carnevale,
Gainer, & Meltzer, 1990). Interpersonal skills are communication techniques, such as
interviewing, active listening, providing feedback, and negotiating. Problem-solving skills
improve the effectiveness of teams by providing approaches to analyzing problems and making
decisions. Teamwork skills promote an understanding of group processes and provide skills to
manage the group processes effectively.
Team members’ personalities relate to both their task and social skills (Morgeson, Reider &
Campion, 2005). Conscientious people are task and goal focused; they avoid social loafing and
are more likely to engage in cooperative team behavior. Extraversion is a benefit in a team
member because he or she likes to work with others and has better social and communication
skills. Agreeable individuals are more likely to work cooperatively with others (rather than
competitively), and they are better at resolving conflicts. Emotional stability in a person relates
to his or her ability to handle stress, maintain a positive perspective, and be cooperative and
Sometimes, the competency and personality of the weakest or strongest member is most
important (Mathieu, Tannenbaum, Donsbach & Alliger, 2014). For instance, certain technical or
leadership skills may be very important to the team’s success, and having a team member with
these skills is crucial. On the other side, having a very negative team member can lead to
dysfunctional group processes, hurt team morale and cohesion, and create conflict within the
team. A team member who socially loafs can create inequity problems that lower the motivation
of the entire team.
Although team composition is important, team leaders rarely have the information, time, or
ability to select an optimal team (Mathieu et al., 2014). Trade-offs need to be made in personnel
selection. When replacing a few team members, selection is often based on needed task skills,
rather than on teamwork skills. An alternative to focusing on team member selection is the use of
other team-building approaches, such as teamwork training, coaching and mentoring, after-action
reviews, or teamwork facilitation to develop a team’s ability to work effectively together.
Characteristics of the Task
Teams can be used to perform a variety of types of tasks, and tasks vary in how well suited they
are for teamwork. A good team task motivates team members and requires coordinated activity.
Teams require both appropriate tasks and organizational support for those tasks.
McGrath (1984) developed a system to describe the different types of tasks that teams perform,
based on four team goals—generate, choose, negotiate, and execute. Generation includes tasks
that focus on the creative generation of new ideas and tasks that develop plans for behavioral
action. Choosing deals with intellective tasks, such as problem solving, when there are correct
answers and decision-making tasks when there are no correct answers. Negotiation includes
tasks aimed at resolving conflicting viewpoints and mixed-motive tasks aimed at resolving
conflicts of interest. Execution refers to competitive tasks that help resolve conflicts of power
and performance tasks designed to make things or provide services.
McGrath’s system explains the different types of tasks a team actually performs. A team may
perform only one or two types of tasks. An example is a factory team that primarily performs a
physical task and might do some problem solving. Other types of teams may perform many
different types of tasks: An example is a project team that both designs and produces a product.
Understanding the range of tasks performed by a team is important in selecting and training team
Steiner (1972) created a system that explains the different ways that team members’ efforts can
be combined. The team’s work can be added together, limited by the last member, averaged,
selected, or combined in any way the team desires. Additive tasks combine team member
contributions together, such as when a team paints a house. The productivity of a team will
exceed that of the individual team member, but production is often less than the sum of
individuals working alone. Conjunctive tasks are not completed until all team members have
completed their parts. An example of this is assembly-line work. Although the worst-performing
member limits team performance, the team can compensate by providing support to the poor
performer. A compensatory task averages the input of team members to create a single solution,
while in a disjunctive task the team must generate a single solution that represents the team’s
product. The decisions of juries and problem solving by technical teams are examples of
disjunctive tasks. A team usually performs better than individuals in these types of tasks, but not
necessarily better than the best individual in the team. When the team is able to decide how it
wants to perform a task, the task is discretionary.
Steiner’s system shows that a team performs a variety of tasks that can be combined in different
ways, and is useful to explain the benefits of and problems with different ways of combining
tasks. For some types of tasks, organizing work into teams can create synergies that improve
performance over that of individuals. However, using teams may also reduce performance
because of coordination and motivation problems. (These performance losses are discussed in
more detail in Chapters 4 and 9.)
A team’s task should be aligned with the team’s goals and be motivating to the team members
(Hackman, 2002). The task should be an identifiable and meaningful piece of work that allows
team members to understand their contributions. Team members need to have the authority and
responsibility to exercise judgment about their work practices. The team needs regular and
trustworthy feedback about its performance so it can learn how to improve its operation. Finally,
the task requires the collective and coordinated efforts of the team members in order to be
The benefits of teamwork are realized only when teams are working on tasks that are suited for
teamwork and organizations are willing to support them. Table 2.1 presents a set of task and
organizational characteristics that are necessary conditions for the use of teams.
Having the right people and the right type of task does not guarantee success for a team. Team
members must be able to combine efforts successfully. Teams may not reach their potential if
their internal processes interfere with their success. Effective teams organize themselves to
perform tasks, develop social relations to support their operations, and assign leaders who can
provide direction and facilitate team operations.
Teams communicate in order to make decisions and perform tasks. For both these activities,
internal group processes may limit success. Teams may encounter problems with decision
making. Teams are imperfect decision makers and do not always fully use their collected
knowledge and skills. Team decisions may be disrupted by personal bias, distorted by the desire
to maintain good relationships, or impaired by the desire to make decisions quickly. Teams often
become prematurely committed to the first acceptable solution instead of taking a structured
approach to problem solving.
Table 2.1 When Are Teams Appropriate?
1. The work contains at least some skilled activities.
2. The team can form a meaningful unit with the organization, with clearly defined input
and output and stable boundaries.
3. Turnover in the team is minimal.
4. Valid performance evaluation systems exist for both the team and its members.
5. Timely feedback is possible.
6. The team is capable of measuring and controlling the important variances in the
7. The tasks are highly interdependent so members must work together.
8. Cross-training is supported by management.
9. Jobs can be designed to balance team and individual tasks.
SOURCE: Adapted from Davis, L., & Wacker, G. (1987). Job design. In G. Salvendy (Ed.), Handbook of human
factors (pp. 431–452). New York, NY: John Wiley.
Even when teams are organized for the sole purpose of performing certain tasks, group process
issues may have both positive and negative impacts on performance. Highly effective teams have
task-oriented goals and norms, and these teams outperform collections of individuals. But, things
can go wrong. A team can have unclear goals or norms that do not encourage performance of its
task. Working in a team can lead to reduced effort by individual members rather than
encouraging performance. (This problem, called social loafing, i ...
Purchase answer to see full