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The Science of Teams and Effective Collaboration

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The Science of Teams and Effective Collaboration


We have all had experiences working in teams. But how much do we really know about effective collaboration?

6 min read

“There are many opinions about what makes teams work. Some are well-grounded, most are pure conjecture” – Scott Tannenbaum & Eduardo Salas (2020b).

We have all had experiences working in teams, whether at school, college or in the workforce. But how much do we really know about how to collaborate effectively? If you’re an employee, you are expected to be a team player. Question: Were you ever taught how? If you’re a leader or manager, you may be lucky enough to have had some formal training about what makes teams work. But much advice is simplistic and, frankly, unreliable (Kruse, 2020).

So, when it comes to teamwork, most of us are “winging it” and hoping for the best with exactly the results you’d predict: sometimes great, but very often not-so-much. However, this needn’t be the case. It turns out that extensive research on teams has been conducted in the last 60 years, and “We now know what effective teams do, think, and feel” (Kozlowski & Ilgen, 2006; Salas et al., 2018).

The problem is that much of this research is buried in academic journals and is inaccessible to the public. The ‘secret sauce’ lies in the actionable tools and tips that emerge from this evidence. 

When it comes to teamwork, human behavior is nuanced. What we do in one situation is different from how we act in another. Our environment matters. The people around us play a role. The specifics of the tasks are a further influence. Variables galore. Welcome to the wonderfully messy world of teams research! Next, we will take a look at how key researchers in this field have made sense of this complexity and discuss the overarching themes in their findings.

Drivers of Team Success

Scott Tannenbaum, a former business school professor, and Eduardo Salas, an industrial-organizational psychologist, are the authors of Teams That Work (Tannenbaum & Salas, 2020a). They examined hundreds of individual studies and over 35 meta-analyses with two key questions in mind:

  • What drivers of team effectiveness show up consistently?
  • Which of these drivers would be actionable if team members and leaders were aware of them?

Tannenbaum and Salas identified seven drivers of team success: capability, cooperation, coordination, communication, cognition, coaching and conditions. In this blog post, we will consider a few of the capabilities that drive team effectiveness


Tannenbaum and Salas use the term capabilities to describe the mix of knowledge, skills and other attributes a team needs to possess. Some capabilities are specific to particular settings, such as patient handover protocols in health care settings, whereas others are transferable, such as:

  • Communication skills,
  • Giving and receiving feedback,
  • Conflict management, and
  • Interpersonal skills (Duncan, 2020)

Another attribute that consistently predicts team success is what Tannenbaum and Salas call “collective orientation”. People who are high in collective orientation think of the group first, whereas those high in individual orientation think of themselves (Driskell et al., 2010). The research shows not everyone needs to have a collective orientation, but the team needs enough people who do (Duncan, 2020).

Myth or Fact? Teamwork can overcome talent gaps

Technical (task) competence matters. For a team to be effective, team members need to be able to do their job, not just work together effectively. Research indicates that it is difficult, if not impossible, to overcome a lack of talent through teamwork.

Verdict: Myth.

Myth or Fact? Adding stars boosts team performance

According to Tannenbaum and Salas, “The relationship between talent, teamwork, and performance is actually a bit complex. For example, research shows that simply adding stars won’t always boost team performance. And you shouldn’t assume that individual excellence is enough unless you are working on tasks that require no coordination” (Tannenbaum & Salas, 2020b).

Just because top performers excel in task competence doesn’t mean they possess teamwork skills. So, adding stars may boost team performance, but it’s not a given.

Verdict: Myth.

Myth or Fact? Teamwork can be taught

Figure 1 summarizes what the science of teams indicates are important capabilities for team effectiveness. Many of these teamwork skills can be taught.

Verdict: Fact.

 Actionable Tips for Team Leaders

  • Don’t form a team by defaulting to whoever is available. Start with the goals, then identify the knowledge and skills needed to meet the objectives. Finally, compose the team to get the capability mix right. Remember to consider collective and individual orientation.
  • If there are gaps, determine if someone in the team can be trained up. If internal development isn’t feasible, two further options are temporary access to an expert, or recruiting new talent (Tannenbaum & Salas, 2020b).

Figure 1. Capabilities that are drivers of team effectiveness.

Is there a downside to collaboration? Read more in this post.