In their influential review article titled “Enhancing the Effectiveness of Work Groups and Teams”, organizational psychologists Steve Kozlowski and Daniel Ilgen comprehensively defined a team as:
- “two or more individuals who
- socially interact (face-to-face or, increasingly, virtually)
- possess one or more common goals
- are brought together to perform organizationally relevant tasks
- exhibit interdependencies with respect to workflow, goals, and outcomes
- have different roles and responsibilities, and
- are together embedded in an encompassing organizational system, with boundaries and linkages to the broader system context and task environment” (Kozlowski & Ilgen, 2006).
It is true that much modern-day work cannot be done without teams, and that a collective can be more effective than the sum of work from individuals (Salas et al., 2018). However, former business school professor Scott Tannenbaum and industrial organizational psychologist Eduardo Salas, authors of Teams That Work: The Seven Drivers of Team Effectiveness (2020a), say “let’s be really clear – teams are not a panacea. Not all work should be performed in teams… When a team is asked to do something that would be better handled by an individual, the experience is likely to be bad, the results are likely to be suboptimal, and people will incorrectly assume that teams don’t work” (Tannenbaum & Salas, 2020b).
Forming a team: Our recommendations for action
Before forming a new team, ask yourself:
- Could the work be completed by one person with appropriate expertise or even two people working independently?
- If the task requires two people, could their contributions be completed sequentially?
If the answer to these questions is yes, a formal team is not required. The work would be better performed individually or by loose associations of individuals rather than a formal team. The critical consideration is interdependence. A team only makes sense when the people involved need to work together simultaneously or rely on each other’s input and resources to perform their own tasks effectively.
A word of caution: poor team experiences can sour employees’ opinions about teamwork in general and affect their willingness to participate in future teams (Tannenbaum & Salas, 2020b). This makes sense as psychological research shows that shared experiences are amplified (Boothby et al., 2014). In a group, good feels better and bad feels worse. So, use teams only when they’re genuinely needed, and if you are willing to give them the time, autonomy and resources needed to succeed (Tannenbaum & Salas, 2020b).
- Boothby, E. J., Clark, M. S., & Bargh, J. A. (2014). Shared experiences are amplified. Psychol Sci, 25(12), 2209-2216. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614551162
- Kozlowski, S. W., & Ilgen, D. R. (2006). Enhancing the Effectiveness of Work Groups and Teams. Psychol Sci Public Interest, 7(3), 77-124. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1529-1006.2006.00030.x
- Salas, E., Reyes, D. L., & McDaniel, S. H. (2018). The science of teamwork: Progress, reflections, and the road ahead. Am Psychol, 73(4), 593-600. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000334
- Tannenbaum, S., & Salas, E. (2020a). Teams That Work: The Seven Drivers of Team Effectiveness. Oxford University Press.
- Tannenbaum, S., & Salas, E. (2020b). Teamwork myths: what leaders need to know. Leader to Leader, 2020(98), 58-64. https://doi.org/10.1002/ltl.20518