On Teams:  A Blog About Team Effectiveness

You get four chances to boost team performance

Written by Scott Tannenbaum on .

Some teams will succeed, some will struggle, and some will fail. But if your organization relies on teams, a question you should be asking is “how can we improve the success rate of our teams?”

In our work with NASA, we've developed a framework that specifies four potential "intervention" points where research shows that actions can be taken to increase the likelihood of team success. You can consider these intervention points as four chances to boost team effectiveness.

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So where are the best opportunities to boost teamwork and team performance in your organization?

The four intervention points in our framework are:

  • Selecting
  • Composing
  • Preparing
  • Sustaining

The first two address the question – who should be on the team? The latter two address the question – what can we do to develop the team?

Selecting Employees

Selecting refers to the initial hiring of people into your organization. Most employees will work on several teams while they are part of your organization. You hire them to work on team A, but they may also serve part-time on a project team and likely will move on to teams B and C in the future. So an early intervention point for boosting team effectiveness is hiring people with skills and attitudes that enable them to thrive in team environments. In the words of legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, "... a gifted player, or players, who are not team players, will ultimately hurt the team, whether it revolves around basketball or business."

A number of years ago, my colleagues Jan Cannon-Bowers, Eduardo Salas, Catherine Volpe and I wrote about the types of competencies people need to be successful in teams. Some of these competencies are unique to performing a specific type of team task or with certain team members. But others are what we referred to as "transportable" team competencies, because they can be used in a broad range of team settings. Since then, researchers such as Fred Morgeson, Matthew Reider, and Mike Campion have shown that selecting people who possess teamwork skills and knowledge can boost team performance. So, the first window for improving the success rate of your teams is to use your hiring practices to assemble a workforce that is generally interested in and capable of working effectively in teams.

Composing the Team

The second opportunity arises when composing teams. Composing refers to choosing the individuals who will be members of a specific team. Sometimes, teams are formed by picking the most qualified candidate for each role on the team. Alternatively, I see many project teams comprised of those individuals who are most readily "available."

Unfortunately, simply composing a team of the people who "can do their own job well" or who "have the most time" does not optimize team performance. The second chance to boost team effectiveness is to more carefully consider how the overall mix of potential team members will either help or hurt the team's effectiveness, before finalizing membership.

Prior research supports this as well. Suzanne Bell published a meta-analysis in the Journal of Applied Psychology which showed that the mix of team members' personality and ability can help predict team performance. And emerging research will further clarify how team composition drives teamwork. A couple of weeks ago, I participated in a National Research Council panel on individual and team assessment with team researchers Leslie DeChurch from Georgia Tech and Anita Woolley from Carnegie Mellon. Leslie shared some initial research on self-composing teams. Anita discussed her research on collective intelligence published in the journal Science, and shared some provocative thoughts about the mix of men and women in teams. And at last week's Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology Conference in Houston I noticed that several young researchers are beginning to study team composition. So interesting developments are in the works! I'll have a lot more to say about team composition in a future blog entry and in a book chapter being published this summer. For now I'll simply say that assembling the proper "mix" of team members can pay dividends.

Preparing the Team

The third window of opportunity involves Preparing teams or taking actions to help a team get ready to work together effectively. We want our teams to get off to a good start, and "preparing" refers to activities that occur early in a team's life cycle.

John Mathieu from the University of Connecticut, a leading researcher on team effectiveness (full disclosure – I am fortunate to collaborate regularly with John) and Tammy Rapp have shown that teams can lay the foundation for their success through the use of early planning activities. Their research reveals that teams that devote time to develop a team charter and establish high-quality performance strategies are more likely to demonstrate sustained success. Note that successful early "preparation" often involves a consideration of both teamwork and taskwork needs.

Another evidence-based approach for team preparation is team training. Ed Salas and his colleagues at UCF, along with Jay Goodwin and others from the Army Research Institute conducted a meta-analysis of over 2600 teams. They concluded that well-designed team training can enhance teamwork and ultimately, team performance.

Sustaining Team Effectiveness

Finally, the fourth window of opportunity is Sustaining team effectiveness. This refers to ensuring a team continues to learn, self-correct, and maintain their energy over time. For example, the military has a long history of taking teams through "after-action-reviews" or debriefs. Debriefs allow teams to self-correct by reflecting on recent experiences, extracting lessons learned, and developing forward looking action plans. Chris Cerasoli and I recently published a meta-analysis that reveals debriefs can boost team performance by an average of over 20%.

Food for Thought

I'm sure I'll revisit each of these four windows of opportunities in the future. For now, I'd like to leave you with the table below as food for thought. The right hand column lists a few techniques that are supported by the research. The middle column contains a few questions to help you identify the best opportunities to improve team performances.

Opportunity Key Questions Techniques

Do you attempt to hire people who are likely to thrive in team settings?

If so, how do you assess this?

Could you do a more effective job of selecting team players?

Competency based interviews, situational judgment tests,

When you form teams, how much do you consider the overall mix of team members vs. picking individual talent or defaulting to those who are available?

Which types of teams in your organization really need to have the right mix of people? Why?

Is there room for improvement in how you compose teams?

Team profiles

What do you currently do to help teams get off to a quick start?

What tools and techniques do you employ? Do you consistently provide teams with what they need to hit the ground running?

How else might you prepare teams to succeed?

Team charters, early planning, team training

Once your teams are underway, how do you help them sustain their effectiveness?

What do your teams do to self-correct and remain engaged?

Could you offer them additional structure or tools to help them do this more systematically?

Team debriefs and pulse checks

So where could you gain the greatest leverage for boosting team success in your organization? By enhancing the way you select, compose, prepare, or sustain teams?