Why do we need to work in teams and why do some teams perform better than others?

  • September 26, 2019
  • John Barclay

What’s the worst team you have ever belonged to and what was the best team you’ve ever been a part of?

Work in teams and be able to teamwork is so important. It’s coordinating and collaborating with people across boundaries of all kinds, for example, expertise, distance, time zone, to get work done. Think of a sports team. Sports teams work together; they win because they practice. Sports teams embody the definition of a team, the formal definition. It’s a stable, bounded, reasonably small group of people who are interdependent in achieving a shared outcome.

So why is it necessary to form a team in the first place?

According to Paul Polman, former CEO at Unilever said: “The issues we face today are so big and so challenging, it becomes quite clear we can’t do it alone, and so there is a certain humility in knowing you have to invite people in.”

Issues like climate change or refugee crisis cannot be solved by individuals, even by single countries or large companies, or single industry sectors.

That’s why we’re reaching out to teaming up to work on issues like for example the topic Smart Cities. Maybe you’ve seen some of the rhetoric: mixed-use designs, zero net energy buildings, smart mobility, green, livable cities.

Around the world in various locations, people have been teaming up to design and try to create such cities. It’s a massive innovation challenge that can only be solved by large teams.

So how to make sure those teams are successful and perform at their best?

Let’s look at the 2010 Copiapó mining accident. Thirty-three men, trapped 700 meters (2,300 ft) underground and 5 kilometers (3 mi) from the mine’s entrance via spiraling underground ramps, were rescued after 69 days.

Three separate drilling rig teams, nearly every Chilean government ministry, the United States’ NASA space agency, and a dozen corporations from around the world cooperated completing the rescue. On 13 October 2010, the men were winched to the surface one at a time, in a specially built capsule, as an estimated 1 billion people worldwide watched.

As the rescue process unfolded, they had lots of ideas, but they failed many times, they experimented and failed, but persevered, and went on forward and never gave up.

Every individual with their diverse expertise and different nationality were able to be humble and quite curious about what each other brings and they were willing to take risks to learn fast what might work.

17 days into this remarkable story, ideas came from everywhere. They came from André Sougarret, who is a brilliant mining engineer who was appointed by the government to lead the rescue. They came from NASA. They came from Chilean Special Forces. They came from volunteers around the world.

On the 17th day, they broke through to the place where the miners where hold and then for the next 53 days, that narrow lifeline would be the path where food and medicine and communication would travel, while aboveground, for 53 more days, they continued the teaming to find a way to create a much larger hole as well as design a capsule. On the 69th day, over 22 painstaking hours, they managed to pull the miners out one by one.

So how did they overcome professional culture clash?

When teaming works, leaders at all levels, have been crystal clear that they don’t have the answers.

We call this “situational humility.” It’s appropriate humility.

When you don’t know how to do it, but you are curious that creates a sense of psychological safety that allows you to take risks with strangers because, in reality, it’s hard to speak up. It’s hard to ask for help. It’s hard to offer an idea that might be a stupid idea. If you don’t know people very well, you need psychological safety to do that.

It’s hard to learn if you already know and unfortunately, we’re hardwired to think we know.

But there’s another barrier. Still, too many organisations give their employees a feeling of zero tolerance to failure. It is quite common in the mining industry that if you get hurt you will be fired. It’s awfully hard to team up if you always need to watch out that you do not make any mistakes.

A senior executive who has recently been hired by a very successful consumer product’s company to join the top management team has grave reservations about a planned takeover. New to the team, feeling like an outsider, everyone else is so enthusiastic about the plan, he doesn’t say anything.

This is an example of workplace silence. When a voice is necessary or would have been helpful but didn’t speak up.

Why does this happen? There is a simple explanation.

No-one wants to look ignorant, incompetent, intrusive or negative.

So, the easy formula in our professional world is:

Don’t want to look ignorant? Don’t ask questions.

Don’t want to look incompetent? Don’t admit weakness or mistake.

Don’t want to look intrusive? Don’t offer ideas.

And if you don’t want to look negative, don’t criticize the status quo.

This strategy works for self-protection. The psychologists call this “impression management,” We learn how to do this sometime in grade school. By the time we’re working adults, it’s all but second nature.

So how does this influence the success of a team?

Because every one of these moments, every time we withhold, we rob ourselves and our colleagues of small moments of learning, and we don’t innovate. We don’t come up with new ideas. We are so busy, unconsciously, for the most part, managing impressions that we don’t contribute to creating a better organisation.