Does teamwork actually WORK?

I have always loved working in teams, and have seen teamwork as the best mode of working in most cases. First of all, I believe that working in a team spark more ideas and in doing so leads to a better end result. I also tend to believe that I get influenced by the other team members and therefore LEARN a lot more from teamwork than I do from working on my own. Don’t get me wrong; I CAN work alone and enjoy doing so, but my preferred mode of work is in teams in projects.

However, my inclination to working in teams has recently been heavily challenged. New research suggestst that a lot of companies are wasting serious money when employees work in groups. It seems that teamwork in the workplace is worse than its reputation. At least that seems to be the conclusion of PhD student Brian Due at the University of Copenhagen.  In a new research project he has found that conflicts, laziness and performance anxiety are factors that contributes to groupwork ending up in not delivering on its promise.

Due claims that the major pitfalls of teamwork is that we tend to forget what we’re about to say in the eagerness to hear the other suggestions, og we lose track by social processes and stories from personal lives. In modern society it seems we’ve been so absorbed by the the good sides of teamwork, that we have applied it uncritically. Performance anxiety,  power games, free riders/low level of participation, low ambitions and giving up too easily are other problem areas related to groupwork.

One premise for teamwork is that power is evenly distributed within the group, otherwise you won’t get the good ideas and solutions to surface. Good ideas and contribution to the solution is not necessarily linked to the position in the organizational hierarchy. This means that often somebody in power has to “step down” – at least in terms  of  formal power in the group context. Not all those “in power” are willing and able to do this. In practice formal power and positions in the organizations constitutes a challenge when it comes to practical solutions.

It seems that team work has been hyped and overexposed for years, and that companies have wasted a lot of time and money on this.

This conclusion is in line with that of a recent HBR article called “Why teams don’t work” by Diane Coutu. Coutu states that contrary to conventional wisdom, teams may be your worst option for tackling a challenging task. Problems with coordination, motivation, and competition can badly damage team performance.

However, Coutu states that you can increase the likelihood of success of your teams by setting the right conditions. For example:

•   Designate a “deviant.” Appoint a naysayer who will challenge the team’s desire for too much homogeneity (which stifles creativity).

•   Avoid double digits. Build teams of no more than nine people. Too many more, and the number of links between members becomes unmanageable.

•   Keep the team together. Established teams work more effectively than those whose composition changes constantly.

These conclusion also to be in line with Patrick Lenconi’s experience as expressed in his book, “Five Dysfunctions of a Team“, which I recommend:

  • Absence of Trust
  • Fear of Conflict
  • Lack of Commitment
  • Avoidance of Accountability … and…
  • Inattention to Results

So, my strong belief in teamwork has had a serious blow… or has it?

I still believe there is value in teamwork, and after all, we can seldom work in isolation, ca we. Therefore, I have come to believe that teamwork has to be learned in order to work an be effective, and that the context in which the team operates (isn’t it always?) has to foster teamwork.

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