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Better Together

By Dan Gordon '85

Published Sep 14, 2018 8:00 AM

Building an effective team takes more than just bringing a group of people together and giving them a task.


Illustration by Andrea Ucini.

“Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.” Helen Keller’s declaration neatly summarizes the virtue of teams, whether in a social group, a classroom, a community setting or a workplace. UCLA Professor Corinne Bendersky says the value of teams and the factors that determine their success or failure apply generally. The principles are the same, whether the team is made up of employees at a Fortune 500 company brought together to complete a task, members of a church or synagogue embarking on a social-action project, or friends working out the logistics of a celebratory event.

UCLA Anderson School’s Bendersky has written and spoken extensively on team dynamics within organizations, which increasingly rely on teams for projects that benefit from a mix of expertise, perspectives, interests, strengths and resources. “Generally, tasks that are more complex, more novel and require support from multiple stakeholders, as well as a degree of interdependence, are most likely to benefit from teams,” says Bendersky, who also serves as faculty director of the Human Resources Round Table at UCLA.

Ideally, when people with complementary skill sets, personalities and points of view band together around a common purpose, the outcome will far exceed anything the individuals would have done alone. In the best cases, teamwork results in increased creativity, efficiency, motivation and commitment to implementing the desired outcome. Teams can also have social benefits, including greater bonding and enhanced morale.

But success is far from guaranteed. “Simply assembling a diverse group of people and giving them a task, a deadline and a budget [and] then saying ‘Go’ usually isn’t enough,” Bendersky says. “You have to invest time and resources in establishing team processes and developing relationships. That is often overlooked, and because of that, many teams fail to live up to their potential.”

How can a team avoid pitfalls and secure a winning result? Bendersky offers the following advice:

Set the Terms

Team endeavors must be guided by a shared understanding, not just of what the group will do, but also of how it will function. Bendersky recommends an initial discussion — and, as needed, additional dialogue along the way — to ensure that everyone is on the same page regarding the team’s goals; that team members understand each person’s role and contribution to the overall effort; and that team members establish interpersonal cooperation and trust and agree on logistical issues, such as when and how often the group will meet, how members will communicate outside of meetings, and how they will resolve any conflicts or disagreements.

Get to Know One Another

Chemistry and camaraderie can go a long way toward actualizing a team’s potential; poor social dynamics, on the other hand, can undermine efforts to capitalize on the diversity of thought, background and expertise among team members. While group cohesion is never a sure thing, Bendersky believes it’s wise to invest in discussions and activities that enable members to get to know one another better, particularly when coming together for the first time. “It’s important to have trusting relationships within the group, because that facilitates better communication and respect, which leads people to handle disagreements constructively and overcome any reticence about expressing dissenting opinions,” she says.

Get Everyone Invested

“Often, the team’s goal is clear in the minds of the group leaders, but if it isn’t explicitly articulated, it might not be understood by all of the team members,” Bendersky says. Although many teams benefit from a hierarchical decision-making structure, it’s advisable to ensure that all members are invested in the group’s success. “People want to feel like they’re important to the team, and that often comes from participating in decisions and having influence on the overall effort,” Bendersky says.

Encourage Opposing Views

Any complex task or creative process demands an exchange of ideas, some of which will prove better than others. But ample evidence suggests that even among teammates who get along well, there is a tendency to shy away from voicing disagreements. “When the majority of team members are coalescing around certain decisions that one or two members don’t agree with, those individuals might not speak up,” Bendersky says. She cites a variety of potential inhibiting factors, such as being overly polite or feeling that it’s easier to go along to get along.

Sometimes team members won’t assert a legitimate concern because they lack confidence in their opinion, or because they’re deferential to the group leader or to teammates with more relevant experience or knowledge. Finally, they might fear that others won’t listen to them or that speaking up could damage their personal relationships. Bendersky advocates developing norms or formalized processes that encourage team members to share disagreements constructively — leading to an exchange of opinions that improves the quality of decisions.

Promote Accountability

We all remember that group project in school wherein one or more members slacked off, leaving the more responsible teammates to do the bulk of the work while still sharing the glory (and grade). The academic term for this is social loafing, and it’s a phenomenon found in all settings. “If individual effort is not easily observable, some members of the team might not work as hard,” Bendersky says. “As a result, the team’s output is lower, or others end up having to do more and the people who didn’t contribute get credit, which creates internal resentment.” The best antidote: Make sure team members have clearly defined roles that promote accountability and that all support the team’s overall goal, which will increase their motivation to contribute.

Make Sure It’s Worth It

Not every task requires a team. “Teams aren’t free, or even particularly cheap,” Bendersky says. “There are costs associated with coordination and pulling people away from whatever else they might be doing. You have to make sure that bringing a diverse group of people together on a task is going to produce a better outcome than you could have achieved with an individual or an uncoordinated group of individuals working on that task, taking into account the costs.”