We love success. It inspires us, it’s what draws us to films and drama series. It’s what gets us rewards in different parts of our lives. However, something that is often missed out of the success narrative is that it is, in fact, individual success that we love. Part of this is due to a contemporary Western attitude that valorises the individual and is materially geared towards celebrating and rewarding on an individual basis. This article discusses the paradox of teamwork.

We live in a time where life and identity have never been more individualised. Social media has made us shallow and narcissistic (Andreassen et al., 2017) and around the world, we have seen the rise of political figures who trade on their individual personalities and hero narratives.

“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit”

Harry S Truman

Why are teams important?

But this era is a paradoxical one because overcoming the challenges we face as a planet and the ambitions we hold as a human race (things such as climate change, over-population, settling on mars even) are all built on the activity of high-performance teams by necessity. Why? Because they are so complex, multi-faceted and large in scale that they can only be tackled through collaboration and interdependence.

In short, we live in a time where the recognition of the ever-increasing importance of authentic, effective, transformative teamwork is becoming a salient feature of any organisational context you care to think of, yet such teamwork will be practised by individuals who are arguably less inclined and equipped than any of their predecessors to productively engage in it.

Why is this and where do we begin to make sense of this strange paradox? Spoiler alert, I’m not going to solve this problem here, but I will attempt to break it down.

The fetishization of teams

Let’s begin with the contemporary – and slightly unhelpful – fetishization of teams and teamwork in the business zeitgeist. One of the largest ever global studies on organizational trends by Deloitte in 2016 cited a “shift from top-down hierarchy to a network of teams” as one of the principal trends among modern large organisations.

Josh Bershin of Forbes Magazine described the trend in modern organisations to being: “like ‘Hollywood Movies’ – people come together and bring their skills and abilities to projects and programs, they build and deliver the solution, and then many of them move on to the next ‘movie’ later.”

Teamwork structures the way in which business is done both in terms of strategic control and material practice. So, teamwork is on the rise, both literally and figuratively as a taken-for-granted feature of business.

But, one of the things that are evident from the references you will find to teamwork in reports like Deloitte’s is the assumption that once people have been assigned to a group you can call them a team, and because they are a team, and teams are the secret weapon of 21st-century capitalism, we just need to leave them to it and let the magic happen.

Team talk

One of the first misconceptions that Anne Donnellon (1996) looks to put to bed at the beginning of her book, Team Talk, is that there is clear disparity between the idealist visions of the power of teamwork and the very slow and very painful experience of anyone involved in organising, leading or participating in teams in reality. Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith (1993) are the authors of the widely cited work, The Wisdom of Teams, and they stress the lack of clarity in what a team really is and note that it is often used to describe a group rather than a team.

Introducing TINOS

All teams are groups but not all groups are teams. This is what I call a TINO….a team in name only and, as with any trend, many organisations are rushing to put the team label on anything that involves groups of people. Even Microsoft has called its new videoconferencing and communication platform Microsoft Teams…something that many people will be wearily aware of as we approach the first anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic

Caroline Criado Perez’s book, Invisible Women talks about the gender data gap where men are the universal norm for measuring everything from education to medicine, and employment and women are either left out of the data completely or not considered as a discrete population with their own distinct characteristics. You could say the same thing about teams.

Teams are everywhere these days, but lots of these teams are TINOs…teams in name only, so the data on those teams doesn’t show us the full picture. True teams are either missed completely, hidden, or misrepresented. This is the team data gap, the gap between teams in name only and true teams.

The data gap

This data gap casts a shadow because it means that we are drawing meaning from something that does not really represent the thing we want to understand, and therefore we fail to take advantage of its benefits. So, ironically, when politicians speak of global collaboration and uniting to combat our challenges, they do so paying lip service to teamwork.

I would argue that the coronavirus pandemic has revealed this data gap rather sharply. What most governments have done is close-off, protect and apportion blame elsewhere, characteristics of tribalism. Instead, collaboration, interdependence and willingness to take ownership of errors (characteristics of true teamwork) have been conspicuous in their absence. Yet you will hear a chorus of celebration of collaboration when there is some self-congratulation to be done.

The problem

This is where the problem lies: when successes are attributed to teamwork because that’s the trendy thing to do, but it hasn’t actually been effectively deployed, its importance and value is not captured and truly recognised. This means that the lessons that flow from them are diminished in scope and value.

Worse than that, when failures are attributed to teamwork, it may be precisely because teamwork didn’t exist that the failure occurred in the first place. Thus we condemn teamwork – rather than the lack of it – as the cause of failure.

Greater than the sum of its parts

There are more gaps in our understanding of teams than first meet the eye. We know that organisations are much more likely to perform well when their people work effectively as a team. Good teamwork creates synergy – where the combined effect of the team is greater than the sum of individual efforts.

Working together, a team can apply individual perspectives, experience, and skills to solve complex problems, creating new solutions and ideas that may be beyond the scope of any one individual. But recognising a true team is harder than it might seem at first.

On one hand, we are blocked by our preference to pick out the star players and reward them individually, and on the other hand, in our frenzy to celebrate good teamwork we can fail to take a moment to understand what it really is and what it looks like.

By Dr Andrew MacLaren, Assistant Professor, Marketing, Edinburgh Business School, Heriot-Watt University

References

Andreassen, C. S., Pallesen, S., & Griffiths, M. D. (2017). The relationship between addictive use of social media, narcissism, and self-esteem: Findings from a large national survey. Addictive behaviours, 64, 287-293.

Donnellon, A. (1996). Team talk: The power of language in team dynamics. Boston, MA: HBS Press.

Katzenbach, J. R. & Smith, D. K, (1993). The Wisdom of Teams. Boston, MA: HBS Press.

 

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