Teams Achieve Greater Results Than Individuals, Except When They Don’t

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When do teams get better results than individuals?

Conventional wisdom tells us that teams outperform individuals. This is generally true, but only when the conditions are right.

I recently facilitated a team exercise called “Lost at Sea”. The exercise is geared toward improving collaboration, problem solving and decision making.  In this activity groups of 4-8 people are asked to imagine they are on an ocean voyage. In the middle of the Atlantic the ship sinks. They salvage a life raft, a box of matches and 15 additional items. The goal is to prioritize 15 items from most to least important. The items are ranked first individually and then as a team. The rankings are then compared to those of a group of experts from the Coast Guard.

Based on theory and on previous times I have facilitated this exercise, the groups’ rankings should have been closer to the Coast Guard rankings than the individual rankings were. But that did not happen. In at least half the groups, individual rankings were closer to those of the Coast Guard.

At first I was surprised. Then as I thought through the environment and conditions needed for high-performing teams it became clearer why the groups in this training did not perform as well as expected. I identified five conditions that must be met for teams to outperform individuals:

What are the conditions required for teams to achieve better results?

  1. It must be baseball team work. Let’s use sports as a metaphor for why some work is more effectively performed by individuals than by teams. A baseball team depends on other team members to be successful. They are dependent on each other working together to score. Pitchers, batters, fielders, and coaches all must coordinate to win.

Golf teams, on the other hand, are made of independent individual contributors. They don’t have any reliance on one another to do their jobs. At the end of the day, the individual scores are simply added up to get the team score.

Some work is simply better suited for individuals rather than teams.

  1. There must be a high level of psychological safety and trust. Individuals must feel comfortable sharing ideas and being open without being punished or having negative consequences. There must be a comfort level with having constructive dialog and debate.Trust is a core foundation of an effective team. If individual team members don’t trust each other, there will likely be a lack of cooperation and communication. That does not mean conflict shouldn’t be there. Healthy conflict is part of team dynamics and can help achieve better outcomes. Fear of conflict only preserves artificial harmony and stifles truly productive conflict within the team. Psychological safety and trust is required to engage in healthy conflict.
  2. Team members need to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. In a collaborative environment, it is essential that team members understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses.By understanding the strengths of each team member, you can pair them with tasks that are best suited to their skillsets and promote a more efficient and effective collaborative environment. In short, everyone knows who to depend on for what.

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  1. Diversity of all types – age, ethnicity, gender, and thought Research has shown that diversity leads to better results but only when there is enough trust to engage in passionate discussion. And trust is tricky. We know that trust is critical to a high-performing team. However, we are hardwired to trust those who are like us. It is a survival mechanism ingrained in human naturePeople tend to cluster together based on similarities. These similarities can lead to Echo Chambers because people only hear reinforced perspectives and an “Us vs. Them” mindset develops, leading to unhealthy conflict instead of collaboration. For diversity to truly improve performance, people must be aware of these tendencies and make a conscious effort to build trust and interact with those who are different from them. Only then can the benefits of diversity be realized.
  2. Equal contribution from everyone – Most people want to contribute, but they need the chance (and sometimes encouragement) to do so.

“Silence usually means people are holding back,” says Joseph Grenny, the coauthor of Crucial Conversations.

For meetings (and team collaboration) to be successful, there needs to be relatively equal contribution from all involved. When people stay silent, too few control the conversation and dysfunctional behaviors like groupthink, passive-aggressiveness, and disengagement happen. If you want to encourage people to share their ideas, you need to provide them the space to do so.

Sharing can be encouraged by asking questions and giving everyone a chance to speak. You may also want to consider setting up small breakout groups so that everyone has a chance to contribute. By encouraging participation by everyone, you’ll be able to create more successful meetings and team collaboration.

Why did the Lost at Sea “teams” fail to get better results than the individuals?

Let’s go back to the “Lost at Sea” team exercise. Why did many of the “teams” participating in this activity fail to achieve better results than the individuals?

Only two of the five criteria outlined above were present. The other three were missing. It was baseball team work (work designed for a team), and there was diversity, but without the other conditions being met, individuals outperformed the group.

Because the groups lacked trust, did not know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and did not all contribute equally, they resorted to ineffective problem solving and decision-making approaches like:

  • Whoever talked the loudest got their idea chosen
  • Voting (majority rules)
  • Compromise (taking turns with people getting their way).

The bottom line: the participants in this activity were a group – not a team.

A lesson for leaders

This example provides a lesson for leaders who want to create high performing teams.

  1. Know if it Is golf work or a baseball team work. Ask yourself, “Can the work be completed better by an individual or by a team”? To answer that questions, you need to determine if there are interdependencies. Is the work dependent on individuals, departments or teams working together to hit that goal?A salesperson may be able to achieve their goal with little interaction with other salespeople. They may however need to work closely with marketing, finance, and operations to be successful. A restaurant franchise owner does not need to work with other store owners for each to be successful, but the people working at the restaurant will need to work together to order, cook and deliver the food.
  2. Give your team time to get to know each other. There needs to be intentionality around this especially in a remote or hybrid environment where the traditional break room and “water cooler talk” just doesn’t happen Team members must be given opportunities to connect.It is important to have regular team meetings with video cameras on. Allow a few minutes at the beginning for people to catch up before jumping into the agenda. Encourage people to have one-on-one “coffee” meetings with a different team member each week using a video platform. You might even have virtual lunch meetings by having food delivered to each employee’s location. Be creative.
  3. Focus on developing psychological safety and trust – For doing this we recommend a tool called the employee passion survey. The assessment helps creates a trust-based culture of passionate employees focused on building trust-based relationships with each other and with your customers. It helps leaders develop a safe place where people can speak out and share ideas without consequences or getting criticized and ignored. This safety net will increase engagement, creativity, process improvements, and profitability.
  4. Help team members understand strengths and weaknesses – It is important that not only leaders understand the strengths and weaknesses of each team member but that team members understand the strengths and weaknesses of their peers as well.

Everything DiSC is an engaging and straightforward application for not only understanding strengths and weaknesses but also moving from judging to valuing the unique approach and contributions that each individual brings to the team.

  1. Insist on dialog and debate – As a former boss used to say, “Full potential is never realized in a serene environment. As a leader it is your responsibility to insist that there is dialogue and debate before making a decision or taking a course of action. Sometimes you may even need to assign a devil’s advocate to question assumptions. To be sure everyone contributes you may need to call on people who have not spoken to get their input and ideas. Remember silence doesn’t mean agreement or lack of ideas, it usually means something is getting in the way of contributing.

Remember, when creating a culture of teamwork, it is important to recognize that the goal is not efficiency but effectiveness in the form of superior results.

If you want to be sure your teams are getting better results or want to make sure your teams work better than individuals, we are here to help. Contact us for more information.

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POSTED ON: Team Development