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Why teamwork reduces performance to only an average level and how to avoid this

Janna van den Munckhof
Janna van den Munckhof 10 March 2015

Various media regularly feature stories that emphasize the importance of teamwork. A general response to this is that organizations start structuring their work in a team setup on a large scale. As a result, teamwork has more or less become the norm. Teamwork is hot, teamwork results in good employee satisfaction and leads to effectiveness. Sounds logical, since two heads are better than one. But is that always true? To what extent does teamwork really lead to a better performance? In retrospect, the results can often be quite disappointing. Why is that? And what can you do about it?

The phenomenon called synergy

It is possible of course that a team working together performs better than each individual team member working on their own. Such a team can be identified as being synergetic. The concept of ‘synergy’ can be divided into two varieties. Weak synergy is where groups perform better than the average level of performance in the group. Strong synergy is where groups jointly manage to outperform the best person in the group. The latter form of synergy does not actually occur in practice as often as we might wish. 

Last year, as part of my master's thesis on organizational sciences, I studied this in several organizations. I had groups of three to six people carry out both individual and group tasks. Only half the groups achieved strong synergy. This means that the other half did not fully utilize the group's potential. Since this effect occurred in various sectors, the success formula I'll be sharing below is something that is worth considering for your team(s). 

How can a group achieve synergy? Firstly, this calls for the proper composition of the team, enabling people to work together in a proper way. And that's exactly where things often already go wrong.

The generation gap that gets in the way of working together 

Do you recognize this situation? Someone brings up a TV show, or something else, from the old days, and you have no idea what they're talking about, for instance, when my parents are talking about Steptoe and Son. I now know that it was a series about a rag-and-bone business, but that's where my knowledge ends. I then can't relate at all to what they're saying. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as the 'generation gap'.

The presence of this gap is a really important factor that can be the reason why people either understand each other or don't, and can work together or can't. The greater the age difference between the group members, the greater the risk that they won't understand each other properly. The simple fact is that people of the same age understand each other better. They were born in the same era and can identify with the context of those days. As a result, they often communicate in the same way.  

Therefore, it is important that you take age into account when assembling teams. Too many different ages in a team increases the probability of the various group members not speaking each other's 'language' and, as a result, not working so well together.

Women as the connecting factor in the team

In addition to the age difference, there's also the difference between men and women. Women behave differently in groups than men. Generally, women are more sensitive than men and they are often better at reading other people's emotions. If many interests have to be represented in order to achieve a certain result, it may actually be useful to make sure that some women are involved since achieving group cohesion will be much easier if there is more sensitivity within the group. 

The negative aspect of social sensitivity is that it may detract from the task at hand. Groups that give considerable consideration to the group feeling sometimes give this priority over the actual task, as a result of which their performance doesn't always improve. 

In other words, the proper group composition in terms of age and gender is important in order to achieve good cooperation within a group. But it takes more to achieve synergy. Let's see how teams can truly make the difference. 

The cognitive distance that drives people apart  

If the joint team performance is better than that of the individual team members, the team will most likely consist of people who share the same conceptual and knowledge level. Such groups are capable of achieving a strong synergy, enabling them to perform better than the best individual team member.  

The truth of the matter is that, if the levels of knowledge of the various group members differ too much, there is a large cognitive distance. The greater the cognitive distance, the less well the group members will understand each other's solutions. If the knowledge levels are too far apart, this will be difficult to recognize for the individual team members. This often causes such groups to go for an average solution that many group members can agree to, instead of opting for the better solution ventured by the best person in the group. The group then actually brings down the level of performance of ‘the top performers’, lowering it to an average level. These groups often prefer consensus over the optimum solution in order to maintain a good atmosphere within the group and to represent everyone's interests. 

Since only a few groups manage to keep up with their top member's expertise, the difference in knowledge levels between the various group members should always be kept small. If there is only a minor difference between what people know, this might very well be the little bit extra that people are still willing to accept from each other. This will make the group performance soar, causing the individual group members to perform better than they would be capable of if they worked on their own.

A sense of indispensability in order to be able to make the difference

Once you've taken the above factors into account, you can come close to the optimum result. However, there is one point that team members should be aware of in order to be able to achieve synergy. And that is that one of the key success factors of working in groups is that the group members must have a realistic view of each other's - and their own - qualities.  

If you underestimate yourself, you won't make a difference for the group. If your group members underestimate you, they won't listen to you and you won't be able to make an optimum contribution to the group's performance. In short, your opinion of what you can do - combined with the opinions of others about your abilities - determines whether you can make a difference in a group. There must be a certain sense of indispensability in the group.

In order to achieve synergy, it is important that you know what the people in your team can do and that you acknowledge this to them. The better that a group can do this, the higher the group's performance level will be.

Assembling ‘considered’ teams

In short, assembling a good team is more difficult than it may seem. Unfortunately, in real life this means that there are only few groups that perform significantly better than the individuals that make up the group. However, this is not a reason to send all the individual team members back to working on their own. Teamwork makes employees feel satisfied and satisfied employees make a bigger effort for their employers. This means that teams do matter.

To make optimum use of teams, we have to consider their composition as regards such criteria as age, gender, and knowledge levels, and the group members need to have a realistic view of one another's skills. To employ people as effectively as possible, being aware of, and acknowledging, what they can do is important. Only once it is recognized and acknowledged what people can do, can they make use of this together.     

Of course, this speaks for the importance of talent management - where you are well aware of your staff's capacities. HR3P and 9-grid are good examples of systems that can help determine which group composition can make the difference in your organization. Map the resources that are available and then decide whether placing these people in one team is actually a good idea. In practice, it will hardly ever be that your real top performers bring down the level of the bulk of the group, but, more likely, the bulk will bring down your high potential's level of performance! You might want to consider whether it wouldn't be better to use such high potentials for individual tasks more often. An optimum combination of teamwork and individual work might very well make the difference.

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Janna van den Munckhof

HR project manager

+31 6 29 56 31 61

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