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Making Teams Work

Against all odds, the U.S. Olympic Hockey Team stole the gold medal at the 1980 Winter games in Lake Placid, New York. The squad of amateurs knocked off Finland in the finals, clasping the gold and earning the title "The Miracle on Ice."

Eighteen years later, audiences expected even greater results from the first-ever U.S. hockey team composed of National Hockey League athletes. Spectators were dumbfounded at the Nagano, Japan, Games when the team failed to earn a medal.

Somewhat ironic. The U.S. team that no one took seriously in 1980 won first place while the U.S. team everyone bet on in 1998 didn't place at all. What made the difference? Teamwork. The chemistry and composition of the 1980 U.S. hockey team gave them the momentum needed to take home the gold.

Although most of us won't ever compete on Olympic ice, we too are members of teams. At birth we enter a family team. We then spend a large portion of our lives participating in athletic, church, professional, and community teams. Life's wins and losses are often determined by the makeup and performance of these teams. The following strategies are designed to give working teams a competitive edge in the professional arena.


Team autonomy is crucial. Teams that are closely monitored by an external leader often have little control over what they do and how they do it. Highly autonomous teams have minimal external influence. Their members determine the what, why, and how of completing tasks. Often, team designers suggest increasing a team's autonomy when problems arise. However, this is not always the best solution; increasing autonomy can sometimes do more harm than good. The optimal level of autonomy depends on the type of work the team is performing.

Increased autonomy is helpful for teams that spend most of their time doing creative, intellectual tasks. Autonomy allows a team to adapt to its changing environment and develop unique solutions to ill-defined problems. In contrast, low autonomy is optimal for teams that work on mundane, physical tasks. For these teams, autonomy is a hindrance because it precludes efficiency and standardization of routine work.

Matching autonomy with the right kind of tasks can enhance team performance. High autonomy is best for teams doing creative work. Low autonomy is best for teams performing routine work.

Connect interdependence with team tasks.

Teams often choose very different methods for accomplishing work. Some teams choose to complete work mostly as individuals. Other teams form assembly lines. Still, others interact constantly and work as a collective group. These teams differ in their level of interdependence—the extent to which team members are required to work together and rely on one another. The best level of interdependence depends on team tasks.

Teams doing mostly routine work perform best as assembly lines. Team members learn simple tasks that they can perform with optimal efficiency. Consider how Toyota uses assembly line teams to build cars. These teams turn out high-quality, standardized products. In contrast, teams doing creative work function best when they have high levels of interdependence. Team members are able to adjust their inputs to fit with the demands of not only a dynamic environment but also with the inputs of other team members. For example, a customer service team performs optimally when its members spend a lot of time together and work cooperatively to meet the unique demands of clients.

The overall level of interdependence should fit the dominant tasks of the team. Moderate autonomy in the form of assembly lines is best for routine tasks. High autonomy in the form of ongoing interaction is best for creative tasks. A team can also benefit by changing its approach for different tasks it performs. An assembly line might be best on days when redundant tasks are abundant, whereas group discussions and intense interactions should take place only for new or creative tasks.

Seek competent team players who fit together socially.

Not surprisingly, teams perform better when individual members are intelligent and hardworking. The inclusion of a single team member who is disagreeable or highly emotional has also been shown to harm teams. This has pushed many organizations to hire employees who will be good team players. However, when pushed to define what it means to be a team player, organizational leaders often respond that they want outgoing, social people. But do they really want an entire team of extraverts? Probably not.

The potential benefits of a team member's personality traits often depend on the traits of other team members. A team of all extraverts experiences internal battles for leadership and control. A team of no extraverts often lacks initiative and internal leadership. Research suggests that teams perform best when they consist of about half extraverts and half introverts. Team members should be chosen not only for their technical competence but also for their fit among other team members.

Develop healthy conflict within teams.

Should you argue with your spouse? This question draws some interesting responses. Some people say that conflict is inevitable, and people are harmed if they don't express it. Others respond that expressing conflict creates more conflict, which results in a dangerous, downward spiral. The real answer often lies in the type of conflict. Affective conflict, which is feeling or emotion based, is almost always detrimental. Cognitive conflict, which is idea or viewpoint based, is usually beneficial.

Affective conflict arises when members experience personality clashes and become angry. This type of conflict is always harmful, because it limits the sharing of information and opinions. Affective conflict also wastes time and energy. Teams perform best when they develop norms that do not allow team members to express this kind of conflict.

Cognitive conflict occurs when team members have different opinions about how work should be accomplished. This type of conflict can be beneficial, particularly for teams performing creative work. Task conflict helps teams explore various options and see issues from multiple perspectives. Teams with at least moderate levels of task conflict tend to evaluate more information and make better decisions.

A problem most teams face, however, is making sure that cognitive conflict does not turn into affective conflict. Difficulties arise when team members perceive issue-based conflict as personal attack. Trust among team players is the key to making sure this doesn't happen. Team members who trust one another are able to engage in cognitive conflict without wrongly assuming each other's motives. Trust is built by respecting competence, keeping commitments, and speaking truthfully. Effective discussion techniques such as keeping voices civil in tone and volume, avoiding value-laden statements, and eliminating emotional content help assure that cognitive conflict doesn't digress to affective conflict.

Make leadership matter.

Leadership approaches vary along two dimensions: autocratic–democratic and active–passive. Autocratic leaders are controlling and seek to impose their will on the team. Democratic leaders allow teams to make critical decisions and determine their own courses of action. Active leaders are highly engaged in the day-to-day activities of teams. Passive leaders serve more as resources and tend to be somewhat removed from the everyday activities of the team.

Autocratic leadership is generally not beneficial for the long-term success of teams. However, because democratic and passive leadership are sometimes confused as being identical, many organizations assume that active forms of leadership should also be discouraged. The key to team leadership success is to assure democratic influence and then move along the active–passive continuum as the environment and skills of the team change.

Active, democratic leadership is essential in the early phases of team development. Through the actions and example of a leader, team members learn how to lead themselves. They learn such skills as goal setting, communication, and problem solving. As team players master these skills, the leader's role becomes more passive. Leadership in day-to-day activities is no longer necessary, but the leader still plays an essential role in serving as a role model and linking the team to other parts of the organization.

Adopting teams does not mean a decreased emphasis on leadership. In fact, leadership becomes even more important. In most cases, the nature of appropriate influence becomes more democratic. Nevertheless, teams often fail when organizations move directly to passive forms of influence without first utilizing active leadership to build skills. The end goal may be to help the team lead itself, but the process of getting there requires the active involvement of a leader.

Winning Results

All teams should not be created equal. These five strategies for team success rely on the understanding that winning teams often take on different characteristics depending on their environment and objectives. Teams should be strategically designed to fit their surroundings and tasks. Once formed, teams should be encouraged to develop positive norms for conflict management and should have democratic leadership that will teach the skills necessary for team players to manage and lead themselves. Implementing these tactics will give teams the competitive advantage they need to beat the odds and succeed.


by Greg L. Stewart
illustrated by Gerald Rogers

Greg L. Stewart, associate professor of organizational behavior, joined the Marriott School faculty in 1999 after having taught at Vanderbilt University for six years. His areas of expertise include team management, facilitation and group process, human resource management, organizational behavior, and worker empowerment. He earned his BS in business administration from BYU in 1989 and his PhD in human resource management at Arizona State University in 1993. For more information about his research on work team structure and performance, email

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