How important is teamwork in the workplace ?  A recent survey suggests that 86% of executives and subordinates cite the lack of collaboration and ineffective communications as the source of workplace failures.

Contemporary thinking about teamwork coincides with the evolution of large corporations during the last century and began with the Hawthorne studies during the 1920’s (and follow-up studies conducted in the 1930’s) at Hawthorne Works, a Western Electric Plant located in Cicero, IL, which demonstrated the positive aspects of teamwork in an organizational environment.

A team is defined as “a group of interdependent individuals who work together towards a common goal.”  The ideal size of teams is commonly believed to be six- (6) to eight- (8) members.  Basic requirements for teams to be effective are: (i) access to the needed resources to complete the task, and (ii) clearly defined roles, but other important team dynamics include (iii) open communications, (iv) rules to enhance project coordination, (v) cooperation, (vi) timely conflict resolution, and (vii) a high level of interdependence to maximize team trust, risk-taking, and performance.

While a strong team leader can stifle group performance, the effective management of team strategy, goals, and tasks is very important to the output of the team, which is often rated by the quality of what the team has produced, the fluidity of process, and the members’ experiences.

It turns out, commonly-sited advantages of teamwork, such as: (a) a health debate of competing ideas — which results in better problem-solving & solutions, (b) strengthened employee relationships, (c) improved employee motivation & learning, and (d) focused organizational energies are critical to an organization’s success.

During Jack Welch’s 20 year reign at General Electric CEO, revenues grew almost seven times, but an equally important legacy was that he built one of the world’s strongest executive talent pools.  Jack Welch, in fact, attributed his success to the power of teamwork in action saying “We’ve developed an incredibly talented team of people running our major businesses, and perhaps, more important, there’s a healthy sense of collegiality, mutual trust, and respect for performance that pervades the organization.”

This observation offers an alternative viewpoint to the importance of the strong leader and was reinforced by a study of the performance of GE and other Fortune 500 companies in 2000 by McKinsey & Company.  McKinsey associates identified three- (3) important dimensions of organizational performance: a common direction, strong group interaction, and an ability of the team to renew itself in response to change.

The conclusions of J. Richard Hackman, a pioneer in the field of organizational behavior, who has been studying teams for more than 40 years provides another perspective, but interestingly his conclusions about teams mirrors the magic Jack Welch was able to create at GE.

Like McKinsey, Hackman also believes in three- (3) “enabling conditions, a (i) compelling direction, (ii) strong structure, and (iii) supportive environment.  Hackman felt that the foundation of an effective team first needs a direction that energizes, orients, and engages its members.   Second, the team requires a structure that has the right mix of members, optimally designed tasks, and processes & norms that discourage destructive behavior & promote positive dynamics.   Third, he argues, there needs to be a reward system that reinforces good performance, mentors group members, and provides access to the needed information.

Hackman, furthermore, maintains that today’s teams — which are more diverse, digital and distant — need to harder work to create a “shared identity and understanding,” which is sometimes referred to as the “4th dimension” of effective teams.

In conclusion, teamwork is important to an organization’s success, but requires a concerted effort.  From a management’s perspective, the focus for creating effective teams needs to be on: team design; team oversight; a clear objective; carefully defining roles; frequent, meaningful communications; effective conflict resolution, and access to the needed information & resources.    If you are a team member, on the other hand, you can be your most effective in a team setting by being a good listen & communicator, an enthusiastic participant, reliable, and respectful of other team members.