What can organizations do to enable teamwork?

The way we work and the nature of work is changing. Historically, organizations were developed to optimize for efficiency. This was possible because their work was predictable. With technological innovations, the rate of change in business has accelerated. It seems a new industry is disrupted monthly whether it’s the taxi industry with Lyft, or the hospitality industry with Airbnb.

In this new world, optimizing for efficiency is being traded out in favor of adaptability and agility. One way companies are making this shift is through organizational design, specifically restructuring around teams. We'll look at why teams are becoming more popular and how to provide support for teams at work. 

Building networks of empowered teams

In 2016, Deloitte found redesigning organizations around teams to be the number one human capital trend, with 92% of companies believing it was very important or important. In Deloitte’s recently released 2017 trends, reorganization was again the number one trend. They commented that companies are racing to, “Replace structural hierarchies with networks of teams empowered to take action.”

The recent drive to restructure around teams is for good reason. Teams have been shown to perform better on complex problem-solving than the best of an equivalent number of individuals. However, for every article finding that the performance of teams is superior to that of individuals, there is an article arguing the opposite to be true. Why is this?

Providing proper support for teams at work

One reason for this disconnect in team effectiveness findings might be that despite the rising number of teams at work, our support systems haven’t changed. Most companies are still focusing their attention and centering their programs around individuals, even after they restructure to teams.

Consider compensation at your organization. It’s likely based off of an individual’s contributions, in the form of an hourly wage, tips, salary or sales commissions. It may also be informed by a periodic performance review based on individual goals. When we think about learning and development, it’s the same story. We train people through programs aimed at the individual, and we focus developmental feedback primarily through individual 360 surveys or coaching.

To create better performing teams, consider experimenting with the following ideas at your organization to enable teamwork.

  1. Develop goals at the team level

Companies that have organizational-level goals and objectives are at an advantage because teams can use them as their north star. In addition to organizational, and even individual, consider setting team-level goals. A meta-analysis in 2011 found that team goals are associated with better team performance. There’s also preliminary evidence in a sports context that the act of setting goals as a team can lead to higher team cohesion. Highlighting that a key step is to engage team members in the goal setting process (rather than assigning goals to teams). This involvement can increase buy-in and ownership.

  1. Provide feedback on team goal performance

When it comes to feedback on performance, similar to developmental feedback, this is often provided only at the individual or organizational level. According to a study by DeShon and colleagues at Michigan State University, this is missing a huge opportunity. They found that feedback leads to improved performance on what the feedback was directed to. When feedback on individual performance was given, individual performance improved. When feedback on team performance was given, team performance improved. In short, if you want to enable teamwork and performance, provide feedback at the team level. The level at which you provide feedback is a shortcut for employees to figure out what is important to your organization.

  1. Factor team performance into rewards

When you reward your employees, experiment with factoring in the performance of their team. In 2014, Garbers & Konradt analyzed almost 150 studies and found that team-based rewards had a larger impact on performance than individual incentives, especially if the rewards were distributed equitably. However, there were team composition factors that affected the impact of the rewards, including team size and gender composition. Therefore, the context of the team should be considered as well.

  1. Provide training in teams

There is an opportunity to train at the level that your employees are working, in teams. Individual development is still important, but it will not always improve the way people work together as a team. In general, a 2008 meta-analysis found that team training is associated with better team performance, affective outcomes (such as trust), and team processes (such as communication and decision-making). Training in a team context versus individual training has been found to be associated with greater training recall and team performance.

  1. Identify the unique needs of the teams in your organization

While the suggestions above are general ways to unlock the potential of teams, every organization will have unique challenges. A team effectiveness survey is a great way to understand what your teams are experiencing and to give them feedback that they can use to develop. From the organizational level, results can be used to identify if opportunities are similar across your teams, an indication that the organization may not be enabling that component of teamwork. For example, if your teams are scoring low on “If someone makes a mistake, they admit it to the team” you might want to consider promoting an organizational culture that views failure as a learning opportunity.

Supporting teamwork over time

If you want to ensure that restructuring around teams is more than just changing lines on the company hierarchy, take a look at your support systems. Are you managing and supporting teams or individuals? Consider evaluating the top culprits of this trend - goals, feedback, rewards and training - and empowering your teams to take action through feedback.


Fresia Jackson is an Insights Strategist based in San Francisco. She has her Masters in Industrial/Organizational Psychology, which reflects her love of geeking out about bringing data to people decisions. You can follow Fresia on LinkedIn. 

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