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10 Scientific Facts About Successful Teams


Team science encompasses a wide range of disciplines, such as cognitive psychology, business management, education, and sociology, among others, and explores the ins and outs of group dynamics. It’s a relatively nascent field, but one for which a fair amount of research and observation already exist. Suffice to say, findings on what factors constitute a truly successful team constantly ebb and flow and shift. But the articles out there still warrant reading all the same, and anyone involved in planning and managing teams of all types might want to keep some of their pointers in mind when hoping to accomplish a specific goal.

  1. Circumstances mean more than content.

    According to team science researcher Alex “Sandy” Pentland at the MIT-based Human Performance Dynamics Laboratory, the cynical old yarn about who you know, not what you know is actually quite true. Test after test after test revealed that “social intelligence” resonates much further than a working knowledge of the material at hand. Painstakingly selecting the right venue, audience, and times prove far more potent indicators of success rather than actually comprehending the subject inside and out, so keep that in mind when planning a promotional or competitive event.

  2. Rewards aren’t always the best motivators.

    Some of the more pioneering team research conducted by Steve Kozlowski and his coterie of associates completely upended many of the assumptions society — not to mention leaders themselves — so often make regarding successful organizations. Most notably, that offering incentives doesn’t exactly improve performance any. In fact, teams are actually more likely to splinter when something sits at stake, particularly in environments with rewards targeting individual performances. Likewise, when only individuals receive any sort of feedback, the entire team dynamic weakens as a result. The most cohesive group dynamics see everyone equally compensated and complimented for their role.

  3. Work teams, but not project teams, benefit from autonomy.

    University of Southern California’s Diane E. Bailey and Susan G. Cohen made note of this phenomenon, but neither they nor other researchers understand exactly why or how it even operates. However, some clues might exist in the way project teams tend to approach their leaders and tasks. Because so many project team members enjoy a fair amount of autonomy in their individual tasks, the researchers believe such employees are more open to hearing what their superiors and organizers have to say. By contrast, those whose daily individual burdens fall under heavier supervision enjoy the comparative freedom and collaboration work teams allow.

  4. Small groups might help kids retain math lessons.

    A 2003 study by Charalampos Toumasis and team drew some evidence — though admittedly not conclusive — regarding the efficacy of group dynamics in learning and keeping math skills. But their findings certainly made quite a case for its inherent value, and they encourage future researchers to explore their findings even further. It makes sense that knowledge retention would increase in a collaborative setting, though. After all, as a supplement to textbooks and lectures, it allows participants to pull from their strengths and reach out to partners with complementary weaknesses.

  5. The most effective teams have worked together before.

    Surprise, surprise, right? Teams with prior experience already know how to maneuver one another’s unique quirks, abilities, and limitations. However, they also know how to maneuver one another’s unique quirks, abilities, and limitations! The longer projects extend, the higher the risk that more irritated members might purposely pique the ire of others. So while these dynamics do typically play out better, they could experience comparatively more drama over time.

  6. Diverse teams might be the most creative.

    Again, conclusive evidence is difficult to come by considering science of team science’s status as a nascent field. Experts, however, have unofficially noted a pattern in group success as it relates to more heterogeneous perspectives. They believe that more testing is obviously necessary, but bringing in multiple viewpoints from across gender, gender identity, racial, religious, ethnic, and national spectrum increases the chances of forging a cogent solution faster — not to mention nurtures a greater understanding of humanity’s inherent differences and breaks down social barriers still holding back women and minorities.

  7. The best leaders don’t “coddle” their stars.

    As with the research regarding reward distribution, researchers at Arizona State University and University of Miami noticed how the more ineffectual leaders tended to heap more praise and make allowances for their higher performers. Even if they earned more than their teammates, any whiff of preferential treatment compromises unit cohesion. Instead of motivating poorer performers to achieve the same ends, such a structure only serves to harbor resentment in the long run.

  8. Set clearly defined goals.

    Even before J. Richard Hackman published his findings in the accessible book “Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances“, the integral role communication plays in forging successful group dynamics was already pretty well understood. But it’s worth repeating. If you want to achieve a goal, make sure you and everyone else on the team understands all the ins and outs of the end game. Otherwise you run the risk of hitting some sort of Waiting for Godot scenario, and nobody wants that.

  9. Regular training.

    Another Hackman tidbit, courtesy of Xerox. A properly skilled team is a productive team, and the company — and the researcher — found that making sure their abilities stayed sharpened throughout a long-term project benefited everyone involved. Not to mention their superiors. Plus, spreading out the training and providing hands-on opportunities to apply lessons ensures the necessary skill sets sink in instead of overwhelming the worker’s mind all at once.

  10. An ideal group size is between 5 and 12, but not really.

    Science of team scientists, management experts, and the like always seem to be pumping out theories and research regarding the right size of the best groups out there. And then they seem to be pumping out theories and research regarding the right size of the best groups out there refuting everyone else’s theories and research regarding the right size of the best groups out there. Honestly, though, the exact number typically takes a backseat to effective leadership and engaged members. It helps to keep a wieldy number, of course, but no magic amount of warm bodies exists. Yes, despite what the conflicting research says!