Mini: Teams, what’s so great about them? (Eduardo Salas, Scott Tannenbaum and Kara Orvis)

January 28, 2021 Daniel Serfaty
Mini: Teams, what’s so great about them? (Eduardo Salas, Scott Tannenbaum and Kara Orvis)
Mini: Teams, what’s so great about them? (Eduardo Salas, Scott Tannenbaum and Kara Orvis)
Jan 28, 2021
Daniel Serfaty

We have all heard it: “teamwork makes the dream work”.  But why, what’s benefit of working together as a team? Join Daniel Serfaty for another MINDWORKS Mini as he talks with Dr. Eduardo Salas and Dr. Scott Tannenbaum, authors of “Teams That Work: The Seven Drivers of Team Effectiveness,” and Dr. Kara Orvis, about the social phenomena that we know as “teams”.

Show Notes Transcript

We have all heard it: “teamwork makes the dream work”.  But why, what’s benefit of working together as a team? Join Daniel Serfaty for another MINDWORKS Mini as he talks with Dr. Eduardo Salas and Dr. Scott Tannenbaum, authors of “Teams That Work: The Seven Drivers of Team Effectiveness,” and Dr. Kara Orvis, about the social phenomena that we know as “teams”.

Daniel Serfaty: Eduardo, I know you've been in it for so long and everybody who has ever studied teams in the past half century has probably read your papers. But my question is that, why is that so important to understand and study how teams work? Is there something magical about that particular human structure? Is there something unique about it?

Eduardo Salas: It's an interesting social phenomenon. So in general, all of us are prone to coordinate, to communicate, to interface with others. And sometimes we do it because we have to and sometimes we do it because we like it. Sometimes we do it because we are in a context that kind of channels to do those kinds of things. So over the years, I've learned to appreciate collaboration and coordination, communication. I would say about 90% of the professionals out there are team sports, they're teams. We collaborate in healthcare, in aviation, in the military, in science and universities now. And so trying to understand this phenomenon, it's been an interesting journey for me.

Eduardo Salas: And as you know, team science has a long history, maybe 100 years, it depends how you count it. So it's intriguing. And despite 100 years of science, we're still uncovering new things. We're still discovering new things. And we have new phenomena, new challenges like teams of teams, what Kara just described. And so that's what makes this field intriguing, keeps us young, because there are new things coming out and we don't have a prescription. This would have been a short podcast if we had a prescription, but we don't and it's complex and it's dynamic and murky, it has all kinds of complications. So yeah. It's an interesting phenomenon that needs lots of science and that's what makes it interesting.

Kara Orvis: I liked your use of the word magical in talking about teams because I think they're magical, and I'll tell you why. When I was in graduate school, I remember very distinctly when I first realized that there are concepts that only exist in a team, things that don't exist at the individual level. And an easy one to talk about is cohesion. Cohesion is something that you can't experience on your own. It truly is something that only exists if you have a group of people that are working together or learning together or whatever their activity is. And I remember that being an ah-ha moment for me, that there's this whole world of concepts that didn't exist at the individual level. They only exist at that group level. And I always found that really exciting.

Daniel Serfaty: Yes. We're talking about ah-ha moments, Scott. I always learned from you because you always have very vivid examples basically of your mind, which is oriented towards observation of naturalistic or teams in the wild so to speak. And you superimpose your academic, professorial model on it in order to understand really what's inside. I appreciate that in the book, the Teams That Work book that you just published with Eduardo, you bring several examples [inaudible 00:11:40]. In particular, I appreciate in chapter two that you bring the Red Sox team even though you're, for the benefit of our listeners, from New York. And a New Yorker appreciating the Red Sox is really a treat.

Scott Tannenbaum: My family doesn't feel that way, just for the record. They don't think it's a treat. [crosstalk 00:11:57] a little differently.

Daniel Serfaty: When you've observed, and you work with elite corporate teams, I know about your history in leading GOE, did you have some type of ah-ha moment in which your own models of teams and theory of teams just by observing something in the wild was enriched by what you were observing either in sports or in the corporate environment?

Scott Tannenbaum: Yeah. I think there's probably several of them overtime. But one that comes to mind is when we were doing work with a global banking institution. And in particular, the focus was on investment banking teams. And what's interesting about this, and actually it's work that Ed was involved in as well, is we were brought in because investment analysts at this level, this is a very well paid profession. These are folks that provide advice that is used to decide whether you're going to purchase another company or not, acquire stock, et cetera, so very big business decisions. And they had kind of, I would describe them as hypotheses. The leaders had hypotheses about what really mattered here. And they wanted to know if they were right. So we went in and started watching these teams of investment analysts. We watched them when the stock market opened at the crack of done responding to the bell, we watched them working. We had the chance to use other techniques like survey and a lot of interviews of team members, of team leaders, of people that interacted with the teams.

Scott Tannenbaum: And what was interesting is going into this, the leaders had this hypothesis that what you really need is a star investment analyst like the Red Sox need a star center fielder for example. So that was the logic. And that if you just simply put a supporting cast around them a bit and they didn't get in the way too much, it's all about making the start successful. What happened was that it was this natural experiment that occurred, because over time about half their teams were structured that way and the other half of their teams had really formed more as a true team where they were collaborating together. They had a team leader, but it wasn't all about the team leader. And we had a chance to take a look analytically at what was going on there. And because this is a financial institution, they had tons of actual data, financial data, performance data, et cetera. And what was really interesting in this case is it was the exact opposite of what they expected. The teams that were all about the start underperformed. And the teams that were really operating in a collaborative way where the teamwork matters outperformed them in some ways.

Scott Tannenbaum: So one of the reasons this was an ah-ha moment for me is because first of all, I think it reinforced what I had been believing up until that team, that teamwork does make a difference. It showed that in this case a targeted research study could help, because it helped unpack the truth from kind of the myth that existed there. And it also reinforced to me that leaders don't always know what they're supposed to do when it comes to teams. They're responding with their guts, and sometimes their gut isn't right. And in this case, the data showed really what was needed.

Daniel Serfaty: That's a wonderful example where data matters. What you see on the surface, that's part of the magic of teams too, that they work sometimes under the surface and what you see on the surface is not always diagnostic of really what is actually happening.

Scott Tannenbaum: I would say almost every time in my career that I've seen an individual do something that was really outstanding in an organizational setting, there were people who supported that person who enabled it to happen that sometimes it's invisible for the organization but if you look carefully, it was a team phenomenon even though it looked like an individual phenomenon.

Daniel Serfaty: Yes. Yes. I like your example just about that point again at the end of chapter two. I won't tell the audience, they need to buy the book in order to find out why you were right, what looks like sometimes like superstar performance is actually the result of a lot of complex team interactions.

Eduardo Salas: So let me share one ah-ha moment for me early on in my career. It had to do also with Terry and Scott. So going back to the story that my job with the Navy in the mid '80s was to develop a team performance lab, I attempted two things. One, the state of the science. So that's what we began. We attempted to do this meta analysis. But the second thing I did was I spent six months traveling around naval bases looking at teams, observing teams of all kinds. [inaudible 00:16:11] teams, sub [inaudible 00:16:12] teams, ideation teams. And after that tour, I remember having the discussion with Terry and maybe Scott was there. And I said, "I get the impression that all teams are not created equal. All the teams that I helped serve are somewhat different." And I couldn't put my head around [inaudible 00:16:29].

And in the discussions I had with Terry and Bob Macintosh, who was another professor there, I don't know if this a direct quote or something, but the ah-ha moment was that Terry said it's all about the task interdependency. And that's when for now 40 years or so that I've been doing, that was to me an ah-ha moment. "Of course! Task interdependency drives the kind of teamwork you're going to have, the kind of team performance you need to engage in. The kind of behaviors, the kind of cognition." And so to me, that's something that I have carried in my head for all these years. And I make a point to try to always understand the task interdependency that is embedded in the kind of team that I'm looking at.

Daniel Serfaty: That's very good. So what you're saying in fact is that the work that stimulates the team in and by itself has in it a structure that will provoke certain behaviors in the team.

Eduardo Salas: Correct.

Daniel Serfaty: So if you want to understand a team, you shouldn't look just inside, you also have to look on the outside of the team to truly understand how that team works. Is that right?

Eduardo Salas: Yeah. And so again, things that I've learned, I think as Scott and Kara will agree, task interdependency, and we make a point of this in the book, why it's important is because it basically outlines what kind of competencies you need, what kind of competencies matter depending on where you are in this continuum of interdependency. And I think that's been one of the best, I won't say ah-ha, but one of the best insights we've had collectively, those who study teams. And that has driven a lot of good practice. So what do you do when you have low interdependence versus what do you do when you have high interdependence?

Daniel Serfaty: Yes. I see you nodding, Kara. Do you agree with Eduardo? Because my next question for all of you is, okay, so the audience understands a bunch of variables and a bunch of complexities that are associated with teamwork and human teams, but what is a team? How do we define a team? And is that just a group of people who are working on things that have interdependence? Is there more than that?

Eduardo Salas: Actually, one of the [inaudible 00:18:39] papers that I have, it's about the definition of a team that we published in 1992 I believe it was. It's interesting. This discussion is making me connect all the dots, it's amazing. So again, why do we have to define and provide a definition of teams? So we're doing this meta analysis, we're observing all these teams in Navy. We now know there are differences among them, that all teams are not created equal. And then we said, "If all teams are no created equal, the kind of research that we want to do cannot generalize to everybody, to all those teams. We need to focus." And so the definition, Scott, correct me if I'm wrong, the definition came as a result of trying to put boundaries around the kind of team that we were going to look at and that's what we did. So it's two people, two or more who perhaps share goals, they are interdependent and so on. So that's how that definition came.

Scott Tannenbaum: What's interesting is, for me, how that's morphed over time. So my recollection is the same as Ed. We needed to draw kind of a box around what we were going to study, and so formal definition. But what's happened overtime through kind of practical experiences is that not all teams, particularly in organizational settings, are this neat cluster of reporting relationships in boxes with a tight boundary around it and defined roles, et cetera. It's just become mushier and more dynamic. And so to me, a team is still more than one person. And I would say they have at least some interdependency and some shared goals, but it doesn't mean that they're completely shared goals. In fact, I think most teams in organizational settings have this combination of pulls and pushes of sharedness, but also individual needs. We see this in senior leadership teams all the time. They have a shared need for the company, but the head of finance also has their own needs that's different than the chief technology officer. I think it's a little bit mushier. And of course there's now also kind of the concept of teams of teams that pops up.