MINDWORKS

Mini: What's so magical about teams? (Steve Kozlowski, Tara Brown, and Samantha Perry)

February 25, 2021 Daniel Serfaty
MINDWORKS
Mini: What's so magical about teams? (Steve Kozlowski, Tara Brown, and Samantha Perry)
Chapters
MINDWORKS
Mini: What's so magical about teams? (Steve Kozlowski, Tara Brown, and Samantha Perry)
Feb 25, 2021
Daniel Serfaty

From the underdogs winning the big game to humans landing on the Moon, teams allow us to achieve what was previously thought to be unachievable. It makes one think: what is so magical about teams? Join MINDWORKS host, Daniel Serfaty, as he talks with team science experts: Dr. Steve Kozlowski, Dr. Tara Brown, and Dr. Samantha Perry to address this thought provoking question.

Listen to the entire interview in The Magic of Teams Part 3: The Future of Teams with Steve Kozlowski, Tara Brown, and Samantha Perry.

Show Notes Transcript

From the underdogs winning the big game to humans landing on the Moon, teams allow us to achieve what was previously thought to be unachievable. It makes one think: what is so magical about teams? Join MINDWORKS host, Daniel Serfaty, as he talks with team science experts: Dr. Steve Kozlowski, Dr. Tara Brown, and Dr. Samantha Perry to address this thought provoking question.

Listen to the entire interview in The Magic of Teams Part 3: The Future of Teams with Steve Kozlowski, Tara Brown, and Samantha Perry.

Daniel Serfaty: My next question is addressed to you, Steve. After all these years studying teams and being probably one of the top world experts on that notion of team, is there something magical about teams as opposed to any kind of other organizational form? What is it about teams? Is that a uniquely human system or are we seeing other kinds of teams in nature?

Stephen Kozlowski: Well, the way we talk about it, I think, for most of us here, organizational psychologists, it sort of gets defined as uniquely human, but certainly you can see this kind of collective organization take place in higher order animals. Animals that we think of is not having... I'm not an expert so I hope I don't offend some animal expert out there, but you can see predators that hunt hunt in packs. They certainly have roles. They have strategies in how they play that out. Or you can look at insects, maybe that behavior is programmed in and it's probably bigger than a team, but clearly there's a lot of collaborative, coordinated, specialized functioning and behavior that has to take place for those collectives to be successful.

I'm not sure that what we're seeing is uniquely human. Certainly we have the capacities to communicate and to convey other kinds of responses, liking, disliking, in somewhat less obvious ways, perhaps. But I do think there's something to just kind of go to your notion of magical, which is not really a scientific term.

Daniel Serfaty: Not yet.

Stephen Kozlowski: Person who forms teams. I'm having to build research teams or I'm on some team. So as a participant, or former, or what have you, is that when it's all working, it feels really magical, and when it's not working, it feels not very good at all. You can tell. It's very visceral. It's different.

I think about trying to understand workers in organizations, there's a lot you can learn studying individual characteristics, but people don't work in a vacuum. COVID has separated us, but I spend almost as much time on Zoom as I do trying to write or read or do the other things that I would do as a professor. And so there's this interactive component, this exchange component, that I think is really important.

The team puts some boundary around it, so it's not just free floating, but we've got a common purpose, you're trying to achieve something, often it will be specialized in some way so we've got to be able to get that expertise to fit together.

When you get that to happening, you create a winning performance if you're a sports team, or you create new innovation if you're an entrepreneurial team, or as a science team you make a discovery, you've made it through a bunch of challenges and you find something unique. It feels really cool and it's something that's a shared experience. I think that's harder to feel in that visceral, palpable way, when you talk about the success of the organization, and you would know that. It's a lot easier to feel and to share when it's 5-10 people.

Tara Brown: We've seen that in some of the Army work that we've done. We've been talking about climates within teams and what the right level is to really have somebody talk about the climate that they're in. So [crosstalk 00:12:50] inclusion is one of the focal areas.

It's really interesting to think about what really constitutes the team, because within the Army, there's a hierarchical nested organization of teams.

Stephen Kozlowski: It's classic.

Tara Brown: What's the right level of team to talk about? And so we've had a lot of discussions around, with Army leaders and with soldiers at various levels within the organization, about who they identify as their team, and I think it comes down to what Steve just said, where we typically end up around the squad size element, which is that small enough to feel like you get enough interaction with everybody to be able to really know them and know their role and know their personality and develop some cohesion with them, but big enough that it's a meaningful team that has a goal that they're working toward.

It's really fascinating to think about that nested piece of teams as well. And I think the magical parts, and why teams are the unit that we have been focused on, is exactly what Steve said. We have to identify the level at which people are doing most of their day to day interactions with, the group with which they identify or some of their identity is associated with, and who they have some shared common goals with.

I think you can have an organizational identity and there's obviously organizational level practices and systems in place, but I don't think people typically identify as strongly with their organization on a day to day basis as they do their smaller team unit, who they've really had a chance to develop some of these critical states with, trust and cohesion and all of those things. I think that there's a sweet spot there at the team level, which is why it's, I think, the focus of our study.

Samantha Perry: I also think there's a good example within just any organization of this "magical" phenomenon of teams, which is, for me, in brainstorming. So when we're kicking off a project or when we're developing a proposal, getting a few people around a whiteboard and seeing the ideas bounce around in conversation and seeing how they flourish and grow from one person's initial concept to what comes out of that conversation, even if it is just a few hours, is really something unique, because it's not something that would happen asynchronously in the same way.

I could send Tara an idea, and then Tara can send both of our aggregated ideas to Steve, and then we can workshop it individually, and it wouldn't be the same as if the three of us came together and bounced ideas off the whiteboard in real time. There's something unique about that phenomenon, even applied to just a normal organization. And I think that's a really critical aspect of teams, breaking that down. And why does that happen?

Daniel Serfaty: Yes. I would like eventually to explore that as we move to a different paradigm of co-location. I know that the reason we say magic is because maybe we are genetically primed to interact only with a couple of handful of individuals and feel as part of a living organism in a sense, but maybe the next generation, my kids, who are teenagers, are very comfortable having dozens and dozens of people in their immediate circle. Many of them they've never met. And that comfort with connectivity is really something that is generational.

I think we are observing a change in that, but let's leave that as we speculate about the future a little later in our discussion.