Is teamwork going extinct?

November 23, 2022

Is teamwork going extinct?

“The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.”—Babe Ruth

Since we were young, we’ve been told that teamwork is good and that we have to be team players to succeed. But in this world where we are all coming out of the pandemic, with employees at a great divide between wanting to work remotely, go back to the office, or settle in some hybrid setup, is teamwork becoming extinct?

According to a 2022 global study, 50% of hybrid workers prefer to work fully remotely, while 57% of remote employees are considering going hybrid. For those in charge of leading teams, this "moving goal post" along with the expenses associated with coordinating work across locations and the contentious discussion about increased autonomy present a challenge.

High-performing teams definitely show a lot of creativity and productivity when handling challenging and complicated new tasks. That’s why leaders are quick to assume that working in teams is the best way to get the job done.

However, research shows that teams consistently underperform despite having more resources. J. Richard Hackman, a Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard, says this is because people often suck at teamwork.

When members don’t agree on the team’s direction, get competitive within the team or with other teams in the organization, and leaders fail to manage those conflicting opinions and get the team to agree on the mission, it affects productivity and lowers the benefits of collaboration.

As the pandemic progresses, more people begin to concur with this opinion. Employees are more vocal about wanting “work-life balance” and autonomy on where, when, and how they work. This could be due to the rising cases of burnout due to workplace-related stress as well as the anxiety from the uncertainty that COVID brought.

The pandemic taught us that we don’t need to come together in a face-to-face setting as often as we thought we should in order to work productively or collaboratively. Yet, our social instincts as humans are craving that feeling of belongingness that they can get by working closely with teams.

This year, we’ve seen a lot of advice on creating a psychologically safe space and empowering others in order to boost team productivity. Others are talking about changing the way we look at work by replacing teams with more individual contributors. Or reframe teams as “co-acting groups."

Does this mean the end of “teams”?

Maybe not. There are definitely a lot of things we can do better and faster on our own than if we tackle them collaboratively. But teams have a purpose and place in the bigger picture. I think it is in how we approach teamwork that we need to switch things up a bit.

First, it is crucial that clear boundaries are established in terms of who are the members of the team, what is the team’s mission, direction, or shared goal, and what are each member’s roles in that mission. Lack of clarity creates confusion and division within the team. It is up to the leader to balance their differing opinions, set and manage proper expectations, and know when to exercise their authority.

Teams need enough structure to function properly as a unit while allowing appropriate individual freedom to improvise as the situation calls for it.

Being a team player is good, but it isn’t everything. Often, teams fail because everyone is too scared to disrupt the “harmonious relationship” in the team to speak up. We talk about the importance of creativity and innovation, but we often forget that innovation comes when someone dares to do the brave thing—question the status quo and break homogeneity.

It is important to have good working relationships with team members. But when being a “team player” is so strongly valued at the expense of members being afraid to speak up and rock the boat, it can be damaging to the team’s productivity and creativity.

It is a common misconception that teams need to feel good about working together in order to be productive. That’s not the case. Teams feel satisfied because they were productive, produced a great output, worked well together, and got recognition for their teamwork, not the other way around. 

Teams also need a certain level of familiarity in order to work effectively as a unit. Sometimes, “new” can be a liability. Introducing new talent and diversity of thought can definitely contribute to innovation and creativity. It is also important to work on training the right people the right way. But leaders must have systems in place to support both individual growth and group processes.

Most importantly, all teams are unique. There’s no one “right” leadership model or style to raise effective and high-performing teams. As leaders, play to your strengths and get help to support your weaknesses. 

Teamwork, like culture, is a living, breathing thing. It is up to us, as leaders, to set the direction and the basic framework that will bring out the best in our people and allow our teams to function as a unit.

It is about finding the balance between individual autonomy and collective action and having the right systems in place. Whether you are in charge of a team that collaborates in person, virtually, or in a hybrid environment.

Thanks for reading “A Brilliant Tribe.”