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Teams: Endangered Species or Extinct?

Teams: Endangered Species or Extinct?

June 2014



This is the first in a series of short posts aimed at raising awareness of the evolving challenge of developing ‘team’ working in contemporary organisations, especially those that have distributed, interdependent, matrix structures. As an increasing proportion of organisations operate in this way, these articles are likely to be of interest to a wide audience.


Who should read this and why?


These articles are written for everyone that works in an organisation that uses virtual teams, and who may be struggling to make sense of how to behave, coordinate activity, and sustain performance, motivation, and satisfaction.


Although Google Scholar has made a difference, the problem with learning from academic management literature is that it is not widely accessible to many people:-


At the other end of the spectrum, management literature that is widely accessible is so low-resolution that it is of limited use if its aim is to help people make sense of their professional world. Books that peddle ‘snake-oil’ solutions and quick fixes are like junk food. They’re readily available; they look appealing, taste good, are easily digested, and provide short-term satisfaction. In the long term, however, they are bad for you because they don’t provide the nutrition you need.


You will see from the reference list below that I’ve done most of the heavy lifting for you, since I’ve synthesised about 1500 pages of key team research into these six pages of low-calorie, high nutrition reading.


Why should you read this stuff?


Because organisational life is fragmented; individuals and teams are now expected to be self-managing and able to function without the need for extensive leadership interventions. Are you able to function successfully in this context?


Are you a member of multiple teams, and do you therefore have several bosses? If so, does this create conflicting priorities for you? Alternatively, do you have a boss that’s involved in multiple teams, and therefore relies on you, and your team members, to take the initiative and self-regulate?


The reality is there is a gap in our understanding of team practice and its important for you to know what you can do about it. Unchecked, this leads to conflict, damages trust, compromises social cohesion, undermines coordination, and creates performance loss. This gap in understanding isn’t helped by the fact that neither management practitioners, nor the specialist consultants advising them, acquire their knowledge from academic literature [1, 2]. Check for yourself. If management consultants and human resource specialists aren’t gaining their knowledge from academic literature, where is your people strategy coming from, and how is your organisation keeping abreast of development?


Historical Context


I suspect that most people would say they know what a team is regardless of their experience of working in one. Actually, it’s hard to think of a business term as widely used as ‘Team’, or one more over-used, misused, and misunderstood.


Note – to avoid confusion, although the term ‘team’ has a specific definition [3], I will use the terms ‘team’ and ‘group’ interchangeably unless I state otherwise.


Certainly team working is now so common [4] that everyone who works in an organisational setting is likely to be involved in one or more teams, both inside and outside of their professional lives. Even when there isn’t a team to be a part of, being associated with a group, even one with only a loosely defined purpose, is enough to give us that warm glow we feel by belonging to something we can identify with socially, and which helps to define who we are. Indeed, this has become so socially important that the question “what do you do” is often the second thing asked when meeting someone for the first time.


This won’t come as a surprise to anyone since we are social, and tribal, by nature. The formation of social groups working together on complex, challenging, tasks that couldn’t otherwise be completed, has been common to humans throughout history [3], and is just as prevalent in the animal kingdom [5-7]. Consequently, the study of organisational groups, and teams, continues to thrive, even after a century of intensive management research [8].


Problem #1 – in the distant past individuals congregated in small tribes (social groups) that had clearly defined: boundaries, leaders, and membership rules – most of which were aimed at promoting the success of the group, and avoiding conflict within and between rival groups. Back then, life choices were simple, you either conformed to the group’s rules, or you left (or were killed).


Although the survival threats have reduced for many of us, our lives are now considerably more complex as we are simultaneously involved in multiple groups (or tribes) and so we constantly have to make compromised choices between conflicting membership conditions and rules. While some of the modern day examples of this are trivial, e.g. participating as a member of a social media forum may put you in conflict with your employer (NSA Whistle-blower, Edward Snowden, is an example) – the wider issues and impact on social identity, group affiliation, cohesion, conflict avoidance, and pro-social trust building behaviours are not. Life is inherently stressful because of this, and we need new knowledge if we are to learn appropriate coping strategies.


Over the last fifty years in particular, organisations have tried to anticipate and exploit the wide-ranging benefits of coordinated behaviour [9, 10]. In doing so, they have replaced hierarchical structures with flat, ‘lean’, structures [11]; and highly defined working methods, with loosely defined goals and unclear tasks requiring creative thinking and problem solving [12]. Those old enough to remember, will know this era was marked by the shift from scientific management [13], with its high conflict, ‘carrot and stick’ extrinsic motivational systems, to approaches based on job enlargement/job enrichment [14-17], and involving intrinsic motivational systems.


The desire to predict successful coordinated behaviour has stimulated extensive management interest, seeking to explain how teams function and why they fail, or finding new ways to improve team performance. Today, it’s hard to find a business book or journal article on teams that doesn’t start by reporting how organisations have shifted from individual based work to self-regulating, team based working [18-24]. In his article “Suppose We Took Groups Seriously”, Roe [25] suggested that the group, rather than the individual, is now the foundation stone of the organisation. Consequently, organisations have been increasingly adopting group based structures ever since. For example, reporting surveys of Fortune 1000 firms, Leavitt [26] highlights a steady increase in the use of team based structures, from 20% in 1980, to over 80% by 2000. The number has been climbing ever since.


In the past, this ‘stuff’ was primarily of interest to executives and their leadership teams, Human Resource (HR) professionals, and students of management. Today, however, most of us are affected by the changes taking place in the organisations in which we work. For example, the delayering of middle management means that it now falls on everybody else to figure out how to interact effectively in an increasingly complex, rapidly changing, working environment where many of the things we have learned about successful team working have become obsolete and/or irrelevant. Further, such is the perceived value of accomplished pro-social behaviours, that professional standing is now heavily influenced by social connectedness. That’s why LinkedIn is so successful.


The ‘Team’, or at least the classical form of it [27, 28], is now so rare [29] it is in danger of extinction. Teams are already so drastically changed they’re unrecognisable as the same species. This means we have lost the ability to predict performance using the knowledge about traditional forms of teams [30] we’ve used successfully in the past. It also means that our understanding about how to compose, manage, and successfully develop team performance, has changed [30].


As troubling as this is for the people-centric world of work, the challenges don’t stop there:-

  1. Contemporary organisations are evolving quicker than management researchers are able to explain the variables needed to be considered to predict performance reliably, and
  2. Sustaining high performance requires a huge amount of effort. Organisational complexity has increased to such an extent that those involved in coordinating group behaviour have to consider an impossibly complex, mosaic of variables in order to maintain acceptable levels of performance.


  1. Contemporary organisations are evolving quicker than management researchers are able to explain the variables needed to be considered to predict performance reliably, and
  2. Sustaining high performance requires a huge amount of effort. Organisational complexity has increased to such an extent that those involved in coordinating group behaviour have to consider an impossibly complex, mosaic of variables in order to maintain acceptable levels of performance.

Therefore, understanding where we are, and how we got here is important. This is why everybody should be interested in discovering how to behave in the virtual, social networks [31-35] that have evolved from the teams we’ve grown up with over the last half-century.


Are real-teams really in decline, what’s the evidence


Some of you who read this will work in organisations that still have recognisable examples of traditional forms of teams, or real-teams [27]. Perhaps you work in a collocated group within a small business based on a single site, where you all know each other, and you each contribute to achieving the goal of the business. Even so, you will no doubt have to work (virtually) with a wide variety of stakeholders external to your organisation, including: contractors, suppliers, customers, and clients. In contrast, if you work in a large organisation involved in some form of knowledge work, typically in the service sector, it’s unlikely you will find a real-team in your organisation [29]. Further, as time goes by, small organisations mimic what happens in their larger counter-parts whose behaviours they replicate and normalise when developing new strategies, structures, and best practices.


Virtual teams are now everywhere and conditions of virtuality are common to a wide variety of organisational settings and increasing the challenges they face. This led Richter [36] to question why team working is still so popular. Other authors have shared similar concerns about the ‘panacea’ of team working [3, 37-39].


Structural drivers (macro)


Organisations large and small are facing a ‘perfect storm’ of structural conditions that are challenging performance. These include: the increasing role of the knowledge economy and the demographic shift to knowledge work, increasing task uncertainty and complexity, volatile economic conditions, globalisation [40], de-layering of hierarchical structures, increasingly frequent restructuring and reorganisation, multiteam membership [41], shared leadership [42-46], self-managing teams [47-52], increased fragmentation resulting from outsourcing of strategically non-core activities, technology development, remote/virtual working, distributed ‘matrix’ structures, colliding cultures and increasing diversity (cultural and functional) [33, 53-56], pluralistic systems [57] with (often) conflicting demands [58] on scarce resources. Individually and together, these create ambiguous boundary conditions, compromise engagement, disrupt coordination, and stimulate unproductive conflict, and performance failure.


Structural drivers (macro)


Compounding the issues above, evolving variables are impacting multiple organisational levels. For example, ‘cluster’ structures [59, 60], may better reflect recent trends in organisational work groups, especially those that adopt matrix structures, or Organisational Communities of Practice (OCoPs) [61], (sometimes referred to as Centres of Excellence). These structures are representative of the developing ‘plural’ organisation proposed by Drucker [57].


The uncertainty and complexity of knowledge work requires intensive interaction and coordination between interdependent individuals who are often deployed in distributed, or dispersed structures [62]. As such, the structure and behaviours of a collocated group reporting to a designated leader, and the structure and individual behaviours taking place in a distributed (virtual), self-managing work-group undertaking complex work tasks guided by emergent leadership, is entirely different. This has spurred a new form of team, the virtual team. These organisational forms have such fluid boundaries that participants are barely able to identify who else is a member of their work group.


Problem #2 – if you can’t identify who is on the team, it’s kind of hard to know what team you are on yourself, and who you can rely on to help achieve the objectives of the team. Group identity, affiliation, cohesion, trust, and conflict, become significant inhibitors of performance.


Virtual teams


Virtual teams are defined as: groups of people who interact through interdependent tasks guided by a common purpose that works across space, time, and organisational boundaries with links strengthened by webs of communications technologies [63].


Spatial distance is a critical feature of virtual teams since members are dispersed over a broad geographic area, sometimes spanning countries and cultures [64]. However, it is not the specific cultural and physical distance separating team members that is important, but the way in which they interact – through technology mediated communications media, such as: video-conferencing, email, intranet, live messaging, groupware, and other enterprise applications. This contrasts starkly with traditional teams that tend to be collocated and primarily interact by context rich face-to-face interaction.


These changes have been explained to have evolved as a result of changes in communications technology, organisational purpose, and social dynamics, which together are leading to the emergence of these new kinds of organisational forms [65]. Moving away from the traditional team model to a virtual team model whose members simultaneously work on multiple teams, means that issues like team leadership, composition, and activities such as mission analysis; goal specification, strategy formulation, and planning, are increasingly important and challenging.


Problem #3 – virtual teams tend to be very large and are comprised of highly diverse (demographic, temporal, spatial, cultural, and functional), fluid, membership that communicates asynchronously using an array of technology.


Task complexity and Interdependence


Whether or not a virtual team operates in real or distributed time is influenced by task-complexity and the extent to which workflow arrangements require independent or interdependent working. Complex work tasks, where work flows back and forth between individuals and groups, require a high degree of collaboration, coordination, and social integration mediated by intensive interdependencies, and synchronous, real-time communication [66].


In contrast, virtual teams fulfilling simple work tasks that can be completed independently can communicate unidirectionally, or asynchronously.


Problem #4 – it is often the case that team members will hold multiple roles, within a team and in multiple teams. Indeed, allocating work time to multiple teams is becoming the norm as estimates suggest that 65% [67] to 95% [68] of knowledge workers participate in multiple teams simultaneously. However, as before, this is also influenced by task complexity. Multiple roles can create ambiguity, conflict, and role stress. Examples of this have been found in studies of matrix organisations, which have formal horizontal communication channels that supplement the usual vertical flow of communications. These studies suggest that the complicated decision making within matrix organisations results in role conflict, ambiguity, and negative attitudes such a job satisfaction and engagement


Problem #5 – there is a growing body of management research supporting the view that social networks may better explain how teams in organisations are evolving and interacting [20, 34, 35, 59, 69-81]. These amorphous dynamic work-group structures have significant implications for organisational performance, group composition, organisational design (OD), and the individuals working within them.


Dynamic team composition: The art of the impossible


This section brings us to a key point. Selecting members of teams with a view to predicting effective performance is now so complex that the variables may actually be impossible to manage effectively. This brings into question the industry that has grown around assessing individual’s personality traits, for selection, recruitment, and professional development. Put simply, coordinating the variables required to predict successful performance in virtual teams operating as social networks, is like juggling a hundred balls at the same time – when the size, shape and number of balls is changing all of the time.


The following is a brief overview of a few the issues that confound team composition and team performance.


Personality traits – a variable of team composition


Team composition is the configuration of member attributes in a team [82] and is thought to have a powerful influence on team processes and outcomes [4]. The composition of work teams is defined by the individual characteristics of team members. The rationale underlying research on team composition is that individual characteristics of team members, i.e. their personality, demographics, etc., serve as inputs that influence team performance directly, and indirectly, through group processes, and emergent states [83]. Accordingly, research on team composition can be categorised into three dimensions [84]: (a) characteristics of team members (e.g., number, abilities, demographics, personality traits), (b) measurement of these characteristics, and (c) the analytical perspective used to approach team composition [85].


Team literature has reported patterns of personality variables that predict both individual and group outcomes, such as performance, team viability, and satisfaction [86-88]. When organisations create teams, individual differences are typically exploited to create an optimal configuration of the team member characteristics needed to maximise performance [9, 89-91]. To this end, methods have been proposed [89] by which individuals might be seeded onto teams to yield optimal configuration of group personality composition [65].


A type of team input, team composition, has a significant influence on team effectiveness [4, 82, 92], and is of special interest to organisations, since composition can be manipulated in ways that result in desired outcomes, including increased performance [85]. Wide consensus on the potential value of team composition has resulted in it becoming one of the most studied team variables [10, 93]. However, despite this popularity, team composition is difficult to apply because of the lack of understanding in the area [94, 95], and the rapidly changing organisational landscape which exacerbates this problem.


While team composition variables include a variety of deep and surface level attributes, including a broad range of demographic variables (age, gender, tenure, functional expertise, etc.), personality traits are especially important, [83, 85, 92, 96-106]. This is because personality traits are relevant to task contributions that members make to team outcomes, as well as the way that members interrelate to each other socially during the course of their work.


According to Funder [107], personality refers to structures and propensities that reflect or explain characteristic patterns of an individual’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviours, and is inherently socially derived [108].


A variety of personality inventories have been developed, including: NEO-PI-R [109], Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI) [110], the 16PR [111], the Personal Characteristics Inventory (PCI) [112], the California Personality Inventory (CPI) [113], the Big Five Inventory (BFI) [114], and the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire [115, 116] are just a few.


Research has been extensive in recent years [8, 45, 85, 89, 90, 100, 106, 117-123, see 124, for a review, 125], advancing understanding of why some teams are more successful than others, and providing a basis for predicting performance. Consequently, few topics in organisational behaviour, and organisational psychology have attracted more attention, all the more remarkable by the fact that personality trait theory is enjoying a renaissance, [126, 127].


In a comprehensive review examining the relationship between team level personality and performance, various authors [85] have found that, overall, team level personality positively predicts team performance. However, others researchers [120] have reported that research findings on the relationship between team personality and team effectiveness are problematic and difficult to decipher – an issue previously noted by Heslin [92]. Unfortunately these problems persist, making it difficult to understand how the various streams of personality and team composition research fit together.


Problem #6 – despite the popularity of personality tests (psychometric) in recruitment, selection, team composition, and development, the findings of personality research are equivocal which brings into question the utility of using such tests for team composition and selection purposes.


For example, although I’ll cover this in more detail in future articles, it’s unclear what personality traits are likely to be helpful in predicting performance in virtual teams. Current team research reports extroversion and conscientiousness are common predictors of team performance. However, in distributed virtual structures, extroversion may not be appropriate at all. To the contrary, introverts may be more successful in the asynchronous communication environments typical of virtual teams. It’s also not clear what other personality traits combine to help predict high team performance.


The list of challenges is extensive: there’s no agreement about how extrovert a team should be in aggregate, or how conscientious. Or if combinations of personality traits interact together [128]? Or even if personality is a stable measure, since some researchers have reported that personality changes over time, and behaviour can be modified and managed [127]. Or what situations are required in order to activate personality traits? Or individualism/collectivism impacts behaviour predicted by personality traits? [129-131]


Given these reports, it is reasonable to question why psychometric assessments of personality traits are used so widely, and how they are being used. Do you know how your organisation uses personality profiling? And why?


Questions to consider…
How is personality assessment being used in distributed organisations to compose virtual teams? How should they be used?


More to come …
In future articles I’ll look more closely at some of the variables of team working that I have researched, for example:-


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About Nick Keca - as a management professional and organisational psychologist, I have created this site to share my research on subjects that are of interest to me. These primarily relate to Virtual Team Working in distributed matrix organisation structures. Since this is becoming the d...

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