Understanding and Improving Teamwork in Organizations

Understanding and Improving Teamwork in Organizations

Understanding and Improving Teamwork in OrganizationsTeams are pervasive in today’s world, and rightfully so as we need them. Draw-ing upon the existing extensive body of research surrounding the topic of team-work, we delineate nine “critical considerations” that serve as a practical heuristic by which HR leaders can determine what is needed when they face situations involving teamwork. Our heuristic is not intended to be the definitive set of all considerations for teamwork, but instead consolidates key findings from a vast literature to provide an integrated understanding of the underpinnings of team-work—specifically, what should be considered when selecting, developing, and maintaining teams. This heuristic is designed to help those in practice diagnose team-based problems by providing a clear focus on relevant aspects of team-work. To this end, we first define teamwork and its related elements. Second, we offer a high-level conceptualization of and justification for the nine selected considerations underlying the heuristic, which is followed by a more in-depth synthesis of related literature as well as empirically-driven practical guidance. Third, we conclude with a discussion regarding how this heuristic may best be used from a practical standpoint, as well as offer areas for future research regard-ing both teamwork and its critical considerations. © 2014 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Teams are pervasive in today’s world, and rightfully so as we need them. We need them in our hospitals, flight decks, oil rigs, military, nuclear power plants, and a host of other organizations involved in our everyday functioning. To be effective, these teams must operate through the interdependent actions of individuals work-ing toward a common goal—a set of actions

and processes known as teamwork (Marks, Mathieu, & Zaccaro, 2001). But what exactly is teamwork? What influences it? Perhaps most importantly, how do we develop and maintain it? A plethora of research driven by increased interest in teams has resulted in a seemingly endless array of literature attempting to explain teamwork and the conditions surrounding its success or failure.

Correspondence to: Eduardo Salas, Institute for Simulation and Training, Department of Psychology, University

Human Resource Management

Published online in Wiley Online Library (wileyonlinelibrary.com).



Although this literature base has provided us with vast knowledge, it can be difficult to summa-rize this information into a useful set of principles to aid practitioners in understanding what factors must be considered when teamwork is enacted. Thus, the focus of this article is to offer an over-arching, practical heuristic of the most critical considerations for teamwork. The novelty of the current work is not necessarily in the review of teamwork itself, but instead in the offering of a concise framework that organizes previous find-ings in a meaningful, practically relevant manner. Drawing upon the current extensive body of

research regarding teamwork, we delineate nine “critical consider-ations” that serve as a guiding heu-ristic by which individuals, teams, organizations, and other collaborat-ing entities can determine what is needed when they face situations involving teamwork. This heuristic provides a basic understanding of the underpinnings of teamwork— specifically, what should be consid-ered when selecting, developing, and maintaining teams.

 Our heuristic is not intended to be the definitive set of all consider-ations for teamwork nor a definition of teamwork, but rather serves as a practical attempt to consolidate key findings from a vast literature to provide useful guidelines for those outside this area of research. To this end, we first define teamwork and offer a high-level conceptualization of the nine selected considerations. This is followed by a more in-depth review of each consideration, delineating relevant research and describing why each consideration is critical to understanding team-work. We also offer practical advice and recommendations that can be

leveraged by organizational leaders and others involved in ensuring teamwork success. Finally, we conclude with a discussion of how this heuris-tic may best be used from a practical standpoint and for future research.

Defining Teamwork

To provide a heuristic of critical considerations for teamwork, it is important to clearly define teams and teamwork. Teams are “a distinguishable set of two or more people who interact, dynamically, interdependently, and adaptively toward a com-mon and valued goal/objective/mission” (Salas,

 Dickinson, Converse, & Tannenbaum, 1992, p. 4). This definition captures the primary components of teams—multiple individuals, interdependen-cies, and a shared goal—while also remaining comprehensive so as to not exclude any particular type of team or teamwork.

 For teams to be effective, they must suc-cessfully perform both taskwork and teamwork (Burke, Wilson & Salas, 2003; Morgan, Glickman, Woodward, Blaiwes, & Salas, 1986). Taskwork involves the performance of specific tasks that team members need to complete in order to achieve team goals. In particular, tasks represent the work-related activities that individuals or teams engage in as an essential function of their organizational role (Wildman et al., 2012b). Conversely, team-work focuses more on the shared behaviors (i.e., what team members do), attitudes (i.e., what team members feel or believe), and cognitions (i.e., what team members think or know) that are necessary for teams to accomplish these tasks (Morgan, Salas, & Glickman, 1994). Both taskwork and teamwork are critical to successful team performance, with the effectiveness of one facilitating the other. Although taskwork often becomes a key focus for teams as they work toward goals, it is teamwork that aids in ensuring taskwork is performed effectively. Despite having an extensive knowledge of the task at hand, a team will fail if the members cannot successfully share knowledge, coordinate behaviors, and trust one another (Mathieu, Maynard, Rapp, & Gilson, 2008). In fact, individuals who have extensive task-relevant expertise are still vulnerable to poor team outcomes if teamwork is inadequate (Gregorich, Helmreich, & Wilhelm, 1990; Ruffel-Smith, 1979; Schmidt, Keeton, Slack, Leveton, & Shea, 2009). In sum, teamwork is an adaptive, dynamic, and epi-sodic process that encompasses the thoughts, feel-ings, and behaviors among team members while they interact toward a common goal. Teamwork is necessary for effective team performance, as it defines how tasks and goals are accomplished in a team context.

Critical Considerations for Teamwork:

A Heuristic 

Given this definition of teamwork, we now turn to identifying the critical considerations for its effectiveness. These critical considerations are the summation of a wide range of teamwork literature accumulated over the past several decades. Indeed, many reviews exist to highlight the different con-ditions and processes that can impact teamwork (e.g., Cannon-Bowers & Bowers, 2010; Kozlowski

 Ilgen, 2006; Marks et al., 2001; Mathieu et al., 2008; Sundstrom, McIntyre, Halfhill, & Richards, 2000). Table I provides a more complete list

Human Resource Management DOI: 10.1002/hrm

T A B L E  ISample of Team Effectiveness Reviews in the Past 15 Years 
SourceApproachMajor Contribution(s) 
Balkundi &Meta-analysisExamined the effects of social network structures on team effectiveness, 
Harrison, 2006 illustrating that denser networks and those with centralized leaders are 
   more effective. 
Beal et al., 2003Meta-analysisExamined the role of team cohesion in relation to performance, finding 
   that the relationship differs depending on how cohesion and perform- 
   ance are operationalized. 
Cannon-BowersLiterature syn-Comprehensive review of major teamwork and team development 
& Bowers, 2010thesistheories, and future team research needs. 
Chiocchio &Meta-analysisExamined the moderating effect of team type and team setting on the rela-
Essiembre, 2009 tionship between cohesion and performance, providing support for both. 
De Dreu &Meta-analysisExamined the relationships of task and relationship conflict with team 
Weingart, 2003 performance and member satisfaction, finding differential effects for 
   these two types of cohesion. 
DeChurch &Meta-analysisExamined the effects of team cognition on teamwork processes and 
Mesmer-Magnus, outcomes, highlighting both broad relationships and moderating effects 
2010  among cognition, behavior, motivation, and performance. 
Devine & Philips,Meta-analysisIllustrated the results of several meta-analyses investigating the 
2001  relationship between different team-level metrics of member 
   cognitive ability and team performance. 
Gully Devine, &Meta-analysisInvestigated level of analysis and interdependence as moderators of the 
Whitney, 1995 relationships between task-specific team efficacy, generalized potency, 
   and performance. 
Horwitz &Meta-analysisEmpirically summarized findings regarding the impact of team diversity 
Horwitz, 2007 on team outcomes, specifically focusing on bio-demographic and 
   task-related diversity. 
Ilgen, Hollen-LiteratureReviewed team literature from the context of an IMOI framework, 
beck, Johnson, &synthesisorganizing research around a two-dimensional system of time and 
Jundt, 2005 exploratory mechanisms. 
Kozlowski &LiteratureSynthesized the past 50 years of team process and performance 
Ilgen, 2006synthesisresearch, highlighting foundational findings and recommending future 
   research areas. 
LePine et al.,Meta-analysisProvided empirical support for the three higher-order teamwork 
2008  processes (action, transition, and interpersonal), as proposed 
   by Marks and colleagues (2001). 
Manser, 2009QualitativeQualitatively summarized research on teamwork in health care, finding 
  reviewsupport for the relationship between teamwork and patient safety. 
Marks, Mathieu,Synthesis & the-Provided a framework examining the temporal nature of team processes
Zaccaro, 2001ory advancementand emergent states. 
Mathieu et al.,LiteratureProvided a synthesis of the literature on teamwork and team effective- 
2008 synthesisness from 1997–2007, highlighting major findings and providing future 
   research directions. 
Mesmer-MagnusMeta-analysisExamined the relationship between information sharing and team 
& DeChurch, performance, finding that information sharing uniqueness and openness
2009  have different effects on team performance. 
Piña, Martínez,QualitativeQualitatively analyzed recent findings on organizational teams, 
& Martínez, 2008reviewhighlighting the multidimensional nature of team outcomes and the 
   need for multimethod metrics and analyses in team contexts. 
Salas et al., 2008Meta-analysisExamined the impact of team training on team outcomes, delineating 
   when team training is effective for teamwork. 
Stewart, 2006Meta-analysisReviewed the relationships between team design features and team 
   performance, finding differential effects for team composition variables, 
   team type, and team task types. 
Sunstrom et al.,Synthesis & the-Provided a seminal typology of types of teams. 
2000 ory advancement  

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