The I in Team

Christine Moore, PMP, CPF - June 2011

Anyone who has been part of a great team remembers the experience and thinks of it fondly. If you've had a great team experience, think about it for a minute. What made the team great? Was it what the team accomplished, or was it how they accomplished what they did? It may have been both, because how team members work together is closely related to what they accomplish. In fact the term teamwork refers to the extent team members can perform together to obtain the team's goal.

Pursuing a Better Whole

In our pursuit of great teamwork our desire is for unification. As apparent in these common sayings, we want the team to somehow be greater than the sum of the parts/team members:

  • There is no I in team!
  • All for one and one for all
  • None of us is as smart as all of us
  • Team means Together Everyone Achieves More!

In their seminal research on teamwork, Carl Larson & Frank LaFasto labeled this idea of members coming together as "Unified Commitment" and identified it as one of eight characteristics that high-performing teams share. In another of their eight characteristics Larson & LaFasto identified "Competent Team Members" as those who possessed three qualities 1) the right skills and abilities, 2) a desire to contribute those skills to the team, and 3) the capability of collaborating effectively. In other words, the right skills and abilities must be available to the team or they don't do the team any good. The emphasis on team is clear.

Teamwork thrives when members are committed to the team's goals and put them above their own, have the right knowledge and skills with a desire to contribute the same, and are capable of collaboration. Perhaps teamwork might be easier and unification more plausible if team members were selected based on their compatibility. Though this maybe true, it isn't necessarily good for the team.

Diversity vs. Uniformity in Team Members

The individual member's impact on team performance has been studied from many angles: demographic (gender, age, ethnicity), education and skill being common research topics. Probably due to its less observable nature, the impact of team member personality is less often studied. However, in both types of research, it seems an important consideration is the mix of characteristics among team members, and the question quickly becomes one of diversity or uniformity.

While doing background research for their own study, a team of researchers at the University of Tennessee (Similarity vs. Diversity: The Impact of Personality Congruence on Teams, University of Tennessee 2003) reported:

"In a review of the literature, Cohen and Bailey (1997) noted that diversity among team members, with regard to knowledge and skills, led to more positive evaluations of team effectiveness. Additionally, several authors have suggested that diversity in team composition may be related to performance through enhanced creativity and greater numbers of perspectives and ideas." (Hackman, 1987; Lau & Murnighan 1998).

The University of Tennessee findings on personality diversity amongst team members mirror other research findings regarding other types of team member diversity. Namely, team member diversity has a positive impact on team effectiveness. Additionally, their research found support for the theory that this correlation comes as a result of sharing each member's unique knowledge, perspectives, and ideas.

At odds with previous research was their finding regarding team member satisfaction. Previous studies indicated a negative correlation between diversity (of the demographic, knowledge, and skills type) and team satisfaction. (Byrne, 1971; Greenwald & Banaji, 1995; Lau & Maurnighan, 1998). However, in the case of personality diversity, the University of Tennessee study found no correlation (neither positive nor negative) to team satisfaction. This finding suggests it is possible to use personality diversity as a means to increase team effectiveness without negatively impacting team satisfaction.

Many organizations today are combating diversity's negative pull on team satisfaction with education on the value of diverse teams, and their absolute necessity in the wake of globalization and changing workplace demographics.

Our Personality Lens

How thick is our personality bias? Can we experience and communicate with team members having very different personalities and see the ensuing challenges for what they are? It seems not.

"Team members tend to view their ideal teammate as someone with a personality like their own, when in reality team performance actually decreased when teammates' personalities were similar. Additionally performance was not found to increase, but satisfaction was, when team members viewed their actual teammates as similar to their ideal." (Similarity vs. Diversity: The Impact of Personality Congruence on Teams, University of Tennessee 2003).

Team satisfaction may be at odds with team performance. During teamwork coaching I commonly hear:

  • "We just all work together so well"
  • "Several team members are just difficult people"
  • "One team member seemed to control everything!"
  • "We had a really hard time making decisions"

These kinds of comments along with the study findings, should lead to thinking about individual team member's personality and the lens it creates. The personality lens affects how team members experience and communicate with each other. As we pursue results greater than any single team member could come up with alone (i.e. None of us is as smart as all of us) some clashing and challenging will occur. In the midst of this conflict, team members may not appreciate the benefits that diverse personalities bring to the team. Organizations often take the approach of helping individuals understand their own personality as a way to open eyes to the differences between themselves and their team members.

Leverage the I's Impact

In our pursuit of high-performing teams, and our call for unification, we need to understand the impact of individual team members. The need for the full range of skills and knowledge required to meet our objectives may seem obvious, but not so obvious is the need for each individual to have a desire to contribute and ability to collaborate. Focusing on knowledge and skill alone will not result in a high-performing team.

Getting along and low conflict may not be good measures of team performance. Studies show that diversity of many aspects lead to more effective teams. Unfortunately, conflict can arise when team members express varying perspectives and ideas—which can take away from team satisfaction. Team leaders must help their teams understand the value associated with unique knowledge, perspectives, and ideas so team members can put resulting conflict into perspective.

Team members will tend to view others through the lens of their own personality, even unconsciously favoring interaction with those similar to them. Team members may even perceive they are performing well because they are getting along, when if fact they may be ignorantly enjoying what they can't see. Diversity in personality can help avoid blind spots on our teams, and though some conflict comes with the territory, just the realization that others experience the world in a completely different way can open eyes and raise tolerance amongst team members.

As leaders, our cry for teamwork must be accompanied with consideration for our team members' differing characteristics and a dedication to leveraging that diversity in pursuit of the team's goals.

Rachel N. Vernon, Shawn M. Bergman, Mark C. Bowler, Ericka A. Engle, Jaqueline A. Zelno, Joan R. Rentsch & David J. Woehr. "Similarity vs Diversity: The Impact of Personality Congruence on Teams", 2003.

Carl E. Larson, Frank LaFasto. Teamwork What Must Go Right/What Can Go Wrong, Sage Publications, 1989

Byrne, D. (1971) The Attraction Paradigm, New York: Academic Press

Greenwald, A. G., & Banaji, M. R. (1995). Implicit social cognition: Attitudes, self-esteem, and stereotypes. Psychological Review, 102, 4-27.

Lau & Maurnighan, Demographic Diversity and Faultlines; The Compositional Dynamic of Organizational Groups, 1998.

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