For all the lip service business leaders pay to teamwork, research consistently shows that people working solo tend to outperform teams. Even among teams comprising individual superstars, few become dream teams that achieve and innovate beyond all expectations. But they do exist, and Shane Snow, science journalist and co-founder of content marketing firm Contently, wanted to know if it was possible to identify and replicate whatever chemistry creates them.
Credit: Shane Snow
Snow’s new book, Dream Teams: Working Together Without Falling Apart, led him to unexpected places on the way to discovering the answer, including a pirate ship, a rap collective, massively multiplayer online video games, and a deep dive into the career of Star Trek icon George Takei. The book examines the neuroscience and technology behind teamwork and group dynamics to isolate the components in the formula for successful collaboration.
We asked Snow what business leaders need to do differently to overcome the tension between cooperation and competition that often leads teams to breakdowns instead of breakthroughs.
Business culture tends to value certainty and defaults to operating in tested, approved ways. How can leaders encourage the open-mindedness and flexibility that you discovered creates a dream team?
Shane Snow: For starters, business leaders themselves need to develop intellectual humility and get on board with the idea that it’s important to recognize their own fallibility. I think we should celebrate leaders who are able to say, “I was wrong, I changed my mind.” Flip-flopping on decisions out of gullibility or for expedience is bad for business, but so is being too stoic or stubborn and refusing to make necessary changes when someone identifies a better way to do something. A good leader should be in the middle.
People do what they’re incentivized to do, so we also need to change the way leaders measure and reward people’s impact on a team. Today, the people who get all the praise and rewards are those who stand out as individuals. If you want a dream team, you need to value the people whose presence makes the whole team perform better by a measurable amount. You need to reward people for focusing less on being lone cowboys or heroes than on helping the team reach its goal in whatever way works best.
One of your key ingredients for creating a dream team is cognitive diversity, that is, having team members with different experiences and perspectives. How can leaders include a variety of viewpoints in the team’s problem-solving toolkit while controlling conflicts when people inevitably disagree?
Snow: Leaders have to stop thinking of conflict as a problem and recognize that diversity is a strength that gives us energy. We say teamwork is about marching united to the beat of the same drum, but you can’t bring together people from many different areas, viewpoints, and demographics and then ask them to conform to just a handful of viewpoints with little nuance. In fact, when I surveyed employees from 100 major U.S. companies in 2016, my resulting data was clear: organizations that encourage people to express their unique perspectives are more innovative than companies that ignore or punish employees who disagree with the approved way of thinking. I’m eager to do follow-up studies to this in other countries, but the underlying science of teamwork indicates to me that it’s a pretty good bet that this principle applies globally as well.
Instead of being the drum majors who keep everyone in line, leaders in a global market with a global workforce have to start being facilitators who integrate a wide array of views and welcome the dissent that prods the team into trying something new, without letting it slide into personal attacks or wasted time.
As you note, the same diversity of thinking that makes a team stronger can also create interpersonal friction. You write that playing is as important as having shared goals to reduce that friction. Are there better play alternatives than the dreaded team-building retreat?
Snow: Try setting up smaller off-site situations that let people connect and be playful according to their own preferences, or do it during the workday. Whatever you do, it needs to feel authentic.
You can do lots of fun, little things as a leader to show you care without being intrusive. You could distribute a paper memo about quarterly reviews as an excuse to leave a little toy with the memo. You could send breakout groups to an improvisational theater class during the workday; working with a good improv coach for an hour or two is guaranteed to make people feel more connected. Or you could let your employees create their own bonding experiences. When Contently’s programmers set up regular game nights, people from other departments eventually started showing up spontaneously, including our CEO.
The fundamentals of team-building retreats, like getting out of your home environment so that you can step outside your assumptions and tap the power of play and humor, are really important. But forced fun is not fun! D!