Teams and Teamwork

Teams are a particular form of work group. They are groups of people who share responsibility for producing products or delivering services. They share overall work objectives and ideally have the necessary authority, autonomy, and resources to achieve these objectives. Team members are dependent on each other to achieve the objectives and therefore have to work closely, interdependently, and supportively to achieve the team’s goals. Members have distinct and clear roles. Effective teams have as few members as necessary to perform the task and are ideally no larger than six to eight members. And the team is recognized by others in the organization as a team. The team rather than the individual is increasingly considered the basic building block of organizations and team based working the modus operandi of organizations (West et al. 2003).

There are multiple types of teams in organizations: advice and involvement teams, e.g., management decision making committees, quality control (QC) circles, staff involvement teams; production and service teams, e.g., assembly teams; maintenance, construction, mining, and commercial airline teams; departmental teams; sales and health care teams; project and development teams, e.g., research teams, new product development teams, software development teams; action and negotiation teams, e.g., military combat units, surgical teams, and trade union negotiating teams.

Why work in teams? In many areas of endeavor, research has shown how team working can lead to greater efficiency or effectiveness. An analysis of the combined results of 131 studies of organizational change found that interventions with the largest effects upon financial performance were team development interventions or the creation of autonomous work teams (Macy & Izumi 1993). Applebaum and Batt (1994) reviewed 12 large scale surveys and 185 case studies of managerial practices. They concluded that team based working led to improvements in organizational performance on measures of both efficiency and quality. Similarly, Cotton (1993) reports on studies examining the effects of team working on productivity, satisfaction, and absenteeism. The author reviews 57 studies that report improvements on productivity, seven that found no change, and five that report productivity declines, following the implementation of self directed teams. Finally, studies in health care have repeatedly shown that better patient care is provided when health professionals work together in multidisciplinary teams.

The History of Team Theory and Research

The source of the stream of research on teams can be traced to the Hawthorne studies which established the importance of intergroup relations in organizations, the influences of teams on their members, and the importance of informal groups in influencing work related behavior.

Two strands of thought about teams emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. The first focused on the whole team and examined unconscious phenomena in work teams (Bion 1961). Bion argued that teams developed ”basic assumptions” in discussions of organizational culture, which could impede their effective functioning. These include basic assumptions of dependence (one of the team’s members will look after the needs of the team and ensure its effectiveness); pairing (two team members will join together to produce a leader in some way, leading to a sense of messianic anticipation in the team); and fight-flight (the team meets to fight an enemy or run away, and is consequently unable to do any effective work). However, little research has been stimulated by this approach.

The second strand has led to considerably more theorizing and research internationally. The sociotechnical tradition proposed that social and task related outcomes can be optimized through appropriate task and work design – the well being of team members can be achieved in conjunction with team performance, through the joint optimization of the application of technology, organization, and the use of human resources.

In the last 20 years, there has been an altogether new emphasis amongst writers concerned with understanding work team effectiveness -the organizational context within which teams perform (Hackman 1990; Guzzo & Shea 1992). Hackman (1990), for example, has drawn attention to the influence of organizational reward, training, and information systems in influencing team effectiveness.

Guzzo and Shea developed a reciprocal model of team effectiveness. They argue that outcome interdependence among team members leads to higher team effectiveness. Outcome interdependence refers to the extent to which team members are dependent on each other to achieve organizational rewards such as recognition, career advancement, and financial rewards. Task inter dependence moderates the relationship between outcome interdependence and effectiveness, because outcome interdependence can only lead to greater effectiveness if team members are required to work interdependently to get the job done. But the most significant element of the model (theoretically) is the concept of potency, rather like self efficacy but at the team level characterized by a team sense of likely success and ability to meet challenges. This is a direct predictor of team effectiveness in the model. They extended this approach by proposing that potency best predicts team effectiveness in conjunction with three other factors – the alignment of team goals with organizational goals, organizational rewards for team accomplishments, and the avail ability of resources for teams.

Another model of team effectiveness has been developed from a focus on team reflexivity. West (1996) argues that most models of team performance tend to present static rather than dynamic processes, yet teams often change rapidly as a result of experience and member turnover, requiring repeated adaptation of communication and decision making processes. West proposes that what may best predict team effectiveness is an overarching factor influencing all aspects of team performance – team task reflexivity. He argues that teams are effective to the extent that they reflect upon their task objectives, strategies, processes, and environments and adapt these aspects of their functioning accordingly. In relation to the wider organizational environment, non reflexive teams will tend to comply unquestioningly with organizational demands and expectancies; accept organizational limitations; fail to discuss or challenge organizational incompetence; communicate indebtedness and dependence on the organization; and rely heavily on organizational direction and reassurance. Reflexive teams, in contrast, are more likely to be agents of innovative change within the organization, developing ideas for new and improved products, services, or ways of working.

This brief account of some of the major theoretical approaches illustrates the move toward less descriptive models, which take into account organizational factors and reveal too that researchers are coming to terms with the inherent complexity and cloudiness of real teams in organizations.

Team Effectiveness

Much effort has been devoted to understanding the factors which promote team effectiveness. The thinking of most researchers has been dominated by an input-process-output model, mainly because of its simplicity and utility. Inputs include the task of the team, team com position (size, functional and demographic diversity, tenure), and organizational context (such as culture, support for team working, structure). Some processes mediate the relationships between inputs and outputs such as participation mediating the effects of diversity upon innovation, while some inputs such as organizational context directly influence outputs. Processes include participation (influence over decision making, interactions, and information sharing), leadership, conflict, decision making, interteam processes, and reflexivity. Team out puts include productivity, innovation, team member well being, and team learning.

Inputs to Teams

The team task. The task a team performs is a fundamental influence on the work team, defining its structural, process, and functional requirements – who is in the team, what their roles are, how they should work together, and the nature and processes of the tasks they individually and collectively perform.

Dimensions for classifying task characteristics include task difficulty; solution multiplicity; intrinsic interest; cooperative requirement tasks which are unitary versus divisible, conjunctive, disjunctive, and additive; conflict versus cooperation elements; and conceptual versus behavioral components. These classification systems, developed by social psychologists, have not been fruitful for researchers exploring team performance and innovation in organizational settings, probably because such goals as producing television programs, battleground training, health care, product development, and providing financial services cannot be neatly categorized into discrete tasks and subtasks.

Sociotechnical systems theory (STST) provides a powerful framework for examining the effects of task design upon work team innovation. Sociotechnical systems theorists argue that autonomous work teams provide a structure through which the demands of the social and technical subsystems of an organization can be jointly optimized. The key to effective performance is then whether the work team can control variation in quality and quantity of task performance at source. The joint optimization of the two subsystems is more likely when work teams have the following characteristics:

  • The team is a relatively independent organizational unit that is responsible for a whole task.
  • The tasks of members are related in content so that awareness of a common task is evoked and maintained and members are required to work interdependently.
  • There is a ”unity of product and organization,” i.e., the team has a complete task to perform and team members can ”identify with their own product.”

The task characteristics that evoke ”task orientation” or intrinsic motivation (and therefore innovation) according to STST are:

  • completeness (i.e., whole tasks);
  • varied demands;
  • opportunities for social interaction;
  • autonomy;
  • opportunities for learning;
  • development possibilities for the task.

Team composition. Team composition – used here to refer to the ”mix” of members making up a team – has been examined in various ways. One examines the question of whether heterogeneity is advantageous to groups. The theoretical perspectives that have guided much of the research in this area include the attraction-selection-attrition model, similarity-attraction theory, and self-categorization theory. A basic premise of all three is that we are attracted to those who are similar to us and thus organize, and evaluate, our social worlds accordingly. In the second line of research, it is assumed that heterogeneity is valuable but groups need to have the right mix of members. This approach questions which combination of roles, styles, or skills fits together particularly well and which types of people are needed within groups. Research in this area has tended to focus on heterogeneity in terms of demographic variables, skills, attitudes, cognitive ability, and, more recently, personality traits. Although much of the early research on group heterogeneity examined experimental laboratory based groups, focus on ”real world” groups has typified more recent research in this area.

Some studies suggest facilitative effects of heterogeneity on team performance. This pat tern is most likely when the characteristics in question are skills or educational specialization. Strategic management initiatives appear more likely to be made by groups that were heterogeneous with respect to educational specialization. More recently, studies in health care suggest that the greater the number of professional groups represented in teams, the higher the levels of innovation in patient care. It might be that skill heterogeneity means that each group member is more likely to have non redundant – and, presumably, relevant – expertise to contribute to the team activities. Groups that include both diverse and overlapping knowledge domains and skills are particularly creative.

Some debate has surrounded the question of whether it is advantageous to have groups that are homogeneous or heterogeneous with respect to cognitive ability. Results of two recent meta analyses suggest that the relation between ability heterogeneity and performance may be somewhat complex. Based on these analyses, it appears that, in general, ability heterogeneity and performance are unrelated. Thus, there would seem little justification to select team members with a view to dispersing their cognitive ability levels.

Teams which are diverse in task related attributes are often diverse in relation to attributes inherent in the individual. These relation oriented characteristics can trigger stereotypes and prejudice which, via intergroup conflict (Hogg & Abrams 1988), can affect group processes and outcomes. For example, turnover rates are higher in groups that are heterogeneous with respect to age. Two studies that have examined ethnicity diversity in groups have suggested that the effects of diversity may change over time. Milliken and Martins (1996) suggested that ethnic diversity in groups can have negative effects on individual and group out comes, primarily early in a group’s life. Similarly, in one of the very few longitudinal studies in this area, Watson et al. (1993) reported that groups that were heterogeneous with respect to culture initially performed, on a series of business case exercises, more poorly than culturally homogeneous groups. As group members gained experience with each other over time, however, performance difference between culturally homogeneous and heterogeneous groups largely disappeared.

Organizational supports. Various organizational contextual factors have been proposed as important in predicting team effectiveness. Reward systems, such as public recognition, preferred work assignments, and money, have long been known to provide motivation and affect performance, particularly when the rewards are contingent upon task achievement. Gladstein found that pay and recognition had an effect, especially upon the leader’s behavior and the way the group structured itself. Hackman (1990) identified two contingencies: whether the rewards are administered to the group as a whole or to individuals, and whether the rewards provide incentives for collaboration or delegation of tasks to individuals (the former, in both cases, are associated with positive relationships between rewards and group effectiveness). Feed back is important for setting realistic goals and fostering high group commitment. In addition, high job satisfaction requires accurate feedback from both the task and other group members. However, group feedback can be difficult to provide to teams with either long cycles of work or one off projects. Limited empirical evidence suggests training is correlated with both self reported team effectiveness and managers’ judgments of effectiveness.

Team Processes

The second major element of the input-process-output model is team processes. Among these, the most consistently important factor in determining team effectiveness is the existence of team goals or objectives (Guzzo & Shea 1992).

Objectives. The clarity or specificity of goals has also been shown to predict team performance outcomes. In order to combine efforts effectively, team members have to understand collectively what it is they are trying to achieve. Much research also indicates that involvement in goal setting fosters commitment to those goals and consequently better team performance.

Participation. The second factor of central theoretical and empirical concern in the study of team performance is the notion of participation. Research on participation in decision making has a long history, revealing that participation tends to foster greater team effectiveness and commitment. When people participate in decision making through having influence, inter acting with those involved in the change process, and sharing information, they tend to invest in the outcomes of those decisions and to offer ideas for new and improved ways of working. In Europe, schemes to increase participation have resulted in higher levels of innovation among industrial workers. At the organizational level, most writers concur that high centralization of decision making (low participation) inhibits innovation, although there is limited empirical evidence to support these views.

Task conflict. A central theme in the team work literatures is that divergent thinking and the management of competing perspectives are important processes in teamwork. Such processes are characteristic of task related team conflict and controversy. Tjosvold and colleagues have argued similarly that constructive controversy in teams improves the quality of decision making (Tjosvold 1991). Constructive controversy is characterized by full exploration of opposing opinions and frank analyses of task related issues. Constructive controversy occurs when decision makers believe they are in a cooperative team context where mutually beneficial goals are emphasized, rather than in a competitive context, where decision makers feel their personal competence is confirmed rather than questioned, and where they perceive processes of mutual influence rather than attempted dominance. Another perspective on conflict comes from minority influence theory. A number of researchers have shown that minority consistency of arguments over time is likely to lead to change in majority views in teams (Nemeth & Owens 1996). A homogeneous team in which minority dissent is suppressed will reduce creativity, innovation, individuality, and independence.


The final component of the input-process-out put model is outputs and this refers to team effectiveness or productivity, team innovation (new and improved products, services, ways of working), team member well being and satisfaction, and team viability and attachment (the cohesion and commitment to the team shown by team members). This model continues to dominate in research but it is giving way to new concerns.

Current and Future Emphases in Team Research

The focus of research is increasingly turning toward an understanding of micro and macro processes hitherto neglected by researchers and theorists. The first is a concern with agreement within teams about their perceptions of team processes and outputs manifested in theorizing about team ”mental models.” These refer to team members’ implicit and (to a greater or lesser extent) shared models of their team and its functioning as well as the wider environment with which the team engages (schema congruence and accuracy). High levels of congruence and accuracy are predicted to relate to team effectiveness. The methodological challenges of measuring shared mental models are yet to be overcome.

This concern is matched by a strong focus on trust, identity, and attachment in teams as factors that promote individual cooperation in teams (Korsgaard et al. 2003). Trust is defined as ”the individual’s intention to accept vulnerability to the group based on the expectation that the group will act in a considerate and benevolent manner toward the individual” (Korsgaard et al. 2003: 116).

However, the most vigorous new developments in this area are likely to relate to research into team based organizations (Agarwal 2003). The study of work teams has developed rich understanding of social processes and performance in organizations (West et al. 2003) and the future for this area is immensely promising. The challenge now is to understand the functioning of team based organizations (or multi team systems) and how they can be structured and developed to maximize the benefits of this basic form of human functioning in modern, large, complex organizational settings. Moreover, as alliances and networks develop within and between organizations, the spotlight of research is also exploring how teams can operate effectively across organizational boundaries (e.g., joint venture teams) and across networks to enable people to cooperate on tasks that no single organization can accomplish.


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