What You Need to Know About Your Work Team

4 min read

I’m a fan of English football (aka soccer), and I’m fascinated by the teamwork aspects of the game. I especially love good and bad examples of what the announcers like to call “understanding,” which is essentially being on the same page. I pass the ball downfield at exactly the same time you run to the space. When it works well, it’s like the players are of one mind, and it looks very impressive. When it works poorly, the pass goes to an empty space, the intended receiver runs the other way, and the team looks like a mess.

Work teams are no different. You need to know what information your boss wants in a report, what your colleagues probably told the client, or what your colleague wants in her coffee. It helps to know that your direct report has a kid getting in trouble at school and is distracted. Understanding helps us pass the ball to where our teammate will be by the time the ball arrives. So, what does our best research tell us about the most important things to know about your team?

Who knows what?

Part of the value of working in teams is that everyone brings different knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics (KSAOs) that can all be used in concert. To access those resources, though, you’ve got to know where the resources are—each housed in a different teammate. In my world of research, I need to know who has access to corporate data sources, who has deep theoretical knowledge about the topic we’re researching, who has heavy statistical skills, and who can write which pieces of the research report.

Who does what?

One cost of working in teams is that we need to coordinate, which requires attention to teamwork as well as taskwork (Mathieu & Rapp, 2009). This means there are a lot of roles to fill beyond completing specific tasks (Marks, Mathieu, & Zaccaro, 2001). Sometimes, we need to focus on big-picture decisions like goal setting and formulating strategy. While we’re working, we need to monitor resources and progress.

We also need to track each other’s workload and coordinate our actions. All the while, we need to monitor each other’s motivation and confidence and manage conflict. All of these team processes need to be filled, and we work best when they get completed without a lot of coordination or redundancy. A good teammate or leader knows who fills which formal and informal roles.

Who wants what?

Most of our work teams want to perform successfully. Beyond that, though, everyone has their own set of unique outcomes they’re looking for from the team experience. Someone may want exposure to executives or a social connection to the client. Others may want to develop their presentation skills and financial acumen or learn about a different part of the business. Someone else may want to arrange the work so they can pick up their child from school on Thursday or make sure they get to their pickleball game on Monday night. Knowing the full set of motives helps teams coordinate and ensure everyone gets the most out of the team while contributing to their full potential.

Shared ideas

For you to know about your team is one thing, but research shows it’s very important that everyone has the same idea about who knows what, who does what, and who needs what. If I think I’m the statistical genius of the bunch, but my coauthors think differently, we’re going to have a problem. For systems of knowledge and information within the group, researchers call this shared understanding “transactive memory systems” (Ren & Argote, 2011). We call shared ideas about specific team actions and their consequences for success “team mental models” (Mohammed et al., 2010). Having “symmetric” goals that coincide or are compatible helps teams feel unified and learn (Pearsall & Venkataramani, 2015).

The shortcut

The science of teams points to a shortcut to getting on the same page, and it’s simple: Talk about it. Over time, teams can come to a common understanding of who knows what, who does what, and who wants what, but we can learn a lot of these things with a targeted conversation about what each person brings to the team and what they want out of it (Mathieu & Rapp, 2009). It doesn’t require a formal team contract, just a frank discussion that focuses on these core questions, treating both teamwork and taskwork aspects of how the team will function. It will surely need updating, and it’s not a magic bullet, but a little time spent very early in a team’s lifecycle is a valuable investment in its success.

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