Simplicity of Teamwork

Simplicity of Teamwork

Brian Pratt
Brian Pratt

October 25, 2011

I remember in my times as a restaurant worker that the management would always give us these rhyming platitudes that were after-school-special cheesy. One of them, “teamwork makes the dream work!” was on the mark. I think now I’d say something more like “GOOD teamwork makes the dream work.” But what actually makes a good, productive team? What goes into making a healthy environment where everyone on the team can be involved in solving problems?

In my time here at 8th Light I’ve been extremely fortunate to work alongside some very talented teams, including our own, and beyond talent and discipline, there are certain patterns that have established themselves: culture and personality also play a huge role.

We’ve seen in countless studies throughout the past that the personality of a group tends to paint the personalities of the people in the group, and to a large extent that’s true. Social norms have a huge effect on how we behave, how we contribute, and of course, how willing we are to share ideas or debate the merits of an existing idea.

We also have seen over and over that a group that has issues with working together as a whole can easily be consumed by negativity. And sometimes the problem gets so bad that it’s only a matter of time before the project is doomed, all from poor teamwork. But what about a team that’s, by and large, doing okay? What can you do, personally, to make your workplace more harmonious? And can one person even have a measurable effect on a group’s performance?

This study, (led by Will Felps at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business), looked at all kinds of data on group dynamics in business situations, and found that there are three distinct personality types that can successfully ruin the dynamics of the entire group.

The first is simply to be a jerk. No surprise here. A jerk would be someone who shoots down an idea in an abusive or sarcastic way, usually driving the point home with something like “have you even worked with [insert subject here] before?” Of course the jerk does not offer any kind of productive thoughts, or even a good reason for objecting, they just shoot people down with meanness and intimidation.

The second is to be a slacker. Again, not a big surprise. A slacker doesn’t care, doesn’t try, watches the clock and waits for their time to leave and go home. A slacker is full of phrases like, “Yeah, whatever,” or “I really don’t care.”

The third is what the study refers to as a “depressive pessimist.” The depressive pessimist will make statements doubting the ability of the group to succeed, or claiming the assigned task is unenjoyable. They’ll respond to new ideas or suggestions with something like, “Who cares? It doesn’t matter, [insert big problem here], we’ll never fix it.”

So, to test this, the study divided undergrad students into groups of four, had them work collaboratively on a hypothetical workplace assignment where they would have to make a few simple management decisions. But in some groups, researchers placed an actor who would exhibit these tendencies as shown above, and the results were pretty astounding. As expected, the “bad apple” had a large effect on the group’s overall performance, but it went even further!

The personality of the “bad apple” spread to others in the group as well. For example, when teams were grouped with the actor playing the “jerk” personality, researchers saw increases in the amount of arguing, not just arguing between the team and the actor, but between the team members themselves as well. Since I read this report, I keep asking myself: “Am I the weak link? Am I doing everything I can to make this work? And how exactly am I supposed to respond to someone if they exhibit certain ‘bad apple’ behaviors?”

The best way to handle someone who’s out of line is to respond with inquiries. Invite collaboration. A question delivered in the right way, even if it’s just a request for clarification, doesn’t provoke or divide, it simply puts the burden of proof back on the instigator. A good question invites others to weigh in, allowing your team to address any problems directly and in the open instead of addressing the problem with muttered complaints. And if the team as a whole is negatively reinforcing ‘bad apple’ behavior, then societal norms actually begin to work in your favor.

In the aforementioned study, there were a few teams that managed to flourish despite the dead weight of the actor playing the “bad apple” role, and the common pattern on those teams was good collaborative leadership. When faced with this kind of behavior, they asked questions of the instigator, tried to get him or her to explain their feelings further, and in doing so, they shifted the added social pressure off of themselves and onto the actor.

Sound too simple to even be true? That’s the genius of the Socratic method and its incalculable contributions to our society.

Gregory Vlastos, a Socrates scholar and professor of philosophy at Princeton, described Socrates’ method of inquiry as "among the greatest achievements of humanity." Why? … Instead of requiring allegiance to a specific philosophical viewpoint or analytic technique or specialized vocabulary, the Socratic method "calls for common sense and common speech." Christopher Phillips, Socrates Cafe

At 8th Light, we make it our philosophy to find simple and elegant solutions to problems. Not just in software: we create an environment where everyone has a say, should they want it. And after working within that environment and embracing its simplicity, it feels to me as if working any other way would defy common sense.