The Truth about Teambuilding>
Why Teamwork Science Doesn’t Matter

When I hit the 600-source mark in my research bibliography, here was my conclusion on the importance of this achievement: Nobody cares.

Science is largely ignored by most people, even though they all benefit greatly from it. If you are reading this on a computer or smartphone, took a prescription today, and know ways to reduce your stress levels, science is making your life better every day. If you are a manager, science would cut your sources of stress significantly if you would make active use of it.

On a contract at Microsoft, I shared an office with an efficient developer who had a meeting with our project manager at a customer’s home. They had to drive separately, and my office-mate had not been there before. She mapped the location on two different Web sites, and despite leaving 15 minutes after he did, got there 20 minutes before, even though he’d made no stops. “How did you get here so fast?” he asked her. She explained her route. “Oh,” he said. “Well, I knew there had to be a better way to get here, but I just came the way I had before.” We found this a perfect allegory for why his project was so poorly run. He did not even try to find a better way to get where he was going.

Teamwork science is like those mapping sites, showing you the fastest route to a team that accomplishes the work you need done at the lowest cost and stress. Yet the vast majority of managers don’t even know the route exists. This is mostly due to lack of training. As supervisor guru Wally Bock points out, “American companies spend less than 10 percent of their training budget on supervisors.”[1] Adding to the problem, as you have seen, many consultants and trainers don’t bother to do real research, instead relying on an Internet filled with inaccuracies and short-term “quick fixes” to long-term challenges. Doing the research is hard. As far as I could find, I was the only blogger regularly reading teamwork studies and reporting on them.

Part of the reason science is ignored is science reporting, I say as a former journalist. Most newspapers do not have science reporters. Much of the reporting is done by people with only a marginal understanding of how science builds consensus around a result. Science learns the way you do: It takes wrong turns, learns that the same answer does not apply in all cases, and discovers it missed key facts when drawing earlier conclusions. It learns by repeated attempts, debates, and corrections. Like you, science finds new information that forces a tweak to its approach. But just as you eventually learn a new language or job skill and find it helps you in most situations, so too does science. A good science reporter places the latest findings into the context of all these factors, but too few of those people are still around.

Politicians don’t help. The political debates on evolution and climate change focus on exceptions instead of rules. They ignore that initially, zero scientists thought evolution was true or that humans could impact the climate of the earth. In each case, it took decades of careful data gathering and study and logical argument by trained professionals in multiple fields on various sides of the debate to reach consensus. In each case scientists have presented evidence that cannot be explained by any other means, evidence unknown or ignored by opponents. Opponents have to focus on cases taken out of context that suggest otherwise, and the few unconvinced scientists who are equivalent to people still using rotary dial landlines instead of smartphones.

In the teamwork realm, personality once was considered likely to play a major role in team performance. Years of debate and research proved this untrue, and that personality is too complicated to be the main tool in team leadership. People assume my anti-assessment stand is a bias, which I resent. I would love for personality tests to fix teamwork problems. That would be much easier than the messy work I have to do over months to help a team function well. But the science doesn’t support their use.

The “Paying for Performance” topic provides another example of me following the science as a leader even when I don’t prefer the technique as an employee. It showed that monetary rewards tied to performance improve performance. But this is not true for me. I would fall in the 8% of survey respondents who “would have reached (performance) objectives without the incentives.” Unlike most people, I rate highly on a trait psychologists call “self-monitoring,” where I closely watch my behaviors and adjust them to match my goals. I also scored a 4.88 out of 5 on the Grit Survey, meaning I have unusually high long-term persistence. I don’t reveal these facts out of conceit, because both tendencies have gotten me into trouble over the years, too. My point is that I use and teach management techniques that science proves to work for most people most of the time, and that I have seen work in a wide variety of teams—even if I do not like them personally.

Managers regularly turn around team performance at every level of every industry, with every combination of (healthy) personalities and demographics. I’ve made a career of it. So if your team is not performing the way you want it to, don’t make the excuse, “that won’t work with my team.” Assuming you hire human beings, the teambuilding methods I and other long-term team-changers use will work with your team, because they align with scientific findings about group psychology. To change your team, don’t go the same way you have gone before. Map your path using the consensus from 60 years of teamwork science and you will get the results you want.

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