Mankind has been involved in some teamwork based activities since time immemorial. Long back, we read in history books, men used to team up on hunting expeditions. However, the concept of teamwork is still present in this modern age. In modern-day organizations of formal employment, professionals continue to rely on teamwork as a strategy for delivering effective outcomes. It is therefore, very important for almost everyone to understand the dynamics of teamwork. The power of teamwork is continuously well spoken of by certain authors. For example, James Surowiecki, in his book, The Wisdom of Crowds, gave a compelling account that testifies to the power of teamwork and collaboration.
The effectiveness of teamwork
Citing an interesting example, James Surowiecki adeptly articulated, the importance of teamwork, at a time of crisis. It was in 2003, when Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was first reported in China. After carrying out all the necessary precautionary protocols, the World Health Organizations immediately started investigating the cause of SARS, reported Surowiecki. To efficiently and effectively tackle the hefty task, they partnered with eleven teams of laboratory scientists from different countries who would remotely collaborate on uncovering the pathogen responsible for SARS.
The different teams of researchers made amazing progress because they collaborated well, and had regular and fruitful correspondence. Surowiecki also mentioned that the teams that were stationed in different countries would share critical new findings as well as insightful ideas by means of daily teleconferences. They even freely exchanged lab samples that each of them was working on. To that end, they really constituted a dynamic global team united by a common cause and a mutual understanding, only separated by geographic factors. The geographic factors, however, did not deter them, for they managed to pinpoint that a coronavirus was the pathogen responsible for SARS, in just two weeks after commencing their research. Had it not been for the successful teamwork approach used, it would have likely taken an individual team of scientists, months or even years to achieve similar progress. Such is a great testimony to the effectiveness of well executed teamwork.
From that account, we learn about the power of working in numbers. Given that each one of us has their own peculiarities in thinking stemming from their prior exposures, each one of us is likely to inject new perspectives during group brainstorming sessions. A team's brainstorming will likely be richer and feature the kind of horizontal thinking, that culminates into quicker innovation and problem solving. Still, however, it is not always the case in all team settings. That very force to reckon with, can be the key catalyst of doom.
Teamwork is not always rosy
Differences in perspectives can work for good if constructively expressed. However, on the other side of the picture differences in perspectives can lead to a breakdown of the group, if not productively handled. It is quite sad to note that a group can be thrown in disarray when others obstinately advocate for their ideas, while failing to acknowledge the ideas that are offered by other group members. At times this may generally sap the energy of other group members.
In other cases it is a lack of coherent industriousness displayed by one team member that frustrates other team members. It can reduce the morale to work on a task.
Lessons from Netflix
Before I got to practically observe how teamwork can be corrupted by a few unwholesome individuals, I managed to read up on the phenomenon in the book by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer entitled, 'No rules rules'. In his book, Hastings related about a time when he was forced to cut down on his workforce during a crisis in his early days at Netflix. After pondering over a criterion to use for selecting who to let go, Hastings and his management decided that they would lay off a few employees who brought "negative energy"(See footnote) to the team. Along with those they also let go of employees who did not perform any much beyond mediocrity i.e. the sub-par performers. Reading the account, delivered an instant zap to my nerves. I thought to myself that if I had been working at Netflix and delivering a sub-par performance in my work, my career would have been in jeopardy.
Interestingly, the move by Hastings and his management team to lay off, the troublesome and sub-par performing workforce bore fascinating results. Immediately after the laying off some of the staff, there was in instant and somewhat magical boost in the morale of the workers that remained at Netflix. As Hastings claimed, the remaining workforce, generally became more productive at work and soon enough they managed to seal the void left by workers who had been laid off.
"Negative energy" is contagious even if it comes from one person
I am tempted to exclaim that, "Negative energy" and poor performance are contagious!!! It was only after the contaminating elements were removed that the rest of the employees at Netflix started to perform a little bit better. Feels magical, doesn't it?
Although the outcomes seems purely magical, they are less ominous than they can be explained using basic scientific evidence. Well, as explained in the book, Professor Will Felps, of the University of New South Wales in
Australia, once conducted a fascinating study shedding light on that sort of contagious behaviour. He formed several teams of four college students and asked each team to complete a management task in 40 minutes. He promised some incentives for best performing teams. He observed how the teams were doing on their task. However, he went a step further to test the teams.
Unbeknownst to all other team members, Professor Felps had included an actor in each of the teams, who would deliberately do different things to disrupt the smooth flow of team activity. The actor would for example, slacken off and disengage from the group, by prioritising personal tasks such as sending messages while totally ignoring the group. In some cases the actor would utter unthoughtful and insulting statements to other group members. In some cases the actor would vent out pessimistic utterances and complain that the shared task was impossible.
Professor Felps keenly observed how at first all the groups looked and felt energetic until the malicious actor started to infuse some "negative energy" into the groups, which ultimately led to the breakdown of the groups or the mimicking of the jerky actor by group members who reflexively began insulting and speaking abrasively of each other. Clearly, from the experiment, the bad behaviour of only one was significant enough to spoil the whole group.
One person can make or break the team
That evidence, even though it was based on a partly synthetic experience, clearly altered my thinking. My team contributions have greater significance than, I ever realised before. If I infuse "negative energy" sufficient enough to irritate the team, the instinctive pathway that most groups take is breaking down. However, that may hinder the teams progress and ruin the team's reputation when they finally fail to deliver their mandate. The new perspective got me thinking about my previous contributions in team settings.
I realised that my previous contributions in team settings, featured a mix of excellent, not so excellent and terrible offerings. In the accounts in which I performed in a suboptimal way, I can implicate a failure to attune to the common vision of the team as the chief contributor. In some of those cases there wasn't a clearly stated common framework or vision among the group members such as when we were working to solve an unfamiliar problem or when were undertaking a task that none of us had done before. So the atmosphere would be filled with a lot of disconnected ideas offered by everyone.
In situations like these, that is when you get to identify true leaders. Leaders, who rise to the occasion to medicate the potentially divisive differences. They are usually people who see beyond the warring perspective and is able to merge the perspectives into a beautiful collage in an ideal case or at least filter out the least feasible ideas, by way of elegant explanation and persuasion. When successfully done, the roles of these leaders will likely restore the morale of everyone in the team. Before you know it, the team will be back on track again. But again, it is not all rosy. Some team members may, at worst, object efforts by the team leaders, ad hoc or otherwise. They may continue to obstinately refuse to conform to the trajectory of the team.
That, no doubt, brings "negative energy" to the team. Circumstances like that are inevitable. From our previous experiences we may know of people like that. They can be quite an inconvenience. However, I don't intend on inciting you to start identifying people who exhibited these trait before. You too may have exhibited similar traits before. Worse yet you may exhibit them in the future.
Remembering that fact, may justifiably cripple some of us with anxiety. Such is life, these things happen. Instead of narrow-mindedly shuddering of the likelihood of it occurring a better thing to do would be to learn to avoid it, by becoming more self-aware and working on your mindset. By adopting the right attitude and remembering the perspectives from Reed Hastings book, you may reduce the odds of exhibiting retrogressive behaviour in teams settings. Myself, I am not exempted from such. Even as I write, I hope to engrave the lessons on my mind for future use.
NOTE: The term "negative energy" is used in this article to denote bad attitudes, behaviours and personality traits that may be exhibited by team members that may be at worst retrogressive to the whole group, and may negatively influence every other team member.