Teamwork is a constant in organizational life. You will work on teams for the majority of your career. Some of those teams will be an uplifting, engaging experience—but most will be an average or even a draining experience. Because most teams aren’t high-performing ones. Most teams fail to achieve a level of performance above the average of each individual’s capabilities. Most teams lack what Stephen Covey would call “synergy” but what organizational psychologists call “collective intelligence.”
Collective intelligence happens when a team’s performance on tasks exceeds what would be predicted by averaging the capabilities of each member. Collectively intelligence teams find a way to bring out more from each other than they even expected of themselves. And the inverse is true as well. When teams fail, it’s often because they fail to achieve collective intelligence.
In this article, we’ll outline three different reasons teamwork fails—or at least fails to achieve collective intelligence.
The first reason teamwork fails is social loafing. Social loafing is a phenomenon that can seriously undermine the effectiveness of a team. It refers to individuals who do not fully commit to tasks or deadlines, taking advantage of the interdependence of work in teams. This lack of commitment can lead to missed deadlines, incomplete tasks, and a general decrease in team productivity.
The key to addressing social loafing is accountability. By holding each team member accountable for their assigned tasks, it is possible to remove the opportunity for social loafing. Regular check-ins can also be beneficial, as they allow team leaders to monitor progress and ensure that everyone is pulling their weight. By fostering a culture of accountability, teams can minimize the impact of social loafing and ensure that all members are contributing effectively.
The second reason teamwork fails is unequal sharing. This occurs when certain individuals dominate conversations, preventing the full range of ideas from being expressed. When this happens, the benefits of all the team’s diversity are not fully utilized, leading to suboptimal decision making.
To address unequal sharing, it can be helpful to introduce structure into team meetings. This could involve using timers to ensure that everyone gets a chance to speak or breaking larger teams into smaller groups to facilitate more balanced conversation. Encouraging conversational turn-taking can also be beneficial, as it ensures that all voices are heard.
Lack of Social Sensitivity
The third reason teamwork fails is a lack of social sensitivity. This is a less obvious, but equally damaging, issue that can affect team performance. It refers to the inability to perceive and empathize with the emotions and beliefs of others. This lack of empathy can lead to misunderstandings, conflict, and a lack of cohesion within the team.
Increasing social sensitivity within a team can be achieved in several ways. One effective strategy is to add more women to the team, as research has shown that teams with a higher proportion of women tend to have higher levels of social sensitivity. Additionally, taking steps to better understand and empathize with team members can also be beneficial. This could involve team-building exercises, training in emotional intelligence, or simply taking the time to listen and understand each other’s perspectives. By modeling behavior and teaching empathy, teams can become more socially sensitive and therefore more effective.
Building collective intelligence within a team is not always straightforward. It requires careful management and a commitment to fostering a positive team culture. By addressing issues such as social loafing, unequal sharing, and lack of social sensitivity, teams can become smarter and less likely to fail. The strategies outlined in this article provide a starting point for teams looking to improve their effectiveness and achieve their goals.
About the author
David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.