Why Some Teams Don’t Work

Why Some Teams Don't Work

Assembling a team of talented individuals is only the first step toward success. The real challenge lies in ensuring that this team can work together effectively to meet deadlines and achieve goals. Despite having a roster of skilled professionals, you may find your team underperforming, a situation that can be both perplexing and frustrating. In this article, we’ll examine why some teams don’t work.

The Need For Common Understanding

It’s a common misconception that if each member is clear on their individual tasks, the team will naturally succeed. However, this overlooks the crucial aspect of how team members interact and collaborate with one another.

The reluctance to micromanage may lead managers to adopt a hands-off approach, expecting teams to navigate their dynamics independently. However, this can result in a disjointed effort, with members unsure of how to integrate their work with that of their colleagues. Providing clear guidance on roles and responsibilities is essential, but fostering a culture of empathy and understanding is equally important. This dual focus on clarity and empathy cultivates a common understanding, enabling teams to excel not just in their tasks but in their collaboration as well.

Empathy in management goes beyond simply putting yourself in another’s shoes. It involves actively fostering a team culture where members are attuned to each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and working styles. This was exemplified by Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut, who led a diverse team on the International Space Station. Hadfield prioritized team cohesion. He realized that the mission’s difficulties would not stem from a lack of technical knowledge but rather from the potential clashes arising from differences in personality and work preferences, which tend to intensify over extended periods in close quarters. To foster understanding and unity, Hadfield lived and worked in both the United States and Russia, immersing himself in their respective cultures. He encouraged the team to share their preferences, connect with each other’s families, and engage in role-playing exercises to anticipate reactions to challenging scenarios.

This dual understanding—clarity regarding tasks and insight into each other’s perspectives—proved instrumental in the mission’s remarkable success. Despite spending five months together in the confined quarters of the ISS, the team never experienced heated arguments. They faced unexpected challenges, including the loss of a loved one while in space and a sudden ammonia tank leak, which demanded an urgent spacewalk. However, their thorough preparation and understanding allowed them to navigate these challenges effectively and ensure the mission’s triumphant completion.

Why Empathy Works

Research by Dr. Anita Williams Woolley at Carnegie Mellon University highlights that the success of a team isn’t solely dependent on the intelligence or diversity of its members. Dr. Woolley and her research team tested 152 teams and gave them assignments that required collaboration, creative thinking, decision making challenges and involved planning ahead. Initially, the researchers assumed that factors like intelligence or level of skills specific to the task would best predict which teams performed well. But surprisingly, it was a team’s level of social perceptiveness and ability to work together harmoniously that predicted performance—including high-performance on tasks in which the team had merely average intelligence or no discernable skills for the task. Teams that develop a shared behavioral norm and understand each other’s contributions could tackle any task efficiently. In other words, the more common understanding, the more likely the team was to perform.

How To Build Common Understanding

Building empathy within a team doesn’t require grand gestures but can start with simple, everyday interactions. Here’s a few ways to get started:

Find Free Time:

One of the most productive times for team collaboration is when the team does nothing at all. That sounds counterintuitive, but humans are social creatures and socialization is how we learn about each other best. In times when people aren’t talking about work, they’re usually talking about themselves. They’re describing past experiences, introducing their family, and sharing hobbies and interests that extend beyond their job description and training.

These moments of self-disclosure allow the whole team to understand the person better, and they allow individual teammates to find uncommon commonalities—things that those two have in common, that are uncommon to the rest of the team. These uncommon commonalities are how individuals build bonds and how coworkers turn into friends. A myriad of research suggests having friends at work and on a team makes people more productive, engaged, and resilient.

Some unstructured times happen naturally, like the moments before a meeting when some of the team is in the conference room or on the video call early. But other times may need to be created deliberately, like setting certain days to eat together or creating a calendar of paired “coffee chat” appointments between coworkers. These deliberate times might seem fundatory (mandatory fun that’s not actually that fun), but that’s likely because the team doesn’t know that much about each other yet. As these times continue and as the team grows closer and develops more empathy, they’ll quickly turn into some of the most energizing times on a team’s calendar.

Write Manuals of Me:

Think of this as a user’s manual, like the one you’re handed when you get a new car. Have each person on the team draft a short document telling their teammates more about them and how they prefer to work. These manuals help the team understand why one person always seems overly optimistic and another skeptical, and why one person writes long, contemplative emails and another writes back “Sounds good.” This saves time and confusion and also helps reduce conflict, perhaps better than any over-priced personality test could.

One easy template to start contains four simple statements:
I am at my best when __________.
I am at my worst when __________.
You can count on me to __________.
What I need from you is __________.

Send these questions out and ask the team to ponder them for a while before meeting to share answers. If you’re the leader, establish trust by going first (more on that in Part Two). Allow time after each statement for questions and clarification, as people are trying to apply what has been shared to past experiences with that person. Just like team charters, the real value is not in the document, but in drafting and sharing it.

Share Gratitude:

One of the simplest and most powerful ways to build empathy and connection with someone else is to show appreciation. So, it’s not surprising that research suggests high-performing teams express significantly more gratitude to each other than other groups. In addition, increasing expressions of gratitude on a team also increase the openness to helping each other on future projects. The benefits of gratitude aren’t just reserved for the receiver, they’re also gotten by the giver (Please forgive the grammar there in favor of some awesome alliteration).

Taking the time to say “thank you” increases well-being and brain function and reduces impatience and other stressors that get in the way of empathizing with colleagues. Grateful people are more relaxed, more resilient, and earn about seven percent more than their ungrateful colleagues.

Consider starting a few public displays of appreciation on your team. This could be a weekly ritual at the end of a meeting where each person says thanks to someone else on the team (and pay attention, you want to make sure everyone receives at least one kudos). It could also be by creating a “Weekly Praise” email or communication channel where members share what they appreciated about each other this past week. If you need an even smaller start, you could target just one person and pass around a symbol or token when they receive appreciation (the token also nominates them to share next week).


Creating a high-performing team is akin to playing chess, where understanding the unique strengths and roles of each piece is crucial to victory. By fostering a culture of clarity, empathy, and mutual understanding, you enable your team to navigate the complexities of collaboration effectively. This approach not only enhances performance but also builds a resilient and adaptable team capable of achieving its objectives. Remember, the path to a high-performing team is a journey of building understanding and empathy, a strategy that, while it may require time and patience, yields substantial rewards for those willing to invest in it.


About the author

David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.

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