by Tyler Reimschisel, MD
I recently re-read Teams that Work by Steve Tannebaum and Eduardo Salas. Using a conceptual framework that they call the “Seven Drivers of Teamwork,” this excellent book highlights the multiple components of effective teamwork. I strongly recommend that teams read this book together, especially if you are interested in a practical summary of primary research and meta-analyses that have been completed about teams and teamwork.
While reading Tannebaum and Salas, I was reminded of the important personal attributes that team members bring to teams to help the teams achieve higher impact. In addition to task-oriented knowledge and skills that are specific to the work of the team, team members also influence or contribute to the team when they demonstrate excellence in individual team-oriented knowledge and skills. In this article, I will briefly review several of those personal, team-oriented attributes that are important for effective teamwork.
To begin, the cognitive ability of the team members is an essential component of effective teamwork. The authors define cognitive ability as “the capacity to perform higher mental processes of reasoning, recalling, understanding, and problem-solving.” In this context, it is not what someone knows, but how they perform cognitive tasks within a team. For example, teams that solve problems together need to manage this process differently than they would as individuals. Individuals thinking alone automatically and rapidly bounce back and forth between the cognitive processes that are required to solve problems and make decisions. However, for maximal efficiency and effectiveness, it is important that teams intentionally and methodically work through each step of the decision-making process one step at a time (Pittampalli, 2019). Leaders should keep the team members focused on one specific step in the process, then the team should intentionally move to the next step once the team is ready to make the transition.
Teams also benefit when at least some members have a collective orientation or are “team players.” This includes individuals who prefer doing a given task in a team and promote the interests of the team above that of individuals within the team. It is important to keep in mind that we can excel at collective orientation while also manifesting individual excellence. For example, applicants to the Australian Army Special Forces were 2.6 times more likely to complete the rigorous military training if they also viewed themselves as team workers (Gayton and Kehoe, 2015). Furthermore, employees who demonstrate more helpful and supportive behaviors typically receive higher individual performance evaluations and are more likely to be nominated for individual awards (Podsakoff et al, 2009).
There is also evidence that individuals who possess general knowledge about teams and teamwork can benefit the team. This team savviness includes knowing what positively and negatively influences a team and being aware of how to handle team dynamics (Morgeson et al, 2005). This is why reading about teamwork; attending retreats, workshops and courses on teamwork; and reflecting on your personal experiences within a team can help your team achieve higher impact.
Adaptability or the willingness of individuals to be flexible to change is also crucial to productive teamwork. In fact, this attribute is so important that elements of it arise twice in the TeamSTEPPS definition of a team:
Two or more people who interact dynamically, interdependently, and adaptively toward a common and valued goal, have specific roles or functions and have a time-limited membership
According to this definition, teams are inherently dynamic and adaptive, and individuals who are not rigid and can tolerate change can be a very calming and stabilizing influence on their teams.
Tannebaum and Salas emphasize two additional personal attributes that can benefit teams: conscientiousness and agreeableness. Certainly, team members who are conscientious, diligent, dependable and organized are enormously helpful to a team. Just think of all the times you have worked with individuals who do not complete their assigned work or do it half-heartedly. Agreeableness is the “tendency to be trusting, helpful and cooperative rather than highly competitive and suspicious of others.” People who are persistently resistant to working together exhaust me. The team has to spend energy dealing with their counterproductive attitude and approach, and this takes time and energy away from focusing on the work of the team.
I am sure there are many other team-oriented attributes that individuals bring to effective teamwork. If you think of one or have read about additional personal traits that benefit teams and teamwork, please share them with me (firstname.lastname@example.org). In my next Tips for High-Impact Teamwork article, I will review the personal attributes that can undermine teamwork and lead to team dysfunction.
Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. TeamSTEPPS 2.0. Available at: https://www.ahrq.gov/teamstepps/instructor/index.html
Gayton SD and Kehoe EJ. Character strengths and hardiness of Australian Army Special Forces applicants. Military Medicine 2015;180(8):857-862.
Morgeson FP et al. Selecting individuals in team settings. Personnel Psych 2005;55:583-611.
Pittampalli A. Why Groups Struggle to Solve Problems Together. Harvard Business Review. November 7, 2019.
Podsakoff et al. Individual and organizational-level consequences of organizational citizenship behaviors. Journal of Applied Psychology 2009;94(1):122-141.
Tannebaum S and Salas E. Teams that Work: The Seven Drivers of Team Effectiveness. Oxford University Press, 2021.