Unlearning Team Myths

by Ryan T. Hartwig

Most people know, or think they know, something about working effectively in teams. From an early age, we learn how to function in groups and be good team players. Yet, despite all we “know” about teamwork, frustration and ineffectiveness often prevail, because much of what we “know” does not align with research and critical thought. We work poorly in teams because we think poorly about teamwork.

To make the most of collaboration, we must transform our thoughts about teamwork. Every day in my classroom, I challenge students to unlearn much of what they know about communication. In my book, Burst: Bursting the Bubbles of 5 Teamwork Myths, I help people unlearn common, but delusional, notions about the way we work in teams.

Myth 1: Teams are best built on trust and relationship.

"The chief object of education is not to learn things; nay the chief object of education is to unlearn things."

  • G.K. Chesterton

Taking our cues from Patrick Lencioni, author of the bestselling book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, we believe trust is the foundation for team performance. In response, we prioritize building relationships and trust when forming groups. Prompt awkward team-building activities. But, extensive research on group development, summarized well in Susan Wheelan’s Creating Effective Teams, clearly demonstrates that no matter the trust level, a small group or team will not succeed without articulation of and commitment to clear vision, purpose, and performance challenges. The best teams immediately clarify and then pursue their purpose, knowing that trust results through performance, not before it.

Build teams on and around purpose so that your team can accomplish its mission and build solid, trusting relationships.

Myth 2: Teamwork requires people to set aside their self-interests.

There’s no “I” in team, or so the saying goes. This is absurd—there is an “I” in everything we do. Though some scholars and practitioners suggest people on teams put aside their narrow self-interests in favor of the team’s interests, they miss a fundamental part of the human condition. Though we can be altruistic to an extent, we never fully set aside our self-interests. Software company Red Gate understands this phenomenon, encouraging employees to “attempt to do the best work of your life,” explaining, “We’d like you to achieve your own greatness and to be all that you can be.” Because people commit to and give their best to a team when they can reach individual goals while pursuing team goals, great teams not only allow, but encourage, people to fulfill their personal interests as part of the team.

Rather than forcing people to leave their interests at the door, build teams that embrace individuals’ interests and passions. Those teams will succeed as people pursue both individual and team goals.

"To make the most of collaboration, we must transform out thoughts about teamwork."

  • Ryan Hartwig, Ph.D.

Myth 3: Teams must establish a leader.

Believing that team success relies on strong leadership, we often quickly assign someone to be the team leader. In doing so, we wrongly interpret leadership as something an established leader does, rather than behavior that leads. Contrary to popular opinion, the best teams comprise multiple people who exercise leadership, whether they hold formal leadership positions or not. Numerous studies indicate that formal leaders account for only a small part (as little as 15 percent in one study) of variance in team performance.1 Social psychologists call this pervasive overemphasis of positional leadership the leadership attribution error. In support of the concept, my own study of nearly 150 church leadership teams2­­ indicated that personality, behavior, or style of the team’s formal leader did not predict significant differences in overall team performance.

Whether you are labeled “the leader” or not, empower yourself and start leading. Do the things that constitute effective team leadership, including parsing out those duties among other team members. If you are the formal leader, do not merely occupy the position—lead.

If you are weary of group projects and team-building nonsense, stop thinking of leadership as something reserved for those higher up the ladder. Start leading. If you serve in a formal role of authority, clarify and pursue your team’s purpose while preserving group members’ self-interests. A purpose-focused team that invites all members to pursue their own goals and exercise leadership will perform at a high level and enjoy the process.

Originally published in the Fall '13 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.