Teams are supposed to be sexy. Playing ‘as a team’ is almost universally considered a good thing; we are told that synergetic results can be achieved in a team. However, I’m not sure there is actually a great deal of evidence for the supremacy of the team over the group or individual.

Certainly, teams can perform enormously well, and sometimes better than the individuals they comprise, but I wonder if this generally accepted norm is, in fact, the exception rather than the rule. Teams can be difficult to organise and difficult to get right; and there are many ways of getting work done that don’t require people to be in teams in any sort of authentic sense.

Conventional wisdom

The teams I examine in my research tend to be collections of individual high performers, all of whom are exceptionally good at what they do. When you deal with high performers, they are naturally going to be competitive individuals. The assumption is that when you put them in a team, the competitive drive somehow disappears or is subsumed by the need to cooperate – but, of course, it doesn’t always. This only happens occasionally, such as when teams are suddenly faced with something larger than themselves; think of teams of trauma surgeons faced with a casualty of war who will bleed to death if they don’t act collectively and effectively.

High performers’ competitive streaks are part and parcel of who they are. So what you end up with is competing forces pulling people in different directions, sometimes in the same team – and that can make teams feel awkward.

The danger in the workplace is that we try to suppress competitive tendencies in favour of harmony, and this can make individuals feel that it is unsafe to express their competitive natures. What can happen instead is that they express themselves in a less benign way by quietly belittling the work of their colleagues in private.

The sporting world has the advantage in team dynamics because the social contract is very different. In a sports team, you can give air to your competitive tendencies in fairly benign ways. Using humour is acceptable, and in rugby locker rooms, even at the highest performance level, it is quite typical to see players deface each other’s lockers, for example.

The answer is to build a workplace where people can collaborate but still give rise to their competitive tendencies. This is tricky, but can be achieved by creating a safe psychological environment (so that competition can be expressed) or by enabling situations where colleagues can collaborate and compete outside the workplace. Unfortunately, not many companies do this well.

A good way to think about this is to ensure performance takes precedence over harmony. The assumption often made is that the better we get along, the better we perform. The truth is we don’t have much evidence for this. What we do have evidence for is almost the reverse: harmony comes from good performance. If you ask people to think about the times they were part of a team and everything worked well, you will often find that everything went well because they had just survived something really difficult or they did something collectively that succeeded. A lot of companies throw money at team-building exercises, but if they give the team something to do with genuinely high stakes, then the harmony will come.

Power dynamics

This was made clear to me when I rowed the length of the Amazon with my colleague, Anton Wright, in 2013. I had spent several years observing and researching teams of people in difficult circumstances and decided it was time to experience first-hand what an endeavour like this would yield.

The trip was a bruising experience emotionally and we had terrible fallings out, partly because we unexpectedly took on a third team member halfway through, which changed the power dynamics substantially. Eventually, however, we became performance-focused and were able to measure this precisely. We realised we had previously used harmony as a proxy for performance, and that was a bad mistake. It is flimsy and fragile and hard to measure in any accurate way. However, when we realised how much progress we’d made over the 24 hours, this alone managed to do away with a multitude of sins. Harmony comes from good performance, not the other way around.

The answer is to build a workplace where people can collaborate but still give rise to their competitive tendencies

Working groups

In a working group, people are interdependent but responsible for a specific parcel of work. They do a lot of work on their own and bring that back to the group. Even though they work together, their success does not depend on what other people provide them with. By and large, an individual will be allocated a discrete piece of the work that s/he is responsible for.

In contrast, the boundaries between where your job ends and someone else’s begins can be less clear in a team. Environmental changes and client demands can affect the dynamic. Moreover, leadership in teams can be very fluid. In a working group one person is in charge, and remains in charge.

Mark de Rond

Mark de Rond is a reader in strategy and organisation at Cambridge Judge Business School and a fellow of Darwin College, University of Cambridge. His book, There Is An I in Team, is published by Harvard Business Review Press