Intro. to Teams

Author(s): Brandy Perkl, Ph.D.

Originally posted: March 2, 2016

What is a Team?

The research on teams and groups originated in social psychology, which has led to many different definitions of work teams (and work groups) being used across the spectrum of organizations, practitioners, and academics. For the purposes of my classes, consider using a comprehensive definition of work teams:

Kozlowski & Bell (2003, p.334): "Two or more individuals who: (1) Exist to perform organizationally relevant tasks, (2) share one or more common goals, (3) interact socially, (4) exhibit task interdependencies, (5) maintain and manage boundaries, and (6) are embedded in an organizational context that sets boundaries, constrains the team, and influences exchanges with other units in the broader entity."

That’s a lot to remember, here’s the simple version: A team is two or more (usually no more than 15) people who interact and coordinate their work to accomplish a shared goal.

Let’s relate this to our Leadership Triangle concept of Followers: Not all followers will be organized into teams. A team implies a sense of shared mission. For example, you might have a professor and students who comprise a group but unless they are coordinating their work toward a shared goal they would not be a team.

Why do we care about teams?

In most organizations … teams exist at all levels, and they are there to fulfill a wide range of purposes (Katzenbach & Smith, 2003). This trend has continued in the last decade. The importance of teams and the work they do is inestimable. In the current literature the benefits of teams range far and wide:

+ They help organizations to be more competitive, to keep an edge in today’s knowledge market, and to compete in the ongoing war for talent (Fisher, 1994).

+ A properly implemented team-based approach produces superior results over non-team-based approaches like increased quality, performance, and even shareholder return (Mohrman, Cohen, & Mohrman, 1995).

+ Teams have been shown to have the positive effects of empowering and benefiting workers (Salas, Sims, & Burke, 2005).

+ Organizations also use teams to cope with stress (Boone, Van Olffen, Witteloostuijn, & De Brabander, 2004; Denison, Hart, & Kahn, 1996; Moon, Hollenbeck, Humphrey, Ilgen, West, & Ellis, 2004).

What's the catch? Effective teamwork.

To achieve any of these positive benefits organizations need their teams to participate in effective teamwork. Effective teamwork is largely a result of teamwork processes, though task interdependence and team size can moderate the relationship (LePine, Piccolo, Jackson, Mathieu, & Saul, 2008; Marks, Mathieu, & Zaccaro, 2001; Salas, Sims, & Burke, 2005).

"For teams to be effective, they must successfully perform both taskwork and teamwork (Burke, Wilson & Salas, 2003; Morgan, Glickman, Woodward, Blaiwes, & Salas, 1986). Taskwork involves the performance of specific tasks that team members need to complete in order to achieve team goals. In particular, tasks represent the workrelated activities that individuals or teams engage in as an essential function of their organizational role (Wildman et al., 2012b). Conversely, teamwork focuses more on the shared behaviors (i.e., what team members do), attitudes (i.e., what team members feel or believe), and cognitions (i.e., what team members think or know) that are necessary for teams to accomplish these tasks (Morgan, Salas, & Glickman, 1994). Both taskwork and teamwork are critical to successful team performance, with the effectiveness of one facilitating the other." - Salas, Shuffler, Thayer, Bedwell, & Lazarra (2014)

How does effective teamwork happen?

Many theories hypothesize that the first step to understanding teamwork is to recognize that all cognition originates within the individual (DeShon, Kozlowski, Schmidt, Milner, & Wiechmann, 2004).

Teamwork is viewed as a set of interrelated thoughts, actions, and feelings of each member that when added together = individual members functioning as a team.

These combined thoughts, actions, and feelings facilitate team performance to result in value-added outcomes (which is the main goal of using teams). Tip: If your team is broken – you might want to first focus on the individuals.

What are Team Processes?

Note: The majority of the information in this section is sourced directly from Salas, Shuffler, Thayer, Bedwell, & Lazarra, 2014). Citations citing evidence for each of the concepts explained below can be found in that article.

Processes & Emergent States

Cooperation: The motivational drivers of teamwork. In essence, this is the attitudes, beliefs, and feelings of the team that drive behavioral action.

Conflict (affects Mutual Trust): The perceived incompatibilities in the interests, beliefs, or views held by one or more team members.

Coordination (Backup Behaviors & Mutual Performance Monitoring): The enactment of behavioral and cognitive mechanisms necessary to perform a task and transform team resources into outcomes.

Communication (Closed Loop Communication): A reciprocal process of team members’ sending and receiving information that forms and re-forms a team’s attitudes, behaviors, and cognitions.

Coaching: The enactment of leadership behaviors to establish goals and set direction that leads to the successful accomplishment of these goals.

Cognition (Shared Mental Models): A shared understanding among team members that is developed as a result of team member interactions including knowledge of roles and responsibilities; team mission objectives and norms; and familiarity with teammate knowledge, skills and abilities.

Model Development: Team Processes = Functions of Cognition

This topic provides us with a great example of how models develop too. The concepts in the above section were developed from earlier work done in 2005. At that time Salas, Sims, and Burke attempted to create a Big 5 of Teamwork by combining all the previous findings out there on the topic. See Figure 1 below.

The core components they discovered in 2005 were team leadership, mutual performance monitoring, backup behavior, adaptability, and team orientation. These components are believed to facilitate effective teamwork processes; however, they found they also needed the following supporting mechanisms to function at peak: shared mental models, closed-loop communication, and mutual trust.

The reason I'm sharing this with you, besides to give an example of model development, is because if you wanted to search the literature for information on team processes the terms used to label them in the past were the ones used in this earlier work. The newer terms don't have the same backlog of research done with those new labels yet.

You can find exact definitions of these concepts in that 2005 article, but they're mostly similar to those discussed above (you have access to full text of these articles as a UA student).

Figure 1: Graphical Representation of High-Level Relationship Among the Big Five and the Coordinating Mechanisms Including Research Propositions (Salas, Sims, & Burke, 2005)

Influencing Conditions (a.k.a. Contexts/Environmental Effects)

These relate directly to our Leadership Triangle and the concept of leadership environments.

Composition (includes Team Orientation): The individual factors relevant to team performance; what constitutes a good team member; what is the best configuration of team member knowledge, skills, and attitudes (KSAs); and what role diversity plays in team effectiveness.

Context: Situational characteristics or events that influence the occurrence and meaning of behavior, as well as the manner and degree to which various factors impact team outcomes.

Culture: Assumptions about humans’ relationships with each other and their environment that are shared among an identifiable group of people (e.g., team, organization, nation) and manifest in individuals’ values, beliefs, norms for social behavior, and artifacts.

The sum of all of this is that teams can be virtually guaranteed success and high levels of performance if they engage in all teamwork processes - because that engagement results in effective teamwork.

Mini-Case: Relating Processes + Conditions to Google Team Operations

Recently an illuminating New York Times article came out on "How to Build a Perfect Team" which explored Google's intense data dive into this topic at their organization. Here are the highlights:

"What interested the researchers most, however, was that teams that did well on one assignment usually did well on all the others. Conversely, teams that failed at one thing seemed to fail at everything. The researchers eventually concluded that what distinguished the ‘‘good’’ teams from the dysfunctional groups was how teammates treated one another. The right norms, in other words, could raise a group’s collective intelligence, whereas the wrong norms could hobble a team, even if, individually, all the members were exceptionally bright... But what was confusing was that not all the good teams appeared to behave in the same ways." - Duhigg, 2016

This is excellent colloquial evidence of two things:

  1. Our previous assertion that participating in team processes = effective teams, and

  2. The establishment of context (via norms) can have serious impacts on all team processes - it lets the teams set some of their influencing conditions themselves. This is why I usually require students to write a Team Charter if I ask them to do teamwork in a class.

"As the researchers studied the groups, however, they noticed two behaviors that all the good teams generally shared. First, on the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion...  ‘‘As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well,’’ Woolley said. ‘‘But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined." - Duhigg, 2016

This is excellent colloquial evidence of two things:

  1. The fact that groupthink is NOT occurring, because it is rare that it would be happening if everyone is talking the same amount, and

  2. Putting the energy to participating in your team and all the relevant processes is worth it (communication, building trust, coordinating, developing shared mental models, etc.).

"Second, the good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues... People on the ineffective teams, in contrast, scored below average. They seemed, as a group, to have less sensitivity toward their colleagues."- Duhigg, 2016

You can test your own social sensitivity by taking the Mind Behind the Eyes Test at This is closely related to concepts like Emotional Intelligence and would be an individual element of a team member that would affect the composition of the team. (I scored highly, but lower on the eyes of men vs. women. Perhaps due to being raised by a single mother?? Brains need practice to see distinctions between people and I may have less practice with men.)

If you have taken my leadership diversity course then this next concept is one you are intimately familiar with. Psychological safety is vitally important to employee performance, both in and out of teams. And being listened to, actually heard, and feeling supported empowers team members to negotiate their space at work and in their team - it allows them to create a safe space.

"Within psychology, researchers refer to traits like ‘‘conversational turn-taking’’ and ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ as aspects of what’s known as psychological safety — a group culture that the Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines as a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’ Psychological safety is ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,’’ Edmondson wrote in a study published in 1999. ‘‘It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves... "- Duhigg, 2016

]In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs.

If a space is to be safe, people need to be safe from:

When interacting with people we regularly find ourselves in different circumstances (online, texting, face-to-face, on the phone). Safe spaces are created through a process of negotiation and adaptation. Everyone in a particular space negotiates their limits.

  • Safe spaces are about understanding yourself and your boundaries.

  • Our boundaries are personal.

  • Often when our boundaries are crossed by ourselves and others, we feel angry. (This is why microaggressions hurt so much at work...)

  • Knowing what is up for negotiation for you, and what is not, is crucial for creating safe spaces.

A safe space is not about eliminating conflict, but managing it appropriately. At work, this means ensuring that the conflict is centered on ideas and not people. Empowerment is the key.

Teams vs. Groups

Based on what we've learned, many groups in the workplace are referred to as teams, but those groups may not match our definition that we're using in Org. Behavior or I-O classes. (I'm not saying they all don't match, some do, some don't.) Just keep that in mind, because all of this theory doesn't necessarily apply to loose groups, only to teams.

  • Here’s the simple version of our definition of a work team again: A team is two or more (usually no more than 15) people who interact and coordinate their work to accomplish a shared goal.

  • And if you're at all interested in this topic and the topic of groups, you should absolutely read 'The Psychology of Groups' (Forsyth, D. R. (n.d.). (Just be sure to side-eye the Tuckman stuff.)


I've tried to keep these in order of reference in the post above vs. in the accepted alphabetical format to make finding one you need potentially easier.

Kozlowski, S. W., & Bell, B. S. (2003). Work groups and teams in organizations. In W. C. Borman, D. R. Ilgen, R. J. Klimoski, & (Eds.), Handbook of psychology: Industrial and Organizational Psychology (Vol. 12, pp. 333-375). London: Wiley.

A. Padilla, L. G. L. (2013, May 9). The Leadership Triangle: It’s Not Only About The Leader. Retrieved from

Katzenbach, J. R. & Smith, D. K. (2003). The wisdom of teams: Creating the high-performance organization. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Fisher, K. (1994). Diagnosis for organizational change: Methods and models. (A. Howard, Ed.). New York: Guilford Press.

Mohrman, S.A, Cohen, S.G. & Mohrman, Jr., A.M. (1995) Designing team-based organizations: New forms for knowledge work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Salas, E., Sims, D., & Burke, C. (2005). Is there a 'Big Five' in teamwork?. Small Group Research, 36(5), 555-599.

Boone, C., van Olffen, W., Witteloostuijn, A., & De Brabander, B. (2004). The genesis of top management teams in Dutch newspaper publishing. The Academy of Management Journal, 47(5), 633.

Denison, D. R., Hart, S. L., & Kahn, J. A. (1996). From chimneys to cross-functional teams: Developing and validating a diagnostic model. Academy of Management Journal, 39(4), 1005-1023.

Moon, H., Hollenbeck, J. R., Humphrey, S. E., Ilgen, D. R., West, B. J., & Ellis, A. P. J. (2004). Assymmetric adaptability: Dynamic team structures as one-way streets. Academy of Management Journal, 47, 681-695.

LePine, J. A., Piccolo, R. F., Jackson, C. L., Mathieu, J. E. and Saul, J. R. (2008), A meta-analysis of teamwork processes: Tests of a multidimensional model and relationships with team effectiveness criteria. Personnel Psychology, 61: 273–307. doi: 10.1111/j.1744-6570.2008.00114.x

Marks, M. A, Mathieu, J. E., & Zaccaro, S. J. (2001). A temporally based framework and taxonomy of team processes. The Academy of Management Review, 26 (3), 356-376.

Salas, E., Sims, D., & Burke, C. (2005). Is there a 'Big Five' in Teamwork?. Small Group Research, 36(5), 555-599.

Salas, E., Shuffler, M. L., Thayer, A. L., Bedwell, W. L., & Lazzara, E. H. (2015). Understanding and improving teamwork in organizations: a scientifically based practical guide. Human Resource Management, 54(4), 599–622. Retrieved from

DeShon, R., Kozlowski, S., Schmidt, A., Milner, K., & Wiechmann, D. (2004). A Multiple-Goal, Multilevel Model of Feedback Effects on the Regulation of Individual and Team Performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89(6), 1035-1056.

Salas, E., Shuffler, M. L., Thayer, A. L., Bedwell, W. L., & Lazzara, E. H. (2015). Understanding and improving teamwork in organizations: a scientifically based practical guide. Human Resource Management, 54(4), 599–622. Retrieved from

Salas, E., Sims, D. E., & Burke, C. S. (2005). Is there a “Big Five” in teamwork? Small Group Research, 36(5), 555–599.

A. Padilla, L. G. L. (2013, May 9). The Leadership Triangle: It’s Not Only About The Leader. Retrieved from

Duhigg, C. (2016, February 25). What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team. The New York Times. Retrieved from

The New York Times (2013, October 3). Can You Read People’s Emotions? The New York Times. Retrieved from

Forsyth, D. R. (n.d.). The Psychology of Groups. Retrieved March 2, 2016, from