The importance of teamwork (as proven by science)

Over the past few years, you’ve probably noticed people talking a lot more about the importance of teamwork and collaboration.

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It might feel like a fuzzy concept to you, but the data shows real benefits for companies and individuals when we all get along.

Over the past few years, you’ve probably noticed people talking a lot more about the importance of teamwork and collaboration. Open-office layouts have become the norm and team productivity tools have exploded in popularity.

Some see this emphasis on open collaboration as a passing fad or a way to lower overhead. But there are enormous benefits to working in teams, and science proves it.


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A growing body of research confirms that when people work together, smartly, it can unleash energy that boosts creativity, productivity, engagement, communication, and efficiency.

“Each individual has unique gifts, and talents and skills,” says John J. Murphy, a specialist in business transformation and author of Pulling Together: 10 Rules for High-Performance Teamwork. “When we bring them to the table and share them for a common purpose, it can give companies a real competitive advantage.”

Teamwork is essential to a company’s success, says Murphy. OK, but what’s in it for you? Plenty. Scads of recent studies show that team members benefit just as much as the corporations they work for. Last year, the journal American Psychologist released “The Science of Teamwork” – an entire issue dedicated to the psychology of collaboration – packed with evidence that working in a team can make you smarter, more creative, and more successful.

And that’s just for starters. Here are all the unexpected ways teamwork is worth it.

10 benefits of teamwork

1. Great ideas don’t come from lone geniuses

Albert Einstein gets all the credit for discovering the theory of relativity, but the truth is that he relied on conversations with friends and colleagues to refine his concept. And that’s almost always the case.

“Behind every genius is a team,” says Murphy. “When people play off each other’s skills and knowledge, they can create solutions that are practical and useful.”

That’s why Murphy recommends the first thing you need to do is to ditch the too-pervasive idol mentality. “Tom Brady is all that, but remember: he doesn’t win Super Bowls by himself.”

2. Diverse perspectives help you come up with winning innovations

According to Frans Johansson, author of The Medici Effect, some of the most innovative ideas happen at “the intersection” – the place where ideas from different industries and cultures collide.

“Most people think success comes from surrounding yourself with others that are like you,” says Johansson. “But true success and breakthrough innovation involves discomfort. Discomfort pushes you to grow. This is where the difference of experience, opinion, and perspective come in. Diversity is a well-documented pathway to unlocking new opportunities, overcoming new challenges, and gaining new insights.”

A recent report from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company backs this up. It found teams made up of members from diverse backgrounds (gender, age, ethnicity, etc.) are more creative and perform better by up to 35 percent, compared to more homogeneous teams. Instead of looking at an issue from your individual vantage point, you get a 360-degree picture, which can lead to an exponential increase in ideas.

Research from Tufts University suggests that just being exposed to diversity can shift the way you think. A study on a diverse mock jury found that interacting with individuals who are different forces people to be more open-minded, and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort.

3. Teamwork can make you happier

We surveyed more than 1,000 team members across a range of industries and found that when honest feedback, mutual respect, and personal openness were encouraged, team members were 80 percent more likely to report higher emotional well-being. Having happy employees is a worthwhile goal in itself, but the company benefits, too. Research from the University of Warwick in England suggests happy employees are up to 20 percent more productive than unhappy employees. And who couldn’t benefit from a happiness boost?

4. When you work in a team, you grow as an individual

There may be no “I” in team, but being part of a team can help you grow. “By sharing information and essentially cross-training each other, each individual member of the team can flourish,” says Murphy. You might discover new concepts from colleagues with different experiences. You can also learn from someone else’s mistakes, which helps you sidestep future errors.

You might even learn something new about yourself, says Susan McDaniel, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center and one of the guest editors of “The Science of Teamwork”.

“We all have blind spots about our behaviors and strengths that we may be unaware of, and feedback from a team member can expose them,” she says. Recognizing these strengths and addressing the weaknesses can make you a better team member, and even a better person. “Maybe working in a team you’ll discover you could be a better listener. That’s a skill you can grow in, and then take home and use to improve your family interactions,” McDaniel points out.

5. Sharing the workload eases burnout

A recent Gallup study of nearly 7,500 full-time employees found that 23 percent of employees feel burned out at work very often or always. Another 44 percent say they sometimes feel this way. What helps? Sharing the load.

Team members can provide emotional support to each other because they often understand the demands and stress of completing work even better than managers, says Ben Wigert, lead researcher for Gallup’s workplace management practice. Managers reading this: you’re not off the hook. The study also found that knowing your boss has your back also protects against burnout.

6. Dividing the work lets you grow your skills

Collaboration in the workplace isn’t unlike teamwork on the baseball diamond. When the pitcher and outfielders each excel at their individual roles, the team has a better chance of winning.

Off the playing field, that idea is more important than ever. Changes in technology and increased globalization mean that organizations are facing problems so complex that a single individual simply can’t possess all the necessary knowledge to solve them, says Wigert. When team members use their unique skills to shine in their own roles, it creates an environment based on mutual respect and cooperation that benefits the whole group, notes Murphy.

7. Recognition from other team members can improve your productivity

Getting a pat on the back from the boss can boost an employee’s motivation, but receiving kudos from a team member may be even more effective. The 2014 TINYpulse Employee Engagement and Organizational Culture Report surveyed more than 200,000 employees. Participants reported that having the respect of their peers was the #1 reason they go the extra mile at work.

8. Working in a team helps you take risks that pay off

When you work alone, you might be hesitant to put your neck on the line. What if an idea you suggest falls flat? When you work on a team, you know you have the support of the entire group to fall back on in case of failure. That security typically allows teams to take the kind of risks that create “Eureka!” ideas.

But here’s one place where size does matter. The most disruptive ideas often come from small teams, suggests recent research in the journal Nature, possibly because larger teams argue more, which can get in the way of coming up with those big ideas.

Wharton Business School researchers also discovered that small is the secret to success: they found that two-person teams took 36 minutes to build a Lego figure while four-person teams took 52 minutes to finish — more than 44 percent longer.

There’s no definitive ideal small team size, but consider following Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ 2 Pizza Rule: no matter how large your company gets, teams shouldn’t be larger than what two pizzas can feed.

9. When you work in a team, you’ll feel less stressed

If your team has good energy – you encourage and inspire each other, and you have fun together – you’ll feel less stressed, says Murphy. “Studies show that stress makes us stupid, and leads us to make more mistakes,” says Murphy.

Of course, the converse is also true: when your team feels less frazzled, you’ll make fewer errors. That’s worth keeping in mind, especially if you’re one of the 61 percent of workers who cite work as a significant source of stress.

10. Good communication boosts your creativity

Stale solutions often come out of working in a vacuum. When people with different perspectives come together in group brainstorms, on the other hand, innovative ideas can rise to the surface – with one caveat. Research shows this can only happen when communication within the team is open and collaborative, notes Wigert. The most creative solutions can only come up when there’s a level of trust that lets team members ask ‘stupid’ questions, propose out-there ideas, and receive constructive criticism.

This article first appeared in Atlassian.

 


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