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There is no “I” in Teams, Right? Not Quite.

Dr. Brad Harris researched teamwork in the office, on the field, in the classroom and everywhere else in our lives, and discovered some surprising pitfalls to achieving collective success and individual well-being.

March 29,  2018

By Elaine Cole

Teamwork is everywhere. Whether playing sports, tackling a major project at work or school, playing in a band, volunteering for a cause or even participating in a fun escape-room scenario, our ability to collaborate and work interdependently with others is vital to success. 

Dr. Brad Harris, assistant professor of management, has devoted the last decade to studying the ins and outs of teams and what we can do to get more out of our teamwork experiences. The culmination of his work was published recently by Stanford University Press in a book titled 3D Team Leadership: A New Approach for Complex Teams, co-authored with Dr. Bradley Kirkman at North Carolina State University. 

“A key premise of the book is that teams are being used more than they ever have in the past to tackle all kinds of problems,” Harris said. “The prevalence of teams can be overwhelming for the team members, manager and the organizations.”

In his research, Harris talked with people who were on 10 or more teams at the same time, all with different members, different lifecycles and different goals. 

“Our aim was to question the classic assumptions about teams and identify the keys to success in the new, team-saturated world,” he said. 

Harris and his co-author based their findings on decades of team research as well as their original qualitative and quantitative investigations. Although many classic lessons of teamwork hold true, Harris found a few surprising pitfalls that seem especially relevant to today’s teams:

1. Excessive “There is no ‘I’ in teams” mindsets. Harris described this problem as “people are on so many teams today it is unreasonable, and probably even unhealthy, for them to always place a collective goal over their own. The best teams figure out how to align their goals and priorities in ways that consider both the individuals and the team as a whole.”

2. Creating teams for anything and everything. “People have gotten so comfortable calling everything a team that we sometimes forget that we actually need to have incentives and processes that promote collaboration,” Harris said. “Additionally, sometimes creating a team just makes things more complicated than it needs to be. Not all decisions and tasks require collaboration.” 

3. Failing to recognize the sub-teams that form in teams. “Teams sometimes fracture on fault-lines such as men versus women, domestic versus international, finance versus marketing, etc. The best teams learn how to recognize these divides, keep them at bay, and even leverage them for good.”

Harris’s research also showed that learning to better understand and thrive in teams is not only important for professional, athletic, and academic success, but also for our personal well-being. 

“When we minimize the painful friction that can emerge in teams and start learning from one another and achieving higher levels of collective success, we can also develop a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives,” Harris said.