Why Teams Don’t Work?

By: Cahyadi Kurniawan
. 06/11/2019

Over the past couple of decades, a cult has grown up around teams. Even in a society as fiercely independent as America, teams are considered almost sacrosanct. The belief that working in teams makes us more creative and productive is so widespread that when faced with a challenging new task, leaders are quick to assume that teams are the best way to get the job done.

Not so fast, says J. Richard Hackman, the Edgar Pierce Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University and a leading expert on teams. Hackman has spent a career exploring—and questioning—the wisdom of teams. To learn from his insights, HBR senior editor Diane Coutu interviewed Hackman in his Harvard office. In the course of their discussion, he revealed just how bad people often are at teamwork. Most of the time, his research shows, team members don’t even agree on what the team is supposed to be doing. Getting agreement is the leader’s job, and she must be willing to take great personal and professional risks to set the team’s direction. And if the leader isn’t disciplined about managing who is on the team and how it is set up, the odds are slim that a team will do a good job.

What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

You begin your book Leading Teams with a pop quiz: When people work together to build a house, will the job probably (a) get done faster, (b) take longer to finish, or (c) not get done?

That multiple choice question actually appeared on a standardized fourth-grade test in Ohio, and the obvious “answer,” of course, is supposed to be a—the work gets done faster. I love that anecdote because it illustrates how early we’re told that teamwork is good. People tend to think that teams are the democratic—and the efficient—way to get things done. I have no question that when you have a team, the possibility exists that it will generate magic, producing something extraordinary, a collective creation of previously unimagined quality or beauty. But don’t count on it. Research consistently shows that teams underperform, despite all the extra resources they have. That’s because problems with coordination and motivation typically chip away at the benefits of collaboration. And even when you have a strong and cohesive team, it’s often in competition with other teams, and that dynamic can also get in the way of real progress. So you have two strikes against you right from the start, which is one reason why having a team is often worse than having no team at all.

You’ve said that for a team to be successful, it needs to be real. What does that mean?

At the very least, it means that teams have to be bounded. It may seem silly to say this, but if you’re going to lead a team, you ought to first make sure that you know who’s on it. In our recent book Senior Leadership Teams, Ruth Wageman, Debra Nunes, James Burruss, and I collected and analyzed data on more than 120 top teams around the world. Not surprisingly, we found that almost every senior team we studied thought that it had set unambiguous boundaries. Yet when we asked members to describe their team, fewer than 10% agreed about who was on it. And these were teams of senior executives!

Often the CEO is responsible for the fuzziness of team boundaries. Fearful of seeming exclusionary—or, on the other end of the spectrum, determined to put people on the team for purely political reasons—the chief executive frequently creates a dysfunctional team. In truth, putting together a team involves some ruthless decisions about membership; not everyone who wants to be on the team should be included, and some individuals should be forced off.

We worked with a large financial services firm where the CFO wasn’t allowed on the executive committee because he was clearly a team destroyer. He was disinclined toward teamwork, he was unwilling to work at finding collective solutions, and every team he was on got into trouble. The CEO invited the CFO to stay in his role because he was a truly able executive, but he was not allowed on the senior executive team. Although there were some bruised feelings at first, in the end the CFO was much happier because he didn’t have to be in “boring” team meetings, and the team functioned much better without him. The arrangement worked because the CEO communicated extensively with the CFO both before and after every executive committee meeting. And in the CFO’s absence, the committee could become a real team.

You also say that a team needs a compelling direction. How does it get one?

There is no one right way to set a direction; the responsibility can fall to the team leader or to someone in the organization outside the team or even to the team itself in the case of partnerships or boards of directors. But however it’s done, setting a direction is emotionally demanding because it always involves the exercise of authority, and that inevitably arouses angst and ambivalence—for both the person exercising it and the people on the receiving end. Leaders who are emotionally mature are willing and able to move toward anxiety-inspiring situations as they establish a clear, challenging team direction. But in doing so, a leader sometimes encounters resistance so intense that it can place his or her job at risk.

That point was dramatically brought home to me a few years ago by a participant in an executive seminar I was teaching. I’d been talking about how leaders who set direction successfully are unafraid to assume personal responsibility for the mission of the team. I mentioned John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and I got carried away and said that people who read the New Testament knew that Jesus did not convene little team meetings to decide the goals of the ministry. One of the executives in the class interrupted me and said, “Are you aware that you’ve just talked about two assassinations and a crucifixion?”

What are some common fallacies about teams?

People generally think that teams that work together harmoniously are better and more productive than teams that don’t. But in a study we conducted on symphonies, we actually found that grumpy orchestras played together slightly better than orchestras in which all the musicians were really quite happy.

That’s because the cause-and-effect is the reverse of what most people believe: When we’re productive and we’ve done something good together (and are recognized for it), we feel satisfied, not the other way around. In other words, the mood of the orchestra members after a performance says more about how well they did than the mood beforehand.

Another fallacy is that bigger teams are better than small ones because they have more resources to draw upon. A colleague and I once did some research showing that as a team gets bigger, the number of links that need to be managed among members goes up at an accelerating, almost exponential rate. It’s managing the links between members that gets teams into trouble. My rule of thumb is no double digits. In my courses, I never allow teams of more than six students. Big teams usually wind up just wasting everybody’s time. That’s why having a huge senior leadership team—say, one that includes all the CEO’s direct reports—may be worse than having no team at all.

Perhaps the most common misperception about teams, though, is that at some point team members become so comfortable and familiar with one another that they start accepting one another’s foibles, and as a result performance falls off. Except for one special type of team, I have not been able to find a shred of evidence to support that premise. There is a study that shows that R&D teams do need an influx of new talent to maintain creativity and freshness—but only at the rate of one person every three to four years. The problem almost always is not that a team gets stale but, rather, that it doesn’t have the chance to settle in.

So newness is a liability?

Absolutely. The research confirming that is incontrovertible. Consider crews flying commercial airplanes. The National Transportation Safety Board found that 73% of the incidents in its database occurred on a crew’s first day of flying together, before people had the chance to learn through experience how best to operate as a team—and 44% of those took place on a crew’s very first flight. Also, a NASA study found that fatigued crews who had a history of working together made about half as many errors as crews composed of rested pilots who had not flown together before.

So why don’t airlines stick to the same crews?

Because it isn’t efficient from a financial perspective. Financially, you get the most from your capital equipment and labor by treating each airplane and each pilot as an individual unit and then using an algorithm to maximize their utilization. That means that pilots often have to dash up and down the concourses just as passengers do, and sometimes you’ll have a pilot who will fly two or three different aircraft with two or three different crews in the course of a single day—which is not so wise if you look at the research. I once asked an operations researcher of an airline to estimate how long it would take, if he and I were assigned to work together on a trip, before we could expect to work together again. He calculated that it would be 5.6 years. Clearly, this is not good from a passenger point of view.

The counterexample, by the way, is the Strategic Air Command, or SAC, which would have delivered nuclear bombs had that become necessary during the Cold War years. SAC teams performed better than any other flight crews that we studied. They trained together as a crew, and they became superb at working together because they had to. When you’re working together in real time and there can be no mistakes, then you keep your teams together for years and years rather than constantly change their composition.

If teams need to stay together to achieve the best performance, how do you prevent them from becoming complacent?

This is where what I call a deviant comes in. Every team needs a deviant, someone who can help the team by challenging the tendency to want too much homogeneity, which can stifle creativity and learning. Deviants are the ones who stand back and say, “Well, wait a minute, why are we even doing this at all? What if we looked at the thing backwards or turned it inside out?” That’s when people say, “Oh, no, no, no, that’s ridiculous,” and so the discussion about what’s ridiculous comes up. Unlike the CFO I mentioned before, who derailed the team by shutting down discussions, the deviant opens up more ideas, and that gets you a lot more originality. In our research, we’ve looked carefully at both teams that produced something original and those that were merely average, where nothing really sparkled. It turned out that the teams with deviants outperformed teams without them. In many cases, deviant thinking is a source of great innovation.

I would add, though, that often the deviant veers from the norm at great personal cost. Deviants are the individuals who are willing to say the thing that nobody else is willing to articulate. The deviant raises people’s level of anxiety, which is a brave thing to do. When the boat is floating with the current, it really is extraordinarily courageous for somebody to stand up and say, “We’ve got to pause and probably change direction.” Nobody on the team wants to hear that, which is precisely why many team leaders crack down on deviants and try to get them to stop asking difficult questions, maybe even knock them off the team. And yet it’s when you lose the deviant that the team can become mediocre.

What makes a team effective, and how can a team’s leader make it perform better?

A good team will satisfy its internal or external clients, become stronger as a unit as time passes, and foster the learning and growth of its individual members. But even the best leader on the planet can’t make a team do well. Teams create their own realities and control their own destinies to a greater extent, and far sooner in their existence, than most team leaders realize.

About the Author

With 22 years of leadership experience in a multinational company, he has successfully built leaders at each level. He applies simple yet effective operational strategies to cut through the complexity in running a business. Using ActionCOACH system, he now bridges generation gaps by helping traditional family business owners transform their business into a modern, agile and aggressive machine. He combines Chinese business wisdom and modern management systems to guide various family business create a better succession plan.