Hackman on Leading Teams

J. Richard Hackman, a Harvard University Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology, has spent his career analyzing team effectiveness. His research has shown that more often than not people work less effectively than one would expect. In many cases, team members have difficulty agreeing on the purpose of the team and the issues of coordination and motivation within the team erode the potential benefits gained from collaboration.

Hackman believes that a successful team usually has a disciplined and committed manager who determinedly sets the team goal, allows the team to select their own members and then define their own structure and processes. Unfortunately, this approach is rarely possible for you as a manager. In the real world senior management decide on a team's membership, and their reasoning for including certain individuals may be influenced by politics or simply by who is available.

common fallacies about teams

In their recent research, Hackman and his colleagues James Burruss, Debra Nunes, and Ruth Wageman were able to disprove certain beliefs often associated with teams that perform well:

  • Harmonious teams are more satisfied in their work
  • Larger teams with greater resources perform better
  • Performance falls off as team members become more familiar with each other

In their book, Senior Leadership Teams, they explain that even though teams may not be totally harmonious the members can still feel satisfied after performing a task well and receiving recognition for it. They found that the satisfaction orchestra members felt after playing had more to do with how well their performance was received than how the members felt about playing together.

Larger teams may have greater resources at their disposal, but they also have a far greater number of potential communication paths between members. As a manager you will find that as the size of the team you have to manage increases, so does the occurrence of disruptions and conflicts between members. Hackman and his fellow researchers recommend that team numbers remain in single digits, although this is not always possible with workplace teams.

The third misconception that Hackman and his team dispelled was the belief that newer teams outperform well-established ones. There is a lot of research that shows that performance does not fall off as the team members become more familiar and comfortable with each other. A study conducted by NASA showed that fatigued or tired crews that had a history of working as a team made around half the errors of a team made up of fresh pilots who had not flown together before.

You may also be interested in:
Team Performance Problems | Herzberg's Hygiene Theory of Motivation | Six Silent Barriers to Performance | Five Key Team Performance Factors | Matrix Management Issues | Qualities of Leadership | GroupThink and in-group Behavior.

Key Points

  • The issues of coordination and motivation within a team can erode the potential benefits gained from collaboration.
  • Hackman's research suggests that there are some commonly held fallacies about teams and that smaller teams who are familiar with each other often outperform larger teams with no experience of working together.
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