Turns out we're not naturally wired to play nicely together. Anyone who's ever watched children playing team-based games will understand. Teamwork is just that — it's WORK. In case you think that's blindingly obvious, it's not.

One UC Berkeley study says that high-performing (AKA powerful) individuals who are forced to work with other powerful individuals in a group actually end up with below average results.

Partly because they end up bickering about who gets to be "the top dog" instead of working towards a consensus. And partly because high performers are less focused on the task, and do not share information as effectively. They are too distracted about their status as leaders to work harder as team players! The findings from that study are neatly summarized in the 50-second video below:

If top performers get better results as lone superstars, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Why We're So Terrible at Teamwork

In an eye-opening interview with the Harvard Business Review, leading organizational psychologist J. Richard Hackman shares why teams don't just naturally work:

I have no question that when you have a team, the possibility exists that it will generate magic... But don’t count on it. Research consistently shows that teams underperform, despite all the extra resources they have.

He goes on to state that there are multiple problems that erode whatever benefits there are in collaboration, sometimes negating all the positives.

On one hand, teams have many advantages:

  • They share more (and have a greater diversity of) resources than they would have had individually
  • They have more flexibility in deploying their resources (i.e. If someone gets sick, a team can organize to fill in the gap.)
  • They have many opportunities for collective learning (i.e. More often than not we learn via social interactions. And collaborating on every shared task presents an opportunity to learn.)
  • They have the potential for synergy — that moment when things just work, and teamwork produces magic.

And yet, in study after study, the actual performance of teams is often worse than if individuals worked alone.


In a talk that Hackman gave to the MIT Media Lab in 2005, he suggests that there are really only two major reasons for the failure of teams:

1. Teams are often used for work that is better done by individuals
When you get a group to do the kind of creative task better suited to an individual, you're basically setting them up to fail via decision-by-committee. Think about creative output such as plays, operas, novels. While it's certainly possible to build them via a group, they are more commonly (and efficiently) created solo.

2. Teams are often structured and led in ways that stifle their potential
This, by and large, is the difficulty of corporate life — that instead of enabling the conditions for a team to thrive, structures are in place that stifle team productivity and collaborative effort. Be it red tape, weak leadership, unnecessary competition, discouragement, or interpersonal conflicts, these things all decrease the likelihood that a team can perform in a productive way.

So how do we get rid of those stifling structures and free our teams to work better together?

Hackman suggests you create the proper conditions so that your team can function optimally and those conditions are in his Five Factor Model.

Hackman's Model: 5 Conditions for Teamwork to Thrive

In 2002, J. Richard Hackman published a book entitled Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances. Hackman and his colleagues studied analytic teams in US intelligence agencies, symphony and chamber orchestras, hospital patient care teams, management groups, flight deck crews, and various other groups in order to identify three main attributes that all successful groups possess, namely:

  • They satisfy internal and external clients
  • They develop capabilities to perform in the future
  • The members find meaning and satisfaction within the group

His research then led him to identify five necessary conditions — the ingredients, if you will —that result in these three attributes appearing in a team. He called this his Five Factor Model.

The Hackman Model of Team Effectiveness

These five factors increase the probability of team effectiveness, eventually growing the team's capabilities as the conditions continue. The five factors are:

1. Being a real team -- not just a team in name

Effective teams clearly delineate who is part of the team. Their membership is at least moderately stable. Plus, they have shared tasks.

2. Having a compelling direction that everyone strives toward

Objectives are clarified, challenging, and consequential enough to get team members motivated to work together. Time for some SMART goals!

3. Having an enabling structure that optimizes teamwork

The team's structure — the internal way it organizes and works — has to enable teamwork and not impede it. If, for example, only one person approves the work of 20 people, then that bottleneck won't enable the team to be effective.

4. Having a supportive context within the organization

In order for the team to do their work effectively, they must receive these things from the parent organization:

  • Material resources are sufficient and available
  • Rewards based on team performance
  • Easy access to information necessary for their work
  • Training and technical consults are available to the team

5. Having expert coaching and guidance

Effective teams have access to a mentor or a coach who can help them with questions and challenges pertaining to their work or individual skills. In a study by Ruth Wageman, the research showed that those teams set up correctly can benefit more from good coaching. The chart below shows how little benefit coaching gives a team who is poorly set up for success.

Wageman diagram of the interaction between team design and leader coaching

Ready to Equip Your Team?

The long and short of it is this: if you can fulfill these five basic conditions then your organization can create and maintain effective teams and you give them a more complete chance to develop into a productive unit.

Teamwork is something we grow up trying to perfect. Whether it's out on the soccer field, within a household, or in a corporate conference room, it's important to acknowledge that teamwork doesn't naturally occur unless you've got the above conditions.

A good team paves the way for success, enables collaboration, receives outside support, and appoints the proper leadership. With these five conditions for success: Together, Everyone Achieves More.

And Speaking of More...
Hackman isn't the only one to theorize on what makes teams effective. Read about 5 more models of team effectiveness in this blog post and discover collaboration tools for remote teams: 6 Different Team Effectiveness Models to Understand Your Team Better

6 Different Team Effectiveness Models to Understand Your Team Better