Teamwork matters because our lives, care, safety, and national security depend on it. It matters in our hospitals, our cockpits, our emergency responses, our military, our nuclear power plants, our oil and petrochemical plants, our corporate world, our orchestras, our schools, our boardrooms, our space explorations, and in our science teams. It matters because teamwork is a power deterrent of human error, a catalyst for innovation, creativity, and knowledge generation, a source of motivation to perform, engage, do more, and be satisfied and resilient. When teamwork works—many outstanding and enriching things happen.

But Teamwork Doesn't Come Naturally

It is not about "hanging around" or having lunch together or being in the same room working together. Teamwork is about interrelated knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Effective teamwork requires sharp and shared thinking, the execution of timely and appropriate behaviors, and holding sound feelings about the team objectives, the performing norms, and one's teammates. It requires having a common purpose, clear roles, and a robust information exchange protocol. Teamwork needs to be developed, nurtured, reinforced, managed, and promoted. Not easy, takes an investment—an effort. But there is a science to help us.

A science has emerged over the last couple of decades focused on answering one question—how do we turn a team of experts into an expert team? When we unpack this question, we need to know what is it that we are turning this team into—what is teamwork—and once we understand it—what do we do about it. This science (largely supported by the military, the aviation and healthcare communities, and/or NASA and performed by academics and industry), has generated a wealth of information, many principles, and practical insights about what makes teams work.

So now we know, as noted above, what teamwork is. And we also know what are some of the key "ingredients" needed for effective team functioning.

In a recent 2021 book, my good friend and colleague Scott Tannenbaum and I illustrated the evidence base we have around teamwork. We identified seven drivers of team effectiveness. We noted the "ingredients" needed to succeed as a team. These drivers we know consistently make a difference in how the team functions. They all play a role in the success of the team. Sometimes one is more important than the others, but all matter.

The Seven Drivers of Effective Teamwork

  • The first driver is capability. This is about the people on the team. Do you have the right talent, expertise, and skills in your team? Do you have the team-based competence to succeed? Do you have the right mix? Remember, you cannot be a good team member if you don't know your job. Talent is a prerequisite for teamwork.
  • Next is cooperation. Cooperation is about the mindset. Do we have the right beliefs and attitudes about our teammates and team? Here, for example, psychological safety (the "license" to speak up) is imperative. A must. All teams sooner or later will encounter some conflict. Psychological safety is a mechanism to resolve conflicts.
  • Coordination is about the behaviors, the actions. Who is going to back me up? How are we going to adapt and bounce back? There are three key behaviors: Good teams have mutual performance monitoring (that is, awareness of what teammates are doing), so when teammates are overloaded, they step in and provide backup/supportive behavior. Once the teammate steps in to help, they have to change their performance strategies, thus flexibility, and adaptability.
  • Teams "think." Cognition is referring to the shared understanding the team has about roles, priorities, expectations, and the needed actions. We know that teams that hold shared mental models about the task, their teammates, their resources, and equipment outperform those that don't.
  • Communication is about the information exchange protocols in place. It's about the timeliness, accuracy, and clarity of the information exchanged. Interestingly, we know that more communication is not better, but "better is better."
  • Leaders make or break a team. Coaching is about team leadership. We need team leaders to act like "good coaches" who care, develop and promote the team and the teammates. Context matters. The context under which the team operates shapes their actions.
  • Conditions are about the environment in which the team is embedded. The signals, messages, policies, support (or not), and reinforcement (or not) that the top leadership has in place—will influence teamwork.

So, teamwork matters. Saves lives. Promotes safety, innovation, creativity, satisfaction, and engagement. And a new science of teamwork is emerging with more evidence-based discoveries and interventions. Stay tuned.

For Further Reading

Lacerenza, C. N., Marlow, S. L., Tannenbaum, S. I., & Salas, E. (2018). Team development interventions: Evidence-based approaches for improving teamwork. American Psychologist, 73(4), 517-531.

Salas, E., Reyes, D. L., & McDaniel, S. H. (2018). The science of teamwork: Progress, reflections, and the road ahead. American Psychologist, 73(4), 593-600.

Salas, E., Bisbey, T. M., Traylor, A. M., & Rosen, M. A. (2020). Can teamwork promote safety in organizations? Annual Review of Organizational Psychology & Organizational Behavior, 7, 283-313.

Tannenbaum, S. I., & Salas, E. (2021). Teams that work: The seven drivers of team effectiveness. Oxford University Press.  Doi:10.1093/oso/9780190056964.001.0001.

Eduardo Salas is the Allyn R. & Gladys M. Cline Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychological Sciences at Rice University. His research interests are how to foster teamwork and team effectiveness in organizations, how to design, deliver and implement team training, and how to uncover what promotes a safety culture.