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Pulling together

Effective teamwork can be key to business success. Steve Coomber examines the factors that create such high-performing teams.

Research teams at Thomas Edison’s West Orange, New Jersey laboratory in the late 1800s worked a six-day week for low wages against a backdrop of creativity-stifling time clocks and burdensome administration. Moreover, Edison was notoriously hard on his teams. He sowed the seeds of envy and competition among his workers, locked them into his lab on occasion and, with his unreasonably tough demands, drove at least one employee to a nervous breakdown.

Ask an average team member in an organisation today what makes great teams tick and their response is likely to include terms such as collaboration, harmony, consensus and unity. Maybe even empathy, emotional intelligence and relationship-oriented leadership. Not ideas Edison appears to have had much time for. Yet Edison, the first to commercialise the lightbulb, led some of the most successful R&D teams of all time, filing 2,332 patents worldwide, producing many inventions still in use today.

So what are the factors required to create a high-performing team? As it turns out, recent research reveals team performance to be a much more complex, and less predictable topic, than it seems

Tolerating tension

Take the research of Mark de Rond, an academic at Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, for example. In his study of high-performing teams de Rond has lived alongside Cambridge University rowers during selection and preparation for the Boat Race, and surgical teams at the battlefield hospital at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan.

His findings reveal several characteristics of high-performing teams. Interestingly, although many might think otherwise, peace and harmony are not essential prerequisites. “Even very effective teams feel quite dysfunctional, at least occasionally,” says de Rond. According to de Rond a number of difficult tension points are usually present. Tensions that coexist and characterise high-performing teams include: competition and cooperation; trust and vigilance; and change and stability. These must be tolerated, otherwise performance will suffer.

“If you weed out competition in the interests of harmony, for example, you tend to disallow something that is an innate part of many of the high-performers in the team,” says de Rond. “So, if you have a team that feels relatively dysfunctional, rather than having a heart-to-heart, you may be better off giving the team something to do that challenges them.”

This is an extract from the Finance & Management Magazine, Issue 200, June 2012.

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