Are you in a “real team”?

Lots of people work in groups that are not really teams. If you work alone in a cubicle, and meet your fellow team members only in the Monday status meeting, you’re not in a real team. Organizational researchers reserve the term “team” for groups that have high interdependence–each task that you do, sometimes on an hourly basis, is dependent on what the other team members are doing at that same time. Some team tasks need high interdependence, while others don’t. In a recent post at, I gave a sports example: a basketball team is highly interdependent; a baseball team is low. In an interdependent team, you can’t get anything done without working closely with the other team members. Years of organizational research show that as your team becomes more interdependent, you need more and better communication, and higher cohesion. In my book GROUP GENIUS, I show that real teams need what I call group flow–a state of peak performance that comes from close work, shared commitment to the goals, and pride in the team.

I’ve just read a fascinating academic study* of interdependence in top management teams (TMT)–basically, this is the group of senior executives that has their offices in the executive suite at headquarters and that report directly to the CEO. Professors Murray Barrick, Bret Bradley, and Amy Colbert studied 94 credit unions, with TMT size ranging from 4 to 14 members. They interviewed 517 of the 601 TMT members at these credit unions. To assess TMT effectiveness, they measured the team’s own ratings of their effectiveness, and then they waited one year and measured each firm’s performance using data from the National Credit Union Administration.

Using some fairly sophisticated statistics, they demonstrated that when teams are more interdependent, coherence and communication more strongly predict the team’s performance and the firm’s performance over the following year. But what’s interesting is that there were two different kinds of teams. For teams that were highly interdependent, high coherence and good communication predicted both team performance and firm performance. But for teams that were not interdependent, low coherence and less communication was related to better performance. The top performing teams and firms were those with interdependent teams and high cohesion and communication; but the non-interdependent teams with low cohesion and communication only performed slightly worse.

The key message is that you need a match: between the degree of interdependence on the one hand, and coherence and communication on the other. The least successful teams were those for which these two features were mismatched.

I would add one tip from my own studies of innovation: significant innovations always emerge from interdependent teams, and rarely come from teams low in interdependence. That’s why innovations tend to come from teams that are high in group flow, high in cohesion and with constant communication. Credit unions aren’t generally associated with high innovation; I’d like to see this study repeated, but in an industry that is associated with constant innovation.

*Barrick, M. R., Bradley, B. H., Colbert, A. E. (2007). The moderating role of top management team interdependence: Implications for real teams and working groups. Academy of Management Journal, 50(3), 544-557.

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