According to the latest business thinkers, the 21st century workplace is all about teamwork. While 20th century organisations were about bosses and hierarchies, nowadays management thinking is all about working with colleagues, forming networks across the business and out to external partners.
Highly successful companies such as Goldman Sachs, Google, Microsoft and Nokia all have a strong teamwork ethic.
Julia Newall, a co-head at Goldman Sachs University, the investments bank’s internal programme that trains and supports staff in business and interpersonal skills, says “We’re a consensus driven organisation. It’s about what we do as a team. It’s not about ego”. Newall admits that this means decision making can be slow and frustrating to newcomers. “The upside is that we get increased buy-in and support of decisions and our execution is pretty flawless”, she says. “There is no question that two, three or four heads are better than one”.
While the concept of teamwork to increase business efficiencies is not new, it is taking on a new lease of life. Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School and believes that the ability of companies to build teams within their organisations is crucial.
“Building collaborative teams is a central part of talent management”, she says. “People must learn how to behave in complex teams, across ages, genders and nationalities”.
Organisations are increasingly moving towards collaboration, she says. “The challenge is how to identify and then build upon the collection of talents”. Teamwork is where innovation happens, adds Gratton. “The idea of an innovation coming from a lone genius is a fallacy”.
Business advisory and conciliation body ACAS says teamwork is used by companies to increase its competitiveness in four key areas; by improving productivity, encouraging innovation, taking advantage of advances in technology and improving employee motivation and commitment. Yet there is a difference between believing in teamwork and being able to implement it in a company.
Mark de Rond is a reader in strategy and organisation at the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School, and spent a year shadowing the university’s boat club as they prepared for the Boat Race. “The tensions that exist within the crew are no different from tensions within companies”, he says. “In the boat club it is easier to see in black and white”.
De Rond believes that teamwork can be taught. “You can teach mediation, conflict resolution and interpersonal skills”, he says. “All of these can be developed, although not often in business schools. And some people are better at others at picking it up”.
As in a boat crew, personality can be crucial, says De Rond. “Sometimes you need to take someone out of the team who might be very skilled but also a negative influence on the others. If they are intimidating, for example, this could be very bad for creative brainstorming”.
Businesses often don’t consider the issue of personality when it comes to teamwork, argues David Thompson, a director of talent management at investment bank ABN Amro. “When people put team together it is usually about their technical skills rather than their personality or whether they have complementary outlooks. Achieving team spirit is about getting the right environment, the right skills and considering people’s personalities”.
There are tools available to help management assess the personalities in a team such as the Myers Briggs Type Indicator tests to define people’s characteristics. Yet the increased use of technology in the workplace means that teams within companies can be extremely complex in the makeup and contain more than 100 members.
As teams become larger and more diverse, these characteristics make it harder to share knowledge freely and buy into the concept of operating as one unit. However companies who encourage collaborative behaviour using a number of tools, such as open-plan offices, encouraging a sense of community, mentoring and coaching and demonstrating collaborative behaviour from its leaders, are much more likely to make modern teams work, and to reap the benefits.