Everybody loves a star performer. Whether it's LeBron James, Jack Welch, or Yo-Yo Ma, individual achievement is always held in the highest regard. So it's not surprising that managers seek to stock their organization with hard-driving "type A" players, who went to top schools and have impressive résumés.
Yet the truth is that today, high value work is most often done in teams. It wasn't always this way. The journal Nature noted that until the 1920s, most scientific papers only had a single author, but by the 1950s, co-authorship became the norm, and today, the average paper has four times as many authors as back then.
Clearly, there has been a big shift from individual performance to teamwork. To solve complex problems, you don't need the best people. You need the best teams, and that means we need to change the way we evaluate, recruit, manage, and train employees. Put simply, working in a team takes different skills than working alone. Here are three things you should be looking for.
Many managers hire with a specific "type" in mind, usually people who seem most like themselves. This may be great for creating camaraderie and comfort, but it is not the best environment for solving problems. In fact, a variety of studies have shown that diverse teams are smarter, more creative, and examine facts more thoroughly.
The problem is that when you narrow the backgrounds, experiences, and outlooks of the people on your team, you are limiting the number of solution spaces that can be explored. At best, you will come up with fewer ideas, and at worst, you run the risk of creating an echo chamber where inherent biases are normalized and reinforced.
In effect, by creating a homogenous team, you are almost guaranteeing that the best answers will be found somewhere else. So instead of looking for comfort, you should be creating an environment where people expect to have their perspectives challenged by people who look, talk, and think differently.
2. Social Sensitivity
We tend to think of high performing teams as being dependent on a single dominant leader, but research shows just the opposite. In one wide ranging study, scientists at MIT and Carnegie Mellon found that high performing teams are made up of people who have high social sensitivity and take turns when speaking. Research suggests strong team performance also depends on the number of women in the group.
Google found much the same thing when it studied what makes great teams tick. After combing through every conceivable aspect of how teams work together, what they found mattered most to team performance was psychological safety, or the ability of each team member to be able to give voice to his or her ideas without fear of reprisal or rebuke.
Stanford professor Robert Sutton summarized wide ranging research in his 2007 book The No Asshole Rule that showed that even one disruptive member can poison the work environment, decrease productivity, and drive valuable employees to leave the company. So even if someone is a great individual performer, it's better to get rid of nasty people than allow them to sabotage the effectiveness of an entire team.
3. High Quality Interaction
A study done for the CIA after 9/11 to determine what attributes made for the most effective analyst teams found that what made teams successful was not the attributes of their members, or even the coaching they got from their leaders, but the interactions within the team itself.
More specifically, they found that teams that work interdependently tend to perform much better than when tasks are doled out individually and carried out in parallel. Another study found that teams that interacted more on a face-to-face basis, rather than by telephone, email, or social media, tended to build higher levels of trust and produced more creative work.
So the value of a team is not just the sum of each individual contribution but what happens when ideas bounce against each other. That's when ideas are able to evolve and grow into something completely new and different. Innovation, more than anything else, is combination.
Rethinking the War for Talent
Back in the late 1990s, McKinsey declared a war for talent. The firm argued that due to demographic shifts, recruiting the "best and the brightest" was even more important than "capital, strategy, or R&D." The report was enormously influential and continues to affect how enterprises operate even today.
Companies were urged to identify specific traits they were looking for, aggressively recruit and retain the very best performers, and move quickly to weed out those who didn't measure up. Some companies, such as General Electric, instituted a policy of stacked ranking, routinely firing the bottom 10 percent of their workers.
Yet research shows exactly the opposite is true. What really produces the best work are teams that are diverse, build trust, and interact freely. That's a far cry from the hard charging "type A" personalities that McKinsey was calling for. It also seems clear that policies like stacked ranking, which pit employees against each other, probably do more harm than good.
So instead of only looking at the typical résumé qualities like a degree from a prestigious school and impressive positions at big companies, what we should be looking for are people who are sensitive to the needs of others, take turns when speaking, and are comfortable working with others who have diverse views and backgrounds.