How to Improve Teamwork in the Workplace: What Works According to Science

five people fist bumping across a desk in office setting

In 2018, a team of industrial-organizational psychologists published a paper in American Psychological Association with an evidence-based approach to improving teamwork. Here is the research and evidence published in regard to team building, and what psychologists say are the most impactful strategies to building successful teams. Let’s see how to improve teamwork in the workplace, according to science.

Keywords & Definitions

The paper uses a few keywords and definitions which are necessary to know to understand the findings. While many of these terms look, sound, and seem the same, there are key distinctions to learn prior to diving into the rest of this blog.

Team Development Interventions (TDIs)

According to the authors a TDI is a systematic activity aimed at improving requisite team competencies, processes, and overall effectiveness. In layman’s terms a TDI is a planned activity meant to improve the ability of a team to work together

Team Building

The authors say that team building is an intervention designed to foster improvement within a team, providing individuals closely involved with the task with the strategies and information needed to solve their own problems

Team Training

According to the authors, team training is a formalized, structured learning experience with preset objectives and curriculum that target specific team competencies. In other words, team training is a bit more of a structured and organized activity than team building

Leadership Training

Leadership training is an intervention systematically designed to enhance leader knowledge, skills, abilities, and other components. Essentially, a TDI designed specifically for leaders and leadership teams

Team Debriefing

Team debriefing is an activity done after a TDI to allow team members to reflect on the successes and failures of the aforementioned intervention

Team Development Interventions: Different Types and their Impact

The first distinction that the authors make are between training interventions and process interventions. Training interventions are interventions aimed at training workers with the goal of improving the ability with which they can complete their job. Process interventions, on the other hand, are interventions aimed at improving the processes with which teams function.

Training Interventions

First we’ll look at training interventions. Training interventions can be focused on two types of groups: leaders or teams.

Leadership Training

The goal of a leadership training intervention is to improve what the authors refer to as “soft skills” such as interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, and leadership skills. These “soft skills” directly relate to a leader’s effectiveness and ability to garner buy-in from subordinates. By improving interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, a leader can more effectively communicate with their team which in turn improves team competencies.

Team Training

The other type of training intervention, a team training intervention focuses on the ability of a team to work together.

Of course, the primary factor driving teamwork is communication. A team training exercise is designed to evaluate communication and performance of a team in hopes that the team will perform more effectively.

The authors of the study looked at the performance of teams in health care settings. The data empirically shows that prior to team training programs, patient death rates were higher than after the implementation of team training programs. Health care professionals made less mistakes after going through team training, literally saving lives.

Process Interventions

Next, let’s take a look at process interventions. Unlike training interventions, process interventions are focused solely on the performance of the entire team – leaders and subordinates. The two types of process interventions are team building and team debriefing.

Team Building and Role Clarification

Team building is often used as a catchall term for anything to do with improving one’s team. In reality, team building focuses on a few specific things.

Unlike team training, team building places the onus of improvement into the hands of the team rather than looking at metrics or data to evaluate specific performance goals. The primary goals of team building are to a) identify where a team lacks in communication and then b) decide on a plan of action to incorporate changes and improvements that focus on these areas of communication.

A couple key components of team building are improving role clarification and goal setting.

Role clarification is the understanding of each individual team member as to what their role is within the team. It is also the understanding of each individual team member as to what everyone else’s role is within the team.

Having a holistic understanding of team processes allows team members to be held accountable, clears up confusion among team members as to who is in charge of what and who works with whom, and thus increases team efficiency.

However, role clarification should not be confused with role rigidity. Simply because role clarification within a team has occurred does not mean that team members should never be performing tasks outside of their role. Role clarification actually encourages quite the opposite. When team members are clear about each other’s roles, they are actually in a better position to collaborate with their team members when appropriate, and steer clear when necessary.

Along with role clarification, goal setting is an impactful component of team building. The ability for a team to have clear, concise, and attainable goals allows teams to be focused and productive.

Team Debriefing

The last portion of most TDIs is the team debriefing. Team debriefing is being used more and more as data shows that when team members reflect on their team building/training experience, teams gain a better shared understanding about roles, responsibilities, team priorities, strengths, and shortcomings.

A main goal of a team debrief is to ensure psychological safety among team members. Psychological safety, as defined by the authors, is a mutual belief among team members that the team can take interpersonal risks and that a “sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up” exists.

When team members feel comfortable around one another, they are more apt to speak up and share ideas. Along with this, team members also feel more comfortable openly discussing errors with the knowledge that their teammates will be accepting and negative consequences will not occur.

How to Improve Teamwork in MY Workplace?

All this information about TDIs, role clarification, etc., is great to have, but it doesn’t do much if you can’t apply it to your team?

When most people think of team building, they think of activities like the human knot or a scavenger hunt. What many businesses, HR departments, and team building event planners fail to understand is that there is a specific science to team building – methods that have proven effective, and methods that have proven ineffective.

Simply taking your team out on a fun excursion is not enough to solidify the components of team building necessary to improve a team. The authors of the paper state, “We are not against teams having fun, but it is important to differentiate between research-tested, evidence-based TDIs … and those that are simply a pleasant, fun diversion that might boost team affect for a few days.”

While keeping some fun events in the schedule probably won’t hurt your business, it’s time to rethink and re-evaluate how you do your team building days.

Think about the four types of TDIs we discussed – leadership training, team training, team building, and team debriefing – and implement some of the components into your activities.

Instead of doing a human knot, maybe have a sit down with your team to discuss the company’s core values and what can be improved to uphold these values. Ensure your team feels psychologically safe and is not afraid to speak their mind; this is essential to collaboration. Emphasize role clarification while de-emphasizing role rigidity. Train your leaders in interpersonal and intrapersonal skills related to teamwork.

Most important of all is to do these things with consistency. Reinforcing these concepts allows your team to continually build upon the progress they’ve made and improve teamwork and efficiency.

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