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The science of teamwork and true leadership

Teamwork and collaboration are qualities that inevitably show up in any job description when companies publish ads for hiring new people. Businesses spend a lot of money on team-building exercises, training programs, games and gimmicks to try and make the members of different teams know each other better, like each other more and ultimately work better together.

It’s every manager’s daily challenge to ensure the team is functioning smoothly but each chooses to go about it in different ways. In this article I will take a look at what scientists (more specifically neuroscientists) have to say about it.

Leaders need to conform first and lead after

One of the earliest studies on the subject was conducted by Ferenc Merei in 1949. He observed children at a Hungarian nursery school – yes, teamwork starts that early in life.

What he found was that successful leaders were those who started by blending in with the group then slowly began to suggest new activities adapted from the old. Children weren’t keen on following those who jumped straight in with new ideas.

Leaders first conform, then only later, when trust has been gained, they can be confident that others will follow. This has been confirmed in later studies with adults and, not surprisingly, applies as much today as when the original research was undertaken.

Outsiders input will be disregarded

Another recent study by Matthew Hornsey of the University of Queensland comes to support this.

He found that groups are hostile to criticism from outsiders (even if they happen to be the newly appointed managers) and are likely to be against, dismiss or ignore it — unless the new leader has somehow shown that he is loyal to the team.

Knowing this, those who are new to a group that they want to influence should tread lightly until they gain a well-established position. Until they reach that status, promoting change will not be a successful option for them. It’s also important they keep in mind that when trying to implement new processes it’s best to adapt from the old ones instead of demolishing everything to give way for something entirely new.

Oxytocin – the bonding hormone

It all makes sense because as humans, we are neurologically programmed to see new people or situations as potential threats. Oxytocin, a hormone that activates itself when young mothers nurse in order to help them connect with the infant, has also been documented to occur in couples and other well established groups – this includes work teams.

It takes several, recurring positive experiences for oxytocin to be released, thus generating a feeling of trust.

Larger is not necessarily better

It is a common misconception of managers that the larger a team is, the more resources to get the work done effectively there will be. Reality shows that the more numerous the team, the harder it will be for its members to communicate and work effectively as a unit. Smaller teams allow for social interactions that lead to bonding, trust and ultimately, efficiency.

Another aspect much neglected by today’s team leaders is the importance of face-to-face interaction. New technology is great and ought to be employed as much as it is helpful, yet companies having teams work from remote places have found that it is well-spent money to get those people (physically) together once in a while, especially at the start of new projects.

Three things a leader should do to ensure team collaboration

According to Professor Hackman, there are three things a leader should do in order to attain optimal collaboration within his team.

The first and most important is to make sure that the conditions are set for members to manage themselves. Empowerment generates trust (both in the manager and oneself) and can go a very long way.

The second thing is to be mindful of launching the team well. Beginnings are very important and though tweaks are not impossible to fix along the way, a good start is indicative of a successful outcome.

And last but by no means least, a leader should provide constant coaching for the team members as the project unfolds.

Conflict can generate creativity

Teamwork doesn’t just happen because the hiring ad said it is needed. It’s a common misconception of managers to think that if they have really talented people on their crew and a clear purpose it will all be smooth sailing.

Science shows that it takes careful planning and a lot of preparation to have everything in the right place for the road to success. True leaders go beyond stating a specific goal by making sure that the team is provided with all the resources and support it needs to reach that goal.

Conflict is also something that good leaders see as an opportunity rather than a threat. Professor Hackman’s research found that when it is well-managed and focused on the team’s objectives, it can provide the team with a boost of creativity that would otherwise never occur. A great team has members who sometimes agree to disagree.

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