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Bringing the Team Together

Three key understandings can help any group work better

In my research, focused on examining teamwork and why some groups run more smoothly than and outperform others, I’ve learned that nearly all teams have similar and predictable problems. It is a natural part of social life, for example, for people to have opposing goals or interests, for committee members to have different functional interests and for people to value time and money differently.

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There are, however, three elements in how effective teams collaborate, and being aware of them can be key to making your team—at work and even at home—run more smoothly.

It is not what you fight about that matters, but how you fight. When you want to tell someone that you think they are wrong, that they have done low-quality work or are not being reasonable, you are expressing opposition to something they have done, believe or value. People can feel threatened by this. How you tell them will influence their reaction. Communication research indicates that only 7 percent of meaning comes from the words you use—the rest comes from your delivery: the pitch and pace of your voice, for instance, or your body language. Say a manager blocks a budget, which could be seen as threatening, but is more passive-aggressive than direct. Responding to passive aggression is a different conflict process from having a calm debate (seen as less threatening, but more direct). This also applies at home. A common example from marital counseling research is this: Two partners are struggling to stay connected, and one partner says to the other, “You never take me out anymore.” The person hearing that might take this as an accusation that he or she is a neglectful partner. They might respond by listing all the pressures and obligations that keep him or her from home. The sender’s intent, however, is to communicate “I miss you.” The indirect, threatening delivery of that message, however, created a fight. So the more you can focus on how you deliver a message, even if that message is negative, the better the outcome.

When people vent, effective team members know how to respond. Conflict generates many emotions. People often turn to other team members, trusted friends and family members to vent. This is not actually a good practice. It increases rumination and tends to make people angrier. Yet our research shows that people typically vent 3 to 4 times per day. The best response, while counterintuitive, is actually not to comfort or solely offer the social support that a venter seeks. Instead, teams function better when someone offers an insight or a contrary viewpoint. That way, the venter is encouraged to reconsider his or her original reaction. Reappraisal is an important step in viewing the problem from another person’s perspective and ultimately reaching a resolution.

Equity is more important than equality. The best teams understand that each member will not contribute equally, but that each member will make an equitable contribution. This makes dividing resources, assigning roles and allocating credit easier because it does not set up a standard for comparison or fairness that is hard to achieve. For example, if a team member is cantankerous and highly skilled at criticism, the best teams do not ask the person to be nicer. Instead, they put that person in a role that harnesses his or her critical abilities. They also recognize there will be times when, depending on workflow, it will be difficult for some team members to live up to their obligations. This focus on equity and not equality eliminates the tendency to make fairness comparisons and clarifies how each person’s strengths can contribute toward a goal.

These three practices focus individuals on what is actually in their power to control and helps them remain collaborative in the face of the inevitable conflict in any group.

Kristin J. Behfar is an associate professor of business administration at the Darden School of Business focusing on leadership and organizational behavior.