Thursday, June 02, 2016

Understanding Personal Goals to Drive Team Performance

Several years ago, HBS Professor Amy Edmondson and I developed a simulation to teach about team decision making.   The Everest Leadership and Team Simulation has become a common teaching tool at many business schools and executive education programs around the world.   Interestingly, several scholars have used the simulation to study interesting questions about team dynamics.  One such study was published recently in the Journal of Applied Psychology.  The study, authored by Matthew Pearsall and Vijaya Venkataramani, examined teams of undergraduate business students as they tackled the simulation.   The scholars wanted to explore the impact of team bonding and identification.  Does coming together as a team and engaging in some team bonding have a big impact when tackling challenging tasks?   After all, many organizations send teams off for bonding experiences of various kinds, thinking it will have a positive impact.  Specifically, the scholars were interested in exploring teams where members also had strong personal goals, as well as a common goal that they were trying to achieve together.  They recognized, as we did in developing our simulation, that balancing common and personal goals can be very challenging for many teams.

The scholars studied 56 teams of students, five students per team.   The scholars asked each team to complete a team identification assessment after working together for eleven weeks.   That assessment measured the extent to which members identified with the team, i.e. did they feel a strong a sense of belonging to the team.  The teams also completed a team learning assessment.  That tool measured "the extent to which team members were likely to learn about and understand each other’s goals."   One week later they engaged in an intervention with the 1/2 of the teams.  The intervention served as an effort to strengthen team identification and a sense of belonging.  Here is what happened:

A week later, the 28 teams in the high team identification group got a brief lecture about the importance of team commitment and identification for effective performance. They then competed in a contest to see which team could build a paper airplane that flew the farthest. They also were asked to create a team name and make a banner or flag for their team.

Then all 56 teams participated in the Everest Leadership and Team Simulation that Amy and I developed.   In the simulation, team members have some common goals and some personal goals that they would like to achieve.   The inherent goal asymmetry means that you can't accomplish all the team and personal goals.  Something has to give.  

The scholars examined how the different teams performed.  They also assessed the teams once again after they had completed the simulation.  What did they find?  Interestingly, the "high identification" teams did not do better than the other teams in the control group.    How about team learning orientation?  Did being oriented toward learning about one another's goals and interests help drive performance?  Yes, it had a positive effect, but not a large one.  The best teams scored highly on both team identification and team learning orientation.  You need both to succeed.  Yes, you need to bond with your team members and feel a sense of belonging.  However, that only helps if part of that bonding and identification process involves trying to truly understand the goals and interests of other team members.   At the end of the day, personal interests matter.  We succeed as a team if we can help individual members achieve their goals.  We can't simply ask members to put aside all personal goals for the sake of the team.   

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