Managing Team Chemistry

In a Nutshell
        Team chemistry is one of the most complicated keys to the success of organizations.  Effective teams are more than just a collection of talented members.  To be effective, a team has to be able to combine the efforts and abilities of members in the right way.  Just as no two people are identical, no two teams are identical.  Consequently, what works well for one team may not work well for others.  However, research has identified several factors that usually produce good team chemistry:

In This Issue

Team Chemistry is a Key to the Los Angeles Lakers' Success
        In the photo above, Kobe Bryant is holding the trophy for the championship of the National Basketball Association (NBA), while Shaquille O'Neal holds his trophy for being the Most Valuable Player in the NBA Finals.  Bryant would not be holding the championship trophy without the help of O'Neal, and O'Neal would not have the been the Most Valuable Player without Bryant.  Bryant and O'Neal are members of a high performing team--a team on which the members are able to achieve more by supporting each other than they ever could achieve by making their immediate personal goals a higher priority.
        Good team chemistry is a key to the Lakers' success.  Admittedly, they have two of the league's best players, and that's also extremely important.  However, talent alone is not enough to win a championship.  In fact, it's the opinion of many observers that the Sacramento Kings, as a team, have more talent than the Lakers.  The Lakers were able to prevail over the Kings because each Laker knows the role he needs to play, and is willing to help his teammates excel.  The Kings need to continue to work on their chemistry.

What We Know About Team Chemistry
        At the risk of taking the "chemistry" metaphor too far, we can think of teams as having the following properties: elements (members), interactions (roles and norms), catalysts (leaders), energy (motivation), attraction (cohesiveness), and mass (size).  By examining these properties, we can identify a number of keys to good team chemistry.
        Elements.  People are the elements that make up a team, and the diversity among people is probably the single greatest reason why teams are so complex.  Nevertheless, diversity of team members can also be the greatest strength of teams.  Diverse team members have diverse viewpoints, knowledge bases and skills.  That's why a team working properly tends to produce better decisions than any single member of the team could produce working alone.  Certainly, the quality and diversity of the members of a team affect its performance, but there's also much more to team chemistry than putting together the best elements.  For instance, even though the Lakers had the same two exceptional players (Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant) before coach Phil Jackson joined them three years ago, they were unable to contend for a championship.  Phil Jackson helped change the team's chemistry.
        Interactions. Team members have to interact constructively in order to perform effectively.  Roles and norms are an important aspect of team interactions.  To be effective, team members need to take the appropriate roles, and develop and enforce appropriate norms.
        A role is a set of duties that a team member performs.  The most prominent role in a team is leadership.  When there's no formal leadership role on a team, different members may take responsibility for leadership at different times.  Nonetheless, teams tend to perform better when there's a single direction for the team, and that's normally best achieved by having a single leader.
        Even though only one member is typically identified as a team's leader, nonleaders often take roles that assist the leadership of the team.  Such nonleader roles augment the efforts of the leader and may subtly influence the leader to redirect the team, but they don't normally obstruct the efforts of the leader or challenge the leader's authority.  Struggles for power in teams are necessary at times, but a team is unlikely to perform at a high level during a power struggle.
        As a team member, you're engaging in what's known as role-making behavior when you spontaneously take responsibility for certain tasks, and role-taking behavior when you accept responsibility for duties that others would like you to perform.  In effective teams, members are inclined to take initiative and accept their roles.  Returning to the example of the Lakers, the team has performed much better since Kobe Bryant has accepted the role of defending their opponent's best offensive player.  In their series with the Kings, Kobe Bryant played very aggressive defense against the Kings' guard Mike Bibby.  Defense is not as glamorous as offense, and Kobe spent a lot of energy playing defense on Bibby that he could have reserved for playing offense.  But, to his credit, Kobe accepted his role as "suffocating defender."
        Effective teams also develop and enforce norms that promote the efficient and effective operation of the team.  Norms are informal rules that all group members are expected to conform to.  Examples of constructive norms that many teams develop include responsiveness to customers and a willingness to do things that aren't strictly in anyone's job description.  Not all norms are constructive.  Examples of dysfunctional norms that some teams develop include quitting work early and censoring dissent within the group.  Whether the norms are functional or dysfunctional, team members tend to sanction those who violate their norms through subtle but important actions such as cold treatment, a reluctance to provide help, stopping any socializing, and even pushing the violator off the team if he or she won't conform.  However, there are occasions when a team member who does not comply with a norm causes the team to give up that norm.  That kind of influence can be positive or negative.  It's positive when a team member takes a stand against a dysfunctional norm and gets the team to change it.
        Catalysts.  In terms of the chemistry metaphor, leaders are catalysts because they promote interaction among the elements.  Leaders provide direction, structure activities, share information, encourage participation, promote positive relationships, and support and encourage members.  Phil Jackson was a catalyst for the transformation of the Lakers three years ago.  Before he joined the Lakers, they had a reputation for being a collection of undisciplined and selfish players.  Based on his experiences with other championship teams, Jackson conveyed to his players what it took to become the best.  Over time, Jackson was able to change the interactions among the players.
        Energy.  Human motivation is the energy in teams.  Unfortunately, motivation is not only directed toward teams' goals.  A lot of energy can also be devoted to conflict.
        In a perfect world, all of a team's energy might be directed toward doing the work required to achieve the team's goals, but in reality it never is.  Carrying the chemistry metaphor a step further, some of the team's energy takes the form of heat due to friction i.e., interpersonal conflict.  Because people are not omnipotent, conflict in groups is natural and necessary.  Each of us has a unique knowledge base and a unique way of perceiving and processing information.  Consequently, team members often disagree, and it would be counterproductive for members to hide their disagreement.  Hence, effective teams experience disagreement, and it enhances the quality of their decision making by challenging assumptions and expanding the number of ideas considered.  On the other hand, teams that hide their internal disagreement, let interpersonal conflict become personal rather than business-related or spend too much time debating, tend to be less effective.
        To reach the highest levels of performance, team leaders should ensure that members have goals that motivate them.  Furthermore, the highest performing teams are driven by a vision of the future to which the team aspires.  Team leaders who can articulate a vision for their teams can create passion and inspire exceptional performance.  While goals are normally specific and measurable (often expressed numerically), a vision is a vivid picture of something exciting that a team can achieve.  For the Lakers, their goal each season is probably to win the championship, and their vision might be solidifying their place in the history of their sport.
        Attraction.  When team members appreciate being a member of the team and feel an attraction to it, they're committed to working toward the team's goal.  This cohesiveness facilitates collaboration, spontaneity, and mutual support, and it reduces counterproductive conflict.  Effective teams tend to be cohesive.
        Cohesiveness can be created through many processes.  Smaller groups are more likely to develop cohesiveness than larger groups.  When group members have many things in common, they tend to develop higher levels of cohesiveness.  Cohesiveness also tends to develop as team members spend more and more time together.  Interestingly, one of the ways to build cohesiveness is by making members go through a tough initiation before joining the team, and communicating to them that they've been selected as team members because they're special in some way.  Finally, success engenders cohesiveness.  It's difficult to feel excited about being a member of a team that loses, and much easier to feel an affinity for a team that succeeds.  Look at the picture of the Lakers above.  Team members are celebrating their victory, and that helps increase the bonds among them.
        Mass.  While large teams have more resources (e.g., viewpoints and knowledge), small teams tend to be more efficient and cohesive.  In large teams, individual members don't see their efforts affect the overall performance of the team as clearly as members of small teams do.  Members of large teams are more likely to feel inconsequential.  On average, members of small teams put forth more effort than members of large teams.

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Managing Team Chemistry
        Since team chemistry is so complicated, it helps to have many members committed to fostering good team chemistry.  Both leaders and nonleaders can help.

Leadership Roles
        Developing credibility.  To effectively influence team members, leaders should have credibility.  Credibility is developed in the following ways:

        Articulate a vision.  The kind of vision that energizes a team is a vivid picture of the future that's ambitious and exciting.  To motivate a team to its highest level of performance, there must be passion.  Perhaps the best metaphor here is falling in love.  When we fall in love, a lot of our attention is directed toward the object of our affection, and our passion moves us to be creative and heroic.  A leader's vision can produce similar passion, but the vision has to be connected to the values and priorities of the team members.  When you articulate a vision for a team that you lead, make sure that you clearly make that connection.  If your vision inspires passion, you can expect a high level of motivation and impressive performance.  Thus, your vision should be ambitious.  The vision should also be creative and original so that it's perceived as really interesting.  Finally, as you describe your vision, use colorful, emotional, and metaphorical language to trigger the passion.
        Set goals.  After articulating a vision, break down the work to be completed into SMART goals.  Smart goals are more concrete and manageable than a vision, and they point effort in a specific direction.  (See the "Motivating Others" LeaderLetter:
        Encourage constructive debate.  Research on catastrophic group decisions (e.g., the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Watergate cover up, the space shuttle Challenger disaster) has identified a distinctive pattern in the teams that have made the poor decisions.  One of the pitfalls of those groups is censorship of dissent.  If team members pressure themselves or each other to suppress dissenting opinions in order to maintain harmony, the diversity of members' insights is wasted and lousy decisions can be made.  Accordingly, effective team leaders understand that a moderate amount of task-focused conflict is constructive.  If their teams are not debating issues, effective team leaders promote debate by playing the role of devil's advocate.
        Encourage role-making.  It's neurotic and counterproductive for team leaders to think that only they should influence team members.  Effective leaders don't perceive the role-making behavior of other team members as an inherent threat to their leadership.  When nonleaders take the initiative to direct work activities or build relationships, effective leaders credit their initiative and shape their efforts to bring them in line with the vision.
        Promote cohesiveness.  There are a variety of things that team leaders can do to promote cohesiveness:

Nonleadership Roles
        Task-facilitating roles.  Leaders are primarily responsible for providing direction to their teams.  However, nonleaders can take the initiative to assist the leaders' task-related efforts.  Nonleaders can perform task-facilitating roles by

        Relationship-building roles.  Pleasant and supportive interpersonal relationships promote collaboration and cooperation, so building good relationships promotes team success.  Nonleaders can perform relationship-building roles by

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Photo Credit
        REUTERS/Mike Blake: e-mailed to me from Yahoo! News;

        George, J. M, & Jones, G. R.  (1999).  Understanding and managing organizational behavior, (2nd ed.).  Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.
        Robbins, S. P.  (2001). Organizational behavior, (9th ed.).  Englewood Cliffs, NJ:  Prentice Hall.
        Whetten, D. A., & Cameron, K. S.  (2002).  Developing management skills, (5th ed.).  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

About the Newsletter and Subscriptions
        LeaderLetter is written by Dr. Scott Williams, Department of Management, Raj Soin College of Business, Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio.  It is a supplement to my MBA 751 - Managing People in Organizations class.  It is intended to reinforce the course concepts and maintain communication among my former MBA 751 students, but anyone is welcome to subscribe.  In addition, subscribers are welcome to forward this newsletter to anyone who they believe would have an interest in it.  To subscribe, simply send an e-mail message to me requesting subscription.  Of course, subscriptions to the newsletter are free.  To unsubscribe, e-mail a reply indicating that you would like to unsubscribe.

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E-mail Your Comments
        Whether you are one of my former students or not, I invite you to share any insights or concerns you have regarding the topic of this newsletter or any other topic relating to management skills.  Please e-mail them to me.  Our interactions have been invaluable.  Let's keep the conversation going.

Good, Clean Joke (or, at least a clean one)
        The Baltimore Police Department, famous for its superior K-9 unit, was somewhat taken aback by a recent incident. Returning home from work, a woman was shocked to find her house ransacked and burglarized. She telephoned the police at once and reported the crime. The police dispatcher broadcast the call on the channels, and a K-9 officer patrolling nearby was first on the scene.
        As he approached the house with his dog on a leash, the woman ran out on the porch, clapped a hand to her head and moaned, "I come home from work to find all my possessions stolen, I call the police for help, and what do they do? They send a blind policeman!"

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