What’s it about?

Teams That Work (2020) identifies the seven factors that contribute to the success of every team. This practical handbook builds on the many years of expertise of coauthors Scott Tannenbaum and Eduardo Salas in helping teams succeed, and is jam-packed with the latest research and real-world examples.

About the author

Scott Tannenbaum is the president of the Group for Organizational Effectiveness, where he has worked with hundreds of firms and organizations around the world for the past 25 years. He’s a former professor of business administration whose work has been widely published.

Eduardo Salas is a specialist in organizational psychology and a professor at Rice University. He worked as a psychologist in the US Navy for many years before entering academia. Over 450 academic articles and more than 25 books have been co-authored by him.


Teamwork can be learned, but it won’t make up for lack of ability:

Scott Tannenbaum, a co-author, was a member of an intramural basketball team in the 1980s. He was feeling good going into the third game. His squad had already won its first two games, and, perhaps more importantly, they had played well as a unit.

On the day of the third game, though, he stood there in bewilderment while the opposing squad warmed up. They could dunk the ball, jump higher, and shoot more accurately. With a running start, Scott’s tallest player could barely touch the rim! They were defeated on that particular day.

We all enjoy a good narrative about a group of brave but inexperienced underdogs who band together and pull off an unexpected victory. Unfortunately, the majority of these tales are made up. Scott’s intramural squad had a lot of spirits, but they lacked the necessary abilities to beat their opponents.

No matter how much time and effort you put into making your team more effective, it’s critical to remember that teams cannot perform well if they lack the necessary abilities to execute their duties. If your team is missing in one or more critical areas, you’ll need to employ someone or send them to training. No amount of teamwork will be able to compensate for that chasm.

However, it’s also true that some team leaders are fixated on talent, recruiting the best technical expertise money can buy for their teams. They, too, may discover that their teams’ results are at best subpar. How is that possible? Isn’t it true that a team made up of the best would be the best team?

The idea is to view collaboration as a skill similar to any other. Being a team player is more than just a personality attribute; it necessitates specific capabilities and talents, which, like technical skills, can be developed by the team or directly employed. And teams that display these skills outperform their peers.

So, what does it mean to have team-related capabilities? Good communication, such as active listening and asking practical questions, providing and receiving criticism, dealing through conflict, and interpersonal skills, such as empathy and the capacity to detect nonverbal clues, are all highlighted in the research.

While your team members require technical expertise to execute their tasks, investing in and hiring team-related skills can help them perform even better.


The opinions and perceptions you have about your team influence team cooperation:

Rob Hall and Scott Fischer had previously led numerous parties up Mount Everest. Despite their expertise, a 1996 mission ended tragically. The goal was to turn around at 2:00 p.m., no matter how near they were to the summit when they departed base camp with 16 clients that morning.

The team, however, fell behind. When it’s 2:00 p.m. When the time came, Hall took the unprecedented decision to continue. Several members of the team returned to base camp. Despite their doubts, the others followed their leaders to their peak. The climbers ran out of oxygen and became disoriented as a storm struck unexpectedly. Five people were killed.

One such assumption is psychological safety, as demonstrated by the catastrophe on the mountain that day. Earlier in the voyage, Hall was adamant that opposition would not be tolerated. His word was a law unto itself. As a result, several climbers felt uncomfortable speaking up about their concerns about his plan to continue.

Psychological safety refers to the assurance that you will not be punished or judged harshly if you disagree, admit a mistake, or seek assistance. It’s also required for taking the kinds of personal risks that teamwork necessitates.

That’s why psychological safety has been determined to be one of the most important predictors of team performance in various situations, including a hospital emergency room and the Google office.

Now let’s look at two more beliefs that encourage teamwork.


Effective teams use core teamwork behaviors to collaborate:

Assume you need a new outfit for a wedding that’s coming up soon. At a significant department shop, you’re sorting through a maze of racks when an employee appears out of nowhere and introduces herself. While you shop, Kendra notices something about your style and puts a couple of clothes in the changing room.

Later, another salesperson, Bo, approaches your side. He claims that Kendra is stuck with another customer but that she has explained what you’re searching for. Bo has a few hopeful goods in his possession, and they all match nicely. You’ve made an impression on me.

What is it about this level of coordination that makes it feel nearly magical? It’s not magic – it’s behavior, even though it’s uncommon in many service situations.

Let’s take a look at three habits that you and your team may begin implementing right away.

Monitoring, or situational awareness, was the first coordinating behavior Kendra and Bo displayed. Mica Endsley, a former US Air Force top scientist, devised a situational awareness model centered on being awake to changes and teammates’ experiences, interpreting that information meaningfully, and anticipating what’s likely to happen next.

Bo was aware that Kendra was dealing with a customer, and he noted when she became tangled up. He correctly predicted that starting over with someone new would negatively affect your experience as a consumer.

The next thing Bo did was to enter the room. The second coordinating action is to provide backup or support. When Kendra was occupied, it was clear that Bo didn’t shirk duty. However, backup assistance can entail more than just stepping in for someone; it can also entail providing advice or assisting with a task.

Adapting is the third coordinating behavior, and it is all about learning from your mistakes and making corrections. While we can’t be sure, Bo could have been preoccupied with something else. But when he realized Kendra needed help, he adjusted. They debriefed, exchanging information rapidly because Bo already knew what you were searching for when he arrived at your side.

Effective teams understand that coordinating behaviors such as monitoring, supporting, and adapting can be encouraged and learned, and their performance reflects this.


When it comes to communication, quality trumps quantity every time:

L’Atelier de Jol Robuchon, a Michelin-starred restaurant at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, is world-renowned. If you ever get the opportunity to sit near the kitchen, you’ll notice something unusual: it’s not particularly noisy.

In reality, there is very little interaction between the culinary staff. When anything is spoken, it is usually brief and to the point. In such a busy and popular establishment, you wouldn’t expect the kitchen to be like this. Nonetheless, this is how the personnel keeps a tight ship running and maintains quality.

Communication is one of those areas of teamwork where more isn’t always better. On the other hand, quality communication focuses on getting important information to the correct individuals in a clear, accurate, and timely manner. Otherwise, it’s just a waste of time.

And there’s plenty of evidence that demonstrates the importance of effective communication in teamwork. It might potentially be a matter of life and death, depending on your field. According to a study conducted over ten years over two-thirds of mistakes resulting in significant injury or death in health care, for example, were caused by communication issues.

By contrast, you might recall US Airways flight 1549, which had to make an emergency landing on the Hudson River in 2009. Despite this, there were no fatalities. Why? Yes, partially because of the pilot’s skill. But also partially because of the impeccable communication between crew members.

So what does quality team communication look like in practice? Consider a simple yet powerful technique called “closed-loop communication.” 

This method contains three steps: “the call-out,” in which the initial information is supplied; “the check-back,” in which the receiver conveys what has been understood; and “the close,” in which the messenger confirms or corrects what has been said.

This method relies on communicating your knowledge of a team member’s viewpoint, opinion, or feelings. It’s a powerful method to foster trust and mutual understanding while also moving conversations forward.

There are also some communication stumbling blocks to avoid. For example, don’t presume that people already know or should know something. Also, avoid instances when team members are praised for withholding information that everyone should have access to.

We’ll explore a related driver of productive teams in the following blink: shared cognitions.


Shared cognitions enable your team to adjust to disruptions and promote regular performance:

Assume your team has been working on a project for months. Finally, the time has arrived to show the job, but your client is visibly underwhelmed halfway through. Her expression says it all. Something must be done, but does your team know what that something is?

Its ability to make mid-course adjustments may be dependent on the team members’ “shared cognitions.” Is everyone on your team seeing and reading the problem on your client’s face in the same way? Is everyone aware of the backup plan? Is it obvious who should be in charge right now?

So, what is shared cognitions, exactly?

They include a single purpose, a shared understanding of each person’s function and knowledge, and a standard view of what is essential. They also have shared contingency plans in case anything unexpected occurs and comparable approaches to analyzing situations and forming conclusions.

Returning to the displeased client, the team’s ability to adjust and pivot at the moment will determine its success. And, because the team won’t be able to pause in the middle of the presentation to regroup, it’ll have to rely on its members’ shared knowledge.

This ability does not appear anywhere. Long before a team interacts with an actual disruption, shared cognitions are consciously and gradually created.

Consider a cruise ship in an evacuation or abandon-ship situation. The group has been preparing for this moment for a long time. It has done simulations, and crew members have been given defined duties and instructions on what to say to passengers and how to complete jobs in the correct order.

But how do shared cognitions help teams function better in everyday situations? According to research, team members with the same purpose and set of priorities are more likely to work harder on their responsibilities and go above and beyond.

And when everyone understands their duties and responsibilities, it leads to more effective monitoring and coordination, which we described in the previous paragraphs as a driver of team performance.

You can develop team cognitions in a variety of ways. For instance, establish and express a clear direction. Prepare and train for a variety of situations and have team updates and debriefings regularly.


Even the finest teams suffer in adverse conditions:

Let’s go back to our department-store salespeople, Kendra and Bo. Do you recall them from a few blinks ago? When Bo stepped in for Kendra, they showed off their clever coordination.

Consider a different situation. You’ve come to return an item this time. However, as you approach the desk with your bag in hand, Bo picks up a phone that isn’t ringing. He imitates a phone call, forcing Kendra to deal with your return.

It may seem far-fetched, but when a prominent store engaged the co-authors to increase sales team coordination, they experienced this precise scenario. Return processing meant missing out on clients and commissions. There was no motivation for employees to work together as a team.

Teams do not function in isolation. The context or setting in which they work is what conditions are all about. They impact team performance, just like the other drivers we’ve looked at thus far.

When conditions are good, teams demonstrate more excellent learning behaviors and more creativity and invention, according to research. When employees believe their work environment is encouraging, they are more likely to go above and beyond their job responsibilities.

Even the strongest teams, though, can fail in adverse conditions. Let’s start with the organizational issues that may be preventing your team from reaching its full potential.

True, an organization adopts the behaviors and attitudes that it promotes. Employees will not work together if policies and procedures like hiring and performance management do not encourage it. The same can be said regarding senior leadership’s influence through communications or assuring psychological safety.

Returning to the large store from earlier, it adjusted its HR processes to assess salespeople on activities other than sales, such as processing returns and assisting coworkers. Senior management backed the shift and took a zero-tolerance stance toward long-serving personnel who thrived under the prior, selfish system.

Even if you have little influence over corporate rules, there are team-specific variables to be aware of. To begin with, no team can succeed if its members lack the necessary resources to perform their tasks.

This encompasses the passage of time. Coordination and communication are everyday teamwork tasks that take longer to execute than individual efforts. These collaborative habits appear out of nowhere, as we’ve seen. They require time and the appropriate circumstances to mature.


Leadership is about ensuring that your team gets the tools they need to succeed:

As a result, we’ve arrived at the last and most important factor in effective teamwork: leadership. It’s worth noting that the emphasis here isn’t on leaders. And with good reason: any team member can occasionally assume leadership responsibilities.

In this article, we’ll look at seven critical aspects of team leadership. Each one will highlight one of the drivers discussed in the preceding paragraphs.

The primary responsibility of a leader is to encourage learning and adaptation. The best teams rarely begin that way. They improve throughout time as their powers are constantly improved. Scott may not have been able to make his basketball teammates taller, but a few more years spent together – and some additional training – would have gone a long way.

The second goal is to promote psychological well-being. On that tragic day, the Mount Everest climbers lacked the psychological safety to defy their leader’s orders. Beliefs and perceptions, such as feeling comfortable to speak up honestly and without fear of retaliation, motivate team cooperation.

The next step is to hold colleagues accountable for their actions. How could our two sales reps, Bo and Kendra, coordinate appropriately if one of them failed to do their assigned tasks? Monitoring and assisting team members are examples of coordinated behaviors that rely on team members to keep their promises.

Manage team emotions and attitudes, fourth. Practice quality communication, just like the kitchen team at L’Atelier de Jol Robuchon. It’s an excellent start to relay the feelings you’re picking up from your teammates. When appropriately managed, disagreement can be beneficial; but, avoiding confrontation can only harm your team in the long term.

What’s the fifth? Ensure that everything is in order. When everyone has a shared understanding of topics like roles and contingencies, teams function better. Who’s putting those shared cognitions in place so that the team can adjust when, say, a client presentation goes awry?

The removal of impediments and gaining support is the sixth leadership role. Ascertain that your team has what it needs to succeed. To promote collaboration, a large shop needed to implement incentives and procedures to encourage salespeople to stop pretending to answer the phone to avoid handling returns.

The seventh goal is to promote involvement and empowerment. Who is responsible for your team’s success? Everyone should see that they have a role in putting the team drivers in place, as all of these leadership functions illustrate. It will be unstoppable if you empower your team to do so.