Theories on teamwork

Written by lalla scotter
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Theories on teamwork
Team members work together but usually have differentiated roles. (Comstock Images/Comstock/Getty Images)

Teamwork has become the cornerstone of modern business life. Working in teams ensures that projects keep going, even if someone is sick or goes on holiday. People working together motivate each other and are more effective problem-solvers as they can discuss issues and offer different perspectives. However, a team is more than just a group of workers. Various theories have explored the points that turn a loose association of people into a team.

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Meredith Belbin's theory of team roles, expounded in 1981, can be used both to build and manage a team. His theory suggests that, when part of a group, people have a tendency to adopt one or more of nine differentiated team "roles." In effective teams, all nine of these roles are enacted, though one person may play two or more roles. If one role is omitted, the team may not function properly. However, more than one person adopting the same team role can lead to conflict.


Bruce Tuckman proposed his theory of the four stages of team development in 1965. From his research he observed that groups evolved into teams via four common stages. Initially there is an introductory, orientation phase in which the group is still dependent on instructions from the leader. This is often followed by a period of conflict, as people establish their identities and jostle for position. This generally resolves itself into a more socially cohesive stage. Finally, the team is established and able to focus on achieving goals. Tuckman referred to these stages as: forming, storming, norming and performing.


John Adair's work on leadership led him to identify the importance of the team. Rather than focusing on the then-popular "great man" theory of leadership, which sought to identify the characteristics of a charismatic individual, Adair looked at what leaders had to do in order to achieve the task. His model shows how leadership is based on the three interwoven activities of achieving the task, building and maintaining the team and developing the individual.


Managers can use David McClelland's work on human motivation as a theoretical framework for building successful teams. The basic premise is that humans are motivated as individuals, either by achievement, power, or affiliation. In order to get them to work as a team, they have to see the team not as an end in itself, but as a means to achieve their personal goals. Team leaders need to understand how each team member is motivated in order to manage the group effectively.

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