Who doesn’t love superheroes? Recent popular movies tell the story—X-Men: Apocalypse, Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther, Wonder Woman, and Avengers: End Game. I grew up watching Superman and Batman on TV. Often acting independently, they also teamed up as the Justice League with Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, and others to accomplish what no one could do alone–protect the world from evil. Marvel Comics introduced the Fantastic Four, which originally included Mister Fantastic, Invisible Woman, Human Torch, and Thing. Later members included Ant-Man, Storm, and Spiderman. Each brought unique powers to the team.
Like the powers of superheroes, our character strengths help humans flourish. Each person contributes different strengths. Teamwork is one of 24 Character Strengths identified through extensive research by Positive Psychology experts Seligman and Peterson. Cooperation and collaboration are key qualities which helped civilization advance. “Teams” have varied shared purposes—coworkers, families, volunteer groups, school clubs, homeowner’s boards, sports teams, etc. Humans accomplish their greatest achievements together, not alone. A high-functioning team of people creates synergy that makes “the whole greater than the sum of its parts,” per Aristotle. Educator Stephen Covey said “synergy is what happens when one plus one equals ten or a hundred or even a thousand! Synergy is better than my way or your way. It’s our way.”
Successful teams do not occur automatically. Key factors improve the outcome of teams. Peter Coleman, PhD described a study on team productivity by Google called Project Aristotle. “Hundreds of teams were studied…to identify the secrets of their most highly functioning teams.” The most important condition? How teammates treat one another, especially psychological safety, shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. Someone won’t be embarrassed, rejected, or punished for speaking up. Psychological safety is promoted by cooperative, not competitive goals. “Introducing cooperative tasks, rewards, and goals is critical to establish psychological safety and better productivity.” This increases trust and improves communication, resource sharing, and fondness for members. But excessive cooperation can backfire. Coleman noted teams also need conflict—different ideas, values, cultures, or experiences which provide energy and motivation to improve. But conflict must be managed constructively through cooperative relationships. Research on conflict shows positive and negative feelings in relationships accumulate—creating emotional reservoirs that either buffer in difficult times or create land mines. With enough positivity—rapport, trust, liking, friendships—team members learn from conflicts and adjust. Without emotional buffers, negative encounters overwhelm and drag down teams. What matters is the cumulative ratio of positivity-to-negativity. High-functioning business teams’ ratio is about 3.5:1 positive to negative encounters. Marriages need closer to 5:1.
Charles Darwin reportedly said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” However, the Google study also found that meaningful work is vital to team functioning. In high-performing teams, members feel their work is personally important to them and that it matters. These two basic team functions of adapting to change and maintaining purpose in our work often are at odds. Balance is needed; either extreme can derail a team. Psychology Today noted social sensitivity, or members’ ability to understand each other’s thoughts and feelings and respectfully engage in disagreements was vital to team success. Nonverbal communication—gestures, facial expressions, and voice tone—help or hinder productivity. Emotional contagion occurs when emotions, positive or negative, spread from person to person. Thus, one member’s discontent and negativity could soon infect others. Supporting emotional needs of all members and rooting out conflict with open communication are key to managing emotional contagion.
Coleman gave a high-profile example of the immense potential of effective teamwork: the 1969 Apollo II mission. Recall Neil Armstrong’s now famous quote? “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” “While the world celebrated the individual achievements of astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, the success of the mission resulted from the efforts of a much larger team.” Indeed, as Ken Blanchard wrote, “None of us is as smart as all of us.” Mission planners, scientists, engineers, and technicians, numbered around 400,000, and worked tirelessly for years to make the moon landing a reality. “The team’s cohesion was strengthened by the astronauts’ close collaboration with these groups, emphasizing the importance of human connection in any team.”
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead