Chemistry of Teamwork : A Psycho-social Perspective – M.S. Srinivasan

(A modern organization is an interdependent network of individuals pooling their knowledge, talents and action for achieving common goals.  In such a human network teamwork is a crucial factor, which will determine the success and effectiveness of an organization.  Teamwork is becoming all the more important in the new and emerging management culture with its emphasis on minimum hierarchy, project-orientation and customer-focus and interdisciplinary work.  However most of the corporate focus and academic studies on teamwork is performance-oriented with an emphasis on how to harness the knowledge, talent and skill of the team for achieving bottomline goals.  This focus on performance is extremely important for business.  But for a total self-actualisation of the human potential in a team there must be a greater attention to the social, psychological and spiritual dimensions of a human group.  This article presents such a holistic approach to teamwork with an emphasis on these deeper and higher dimensions of working together in a group.)

The Key-Perspectives: Forging Fraternity; The High-performance Team;  The Winning Team: Insights from sports; Collective Intelligence and Gender Diversity; Towards Collective Resonance.

Forging Fraternity

Individual empowerment and collective teamwork: these are the two factors, which need to be reconciled for the full realization of the human potential in an organization.  The guiding principle for empowerment is Liberty and for teamwork it is Fraternity.  Thus we have here a social and political problem to be solved through practical synthesis in the modern work environment.

The key to the full realization of the individual potential is professional liberty which empowers the individual to express his talent and capacities in a free and unfettered manner and contribute to the realization of organizational goal.  The key to the realization of the collective potential lies in forging fraternity, which leads to inner and outer solidarity and harmony among people.  In terms of performance this task of forging fraternity has two aspects or facets: first is to create a harmonious and complementing mutuality of knowledge, skill and competencies which leads to a resonance of collective energies of people; second is to create a dynamic whole of collective action which is more than the sum of individual action or contribution.  And from a psychosocial perspective, creating fraternity means forging an inner and outer bonding among people, which is not dependent on professional relations in work or common corporate goals.  The fraternity of high performance requires an understanding of the professional interdependence of people in their work-life and makes it more and more efficient, productive and effective.  The other and deeper psychological fraternity requires an understanding of collective or communal psychology and applies it to create an inner unity in the mind, heart and soul of people or in other words unity of consciousness.

The High Performance Team

In a predominantly performance-oriented approach to team building the primary emphasis on target-oriented performance and the main query is what are the factors, which lead to a high performance team.  There is at present a growing and voluminous literature on this subject, not only from management scholars but also from sports personalities.  We present here a brief summary of the conclusions from some of the seminal studies on the subject.

A team is a small number of people with complementary skill, a set of performance goals, and an approach for which they hold themselves responsible. (1) A high performance team is made of following features:

  • commitment to a common purpose, vision or mission shared and believed by all members and translated into specific and well-defined performance targets.
  • sufficient freedom and flexibility to team members to achieve the targeted goals
  • a value-system that encourages listening and responding constructively to others views; providing helpful support to others; recognizing the interests and achievement of others; openness and transparency in communication; and mutual respect and trust.
  • people who are interested in each others growth
  • leadership which shares information, trusts in others abilities to make decision, shares power with other team members and has the ability to acquire, retain and nurture the needed talent and skill in the team.

However, in a predominantly performance oriented approach to team-building the central strategic aim is to channelise the knowledge, talents and skills of people in mutually complementing manner towards common goal.  This approach makes no conscious effort to create a social and psychological unity or solidarity among team members.  Whatever moral, psychological or social factors which emerge like trust or common goals are considered as secondary or necessary aids in serving the overriding goal of performance.

The factor of performance is undoubtedly important in business.  But what is not recognized clearly is that a predominantly performance oriented approach limits the moral and psychological potential of the team; it cannot create entirely that whole which is greater than the sum of its parts because the entire creative energy of the collectivity is not fully engaged.  To achieve this higher potential greater attention has to be bestowed in understanding, nurturing, deepening and strengthening the social, moral and psychological dimension of team building.

Collective Intelligence and Gender Diversity

The other important factor which belongs to the psycho-social dimensions of teamwork is the concept of collective intelligence and its relations to the nature of the group. Is there something like group intelligence? If yes, what is its relation to collective intelligence? Can gender diversity enhance collective intelligence?  Recently some researchers in management are asking such questions:

In a latest research on teamwork, Professors Woolley and Malone, along with Chris­topher Chabris, Sandy Pentland, and Nada Hashmi, gave subjects aged 18 to 60 standard intelligence tests and assigned them randomly to teams. Each team was asked to complete several tasks-including brainstorming, decision making, and visual puzzles-and to solve one complex problem. Teams were given intelligence scores based on their performance. Though the teams that had members with higher IQs didn’t earn much higher scores, those that had more women did.  In an interview in Harvard Business Review, Wolley and Malone, summarizing briefly the implications of their research on how to make a team smarter, make the following points:

  1. Families, companies and cities all have collective intelligence.
  2. There is no direct, positive correlation between individual intelligence and collective intelligence.  For example ten smartest people do not make the smartest groups and groups that had smart people dominating the conversation were not very intelligent groups.
  3. Teams need an optimum level of cognitive diversity for effectiveness.  Extreme uniformity or extreme diversity does not make the team more intelligent.
  4. Great teams are not necessarily made of supersmart people.  The main ingredient of a good team are members listen to each other, share criticism constructively; have open minds; and not autocratic or dominating.
  5. Gender diversity enhances the intelligence of the group which means there must be men and woman, more woman better, but not all woman.
  6. The advantage of woman lies in their greater social sensitivity than men.  So what is important to create a smart team is to have people who score high on social sensitivity whether they are men or woman.
  7. It is possible to markedly change groups intelligence, like for example, by providing more incentives for collaboration.
  8. As the group grows bigger and the face-to-face interactions becomes less and less the collective intelligence tends to come down.  However this negative trend can be neutralized or compensated by effective use of technology.  For example, Wikipedia’s high quality product without any centralized control shows some of the potentialities of collective intelligence which can be harnessed by technology. (2)

Let us now examine in some detail the implications of this research study and its conclusions for enhancing collective intelligence of teams.

Enhancing Collective Intelligence: A Holistic Perspective

In a holistic perspective when a group of people live or work together, there is a mingling of their minds and hearts which creates a collective consciousness or intelligence which is potentially more than the sum of their individual consciousness or intelligence.  However this possibility of a higher whole which is more than the sum of its part, called as “synergy” in systems theory, is only a potentiality and not an actuality.  In most cases, the consciousness or intelligence of a collectivity is at a much lower level than that of its best individual members or the average of the group.  If we want to achieve a synergic resonance, we must make a conscious effort to create a mutually supportive, complementing and harmonious link between the members of the team.  There are three principles which we have to keep in mind and incorporated in the group-dynamics of the team for enhancing the collective intelligence.  They are:

  1. Cognitive diversity
  2. Understanding Attitudes
  3. Team Learning

Cognitive Diversity

There are many intelligences within us and IQ measures only one of them. This is now recognized in modern psychology.  The eminent psychologists, Daniel Goleman who has conceived the concept of emotional intelligence has now one more new intelligence, “Social Intelligence.”

We may broadly classify our cognitive faculties into four categories: conceptual intelligence which can generate ideas and also judge, understand, discriminate, analyse; pragmatic intelligence which can apply, organize or execute ideas; emotional and social intelligence which brings empathy, compassion, sensitivity to others needs or feelings and the ability to relate with others; intuitive intelligence which has a direct insight into the truth of things and which can synthesize ideas, comprehend the larger whole or perceive the big-picture.  Woman can augment collective intelligence because there is a natural predominance of the emotional and social intelligence in woman’s nature.  But emotional or social intelligence is not the only strength of woman; most of the highly successful woman executives have a well developed pragmatic intelligence.  However, many men also have strength and ability in the pragmatic, emotional or social intelligence.   For enhancing the collective intelligence of the team, it should have a balanced mix of people who are well-developed in all these four intelligences.

Understanding Attitudes

However, cognitive diversity alone is not sufficient for augmenting the collective intelligence of a group.  A smart and intelligent person has a strong mental ego which tends to think that its own opinions and ideas are the highest and the best and look down upon others ideas, which are different or contrary to its own, as wrong, false or inferior.  For example, Desecrates, a pioneer of modern science and arguably one the most brilliant minds of our age contemptuously dismissed all those who criticized his ides with the remark:  “Let the dogs bark.”  So when the mental egos of smart people in a group remain unchecked, then cognitive diversity becomes a source of unending conflict.  For enhancing the collective intelligence of a team the cognitive faculties of its individual members have to complement each others.  This requires a conscious cultivation of inner attitudes which minimizes ego-clashes and felicitates mutual understanding and collaboration.  These attitudes may be expressed as the willingness to:

  • Listen to others
  • Share criticism and opposing view points at the mental level without getting into emotional conflict in the heart.
  • Accept the validity of a different and opposite opinion.
  • Move from points of agreement to a consensus or a synthesis.

Team Learning

The third principle is to provide opportunities for the whole team to learn together.  A very good example of team-learning is the “Leadership, Innovation, Growth,” programmes at the GEC’s Management Development Centre, Crotonville, New York.

Most of the traditional training are oriented towards the individual.  Leaders and executives participate in the programme as individuals.  But the disadvantage of this approach is that when the executive goes back to her company and tries to implement what she has learned in the programme she may encounter resistance from the other members of her team because they have not learnt what she has learnt.  LIG programme in GEC neutralises this shortcoming of the traditional approach by inviting the entire executive team in a division to participate in the programme.  This helps immensely in arriving at a consensus of ideas and strategies among team members which in turn leads to a more effective implementation.  As Steven Prokesh, a senior editor of Harvard Business Review, sums up the team-centric approach of LIG:

“Management development programmes that focus on teaching and inspiring individuals to apply new approaches have a fundamental flaw.  If other members of the teams have not taken the course, they may resist efforts to change.  The antidote to this problem is training intact management teams.  When managers go through a program together they emerge with a consensus view of the opportunities and problems and how best to attack them.”

The LIG programme of GEC has two parts: first is a series of talk by inhouse role models from GEC as well as outside academics from other institutions on topics like strategy, culture, capabilities, and marketing.  Some of the talks may appear as elementary to a seasoned GEC professional working in that particular field.  But it may open new way of looking or thinking to those who are from a different background.  For example, a manufacturing executive who looks at everything interms of productivity, cost, efficiency may learn some new lessons from a talk by a marketing expert on the need to look at things from a customer’s perspective.

The other part is collective debate and discussions.  After the talk-session, executive teams retire into a separate room and have a “brutally frank and free-flowing” discussion, debate and conversation on the implications of what they have learnt for their businesses.  At the end of the programme, the teams arrive at a consensus on future growth potentialities and how to achieve.  And finally, each team presents an action plan to the top management with a letter of commitment to CEO.  (3)

Towards Collective Resonance

We are now in a better position to arrive at some form of a holistic synthesis of the ideas and insights which are presented so far.  The objective of this synthesis is to present a summary of factors and principle which can lead to a collective resonance, which inturn can bring about an integral self-actualization of the human potential in a team.

The first factor is the Unity of Purpose in the form of some shared vision, values, principles or goals.  Without this uniting factor the collective energies of people cannot be focused on a point.  However for achieving enduring unity or effectiveness the common or shared principle must evoke the moral or spiritual instinct in people which leads to self-dedication of the individual to a greater something which transcends the individual ego and its self-interest.  This is the second factor, which is variously called as selflessness or self-sacrifice.  Without this self-transcending factor, the team or group remains fragmented.

The third factor is Mutual Trust.  Much has been said and written about this factor of trust in management literature.  But the practical question is what are the factors which can build this trust or in other words what are the factors which have to be built-in or encouraged in the group-culture which can lead to this trust?  The first factor is integrity, which includes qualities like honesty, openness, transparency, and candour.  The second factor is competence.  We cannot give an assignment to someone who doesn’t have the competence to accomplish it.  An important part of competence is professional integrity, which means the ability to deliver to the internal or external customer according to mutually agreed upon specifications.  The third factor, which can build enduring trust, is empathy or goodwill, which means a sincere consideration for, or understanding of the needs, problems and difficulties of others, combined with a genuine concern for others’ well being.  We must note here that trust or empathy cannot be faked.  It is an inner condition and if it is sincere, silently communicates itself to the other person.

The fourth factor is Equality.  There must be a genuine respect in thought and feeling for the human essence and dignity of every individual irrespective of his functional or social status in the organization.  This inner sense of equality must translate itself in the outer life in terms of appropriate outer action, behaviour, policies, reward-system and organizational details or practices like for example a flexible, non-hierarchical and open organizational structure, sharing of information, profits or incentives.  Building equality requires more “walking” than “talking.”  Leaders must demonstrate equity by their personal example, like for example, Lance Armstrong, leader of the American cycling team, carrying the water bottles for his teammates.

The fifth factor is individual empowerment, which means freedom and opportunity for the individual to initiate, grow and express himself.  If the team has to remain creative and innovative, individual freedom, uniqueness and potentialities should not get submerged in “group-think” or in the social or cultural matrix.  The individual must be given sufficient freedom and opportunities to grow towards his highest potential and enrich the team by expressing his capacities in his individual and collective work-life.  Multiple viewpoints, expressive of individual uniqueness should be given full freedom of expression and must be encouraged to arrive at a creative synthesis.

 This brings us to another related factor, which we may call as complementing links.  It is now recognized that complementing skills is an important feature of effective team-work.  But for a greater effectiveness, a team should have not only complementing skills but also complementing temperaments.  An ideal team should contain individual types, which represent the conceptual, emotional, volitional, pragmatic, ethical, aesthetic and intuitive faculties of human consciousness.  The ancient Indian classification of human beings may perhaps provide a more practical framework.  According to this Indian view human being can be broadly classified into four types: Mentor, Marshal, Merchant and Worker.  Mentor-type is the one who lives predominantly in his conceptual, ethical, aesthetic and intuitive intelligence with its urge for knowledge, values, ideals and vision.  Marshal is the type which lives in the consciousness of his will and vital force with its urge for power, leadership, mastery, conquest, expansion.  The Merchant is the one who lives in his emotional and pragmatic faculties with its urge for mutuality, harmony, adaptation, relationship and organization.  And finally, Worker is the type who lives in the consciousness of his physical faculties of action and execution.  In a psychological perspective an effective team should have a balanced mix of all these four temperaments, which complement each other.

And finally the last factor is the Unity of Consciousness.  Most of the modern strategies on teamwork and other social and organizational strategies aim at arriving some form of unity of the outer life.  But for a stable and sustainable outer unity, it must be based on an inner unity of consciousness felt concretely in the deeper levels of the mind and heart of people, which is not dependent on outer factors of unity like common goal or shared values.  This deeper unity is the foundation of true love beyond the transient and fickle vagaries of human emotions and sentiments and its likes and dislikes.  When someone mentioned to Sri Aurobindo that love must be the basis of an ideal community, Sri Aurobindo said with a touch of humour:

“Love is not enough.  Something more than love is needed.  Unity of consciousness is more important than love—Love also leads to quarrel.  Nobody quarrels more than lovers.  You know the Latin proverb that each quarrel is a renewal of love.  Love is a fine flower but unity of consciousness is the root.” (4)

This inner unity can be achieved only by a psychological discipline, which has two aspects.  The positive side of the discipline is to consciously cultivate in our thought, feelings speech and action all that unites like kindness, charity, generosity, humility, harmony, trust, understanding non-judgemental attitude, forgiveness.  The negative side is to reject all that divides people and create conflict and friction like jealousy, suspicion, animosity, intolerance, vengefulness, pride, arrogance, sarcasm, sense of superiority, self-righteousness, and harsh judgements.  This inner discipline of purification has to be pursued along with a process of internalization of consciousness, which means learning to enter into the depth of our consciousness where unity exists as a concrete fact, experience and realization.


  1. Kazeebeth J.K, Smith K.D, ‘The Discipline of Teams,’ March-April 1993, p.26-40.
  2. Anita Wooley and Thomas Malone, ‘What Makes a Team Smarter? More Woman,’ Harvard Business Review, June 2011, p. 26-27.
  3. Steven Prokesh, ‘How GE Teaches Teams to Lead Change,’ Harvard Business Review, January 2009, p. 87-101.
  4. Sri Aurobindo, (1983) Evening Talks, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Puducherry, pp.584.

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