Maryland Smith Research / May 20, 2020

The Work Habits of Highly Effective Teams

When it comes to work teams, they’re not all created equally.

The Work Habits of Highly Effective Teams

Sometimes there’s a work team that just really … works. It performs, innovates and adapts at a highly proficient level. How does it happen?

In new research, Maryland Smith’s Cynthia Kay Stevens and three co-authors find some common approaches among high-functioning teams. At the core, they find that team members come to understand how their colleagues view a problem.

It doesn’t happen easily, but it can make a big difference in today’s workplace, which increasingly relies on team-based organizing, says Stevens, associate dean of undergraduate studies and associate professor of management and organization at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Stevens and her co-authors examined a multilevel model of how team goal orientation affects cross-understanding – the extent to which team members understand the other members’ mental models – which in turn, affects team and individual performance. They studied 859 advanced undergraduate students on 160 different teams as they completed a semester-long business simulation.

They found that generally some team members were motivated by performance goals – a desire to be seen as successful in a task – while other members were motivated by learning goals – a desire to understand fully the problem and its potential solution. And they found that teams in which members were most strongly motivated by learning goals had greater team cross-understanding – and performed better as a team and as individuals.

“For students who had a learning-goal orientation, their goal was to try and master things. They tend to persevere longer, in the face of setbacks,” Stevens says. “Students who ... were motivated to show that they can complete the task ... and want to look good as well, relative to their peers. They want to get the task done and move on.”

The research adds to a growing body of evidence on learning goals and performance goals and their impact on individual performance and team performance.

In their research, the authors married research on cross understanding with the learning goal and performance goal. And they used that as a way of understanding how learning goals can translate into better group performance and better individual performance.

Consider a time when you’ve been working on a task and trying to come up with a solution to a situation that’s complicated or potentially confusing. “When you’ve got other people around you who are saying, ‘Well, how do you see it?,’ ‘Well, I see it this way,’ then you can often kind of come to a higher level of understanding because each team member is actively trying to incorporate how the others are viewing the situation with how they themselves view the situation,” she says.

This is particularly true for complex phenomena, she says, “like running a business,” in a dynamic environment where your competitor’s actions might affect how you’re going to do business.

“If I have a stronger learning goal, not only am I trying to improve my own performance, but I’m also actively trying to understand how other people view these complex tasks.”

And when that’s the case, the team is going to perform better as a group. In fact, the learning goal orientation from one’s teammates is actually demonstrated to help each individual – even those with a low learning goal orientation – perform at a higher level. It’s win-win.


Drawing from her research, Stevens offers advice that organizations can use to better support their teams as they take on complex problems.


  • Build in space for team-level learning and support that. View it as an outcome that pays dividends later.
  • When time seems to be of the essence, as it is for many organizations facing challenges in the current pandemic, encourage teams to meet every day. The more they meet, the more they will come to understand the perspective of other people on the team. That leads to better solutions.
  • Don’t rush. Resist the urge to say, ‘Stop debating this and make a decision.’ Let the debate happen so teams can come to a better understanding of how each team member views the situation. This will also build the capacity for teams to tackle bigger tasks.

Read more:Getting to Know You: Motivating Cross-Understanding for Improved Team and Individual Performance” is published in the journal Organization Science.

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