team interdependence and performance

Keith Sawyer 

Lots of people work in groups that are not really teams. If you work alone in a cubicle, and meet your fellow team members only in the Monday status meeting, you’re not in a real team. Organizational researchers reserve the term “team” for groups that have high interdependence–each task that you do, sometimes on an hourly basis, is dependent on what the other team members are doing at that same time. Some team tasks need high interdependence, while others don’t. In a recent post at, I gave a sports example: a basketball team is highly interdependent; a baseball team is low. In an interdependent team, you can’t get anything done without working closely with the other team members. Years of organizational research show that as your team becomes more interdependent, you need more and better communication, and higher cohesion. In my book GROUP GENIUS, I show that real teams need what I call group flow–a state of peak performance that comes from close work, shared commitment to the goals, and pride in the team.

I’ve just read a fascinating academic study* of interdependence in top management teams (TMT)–basically, this is the group of senior executives that has their offices in the executive suite at headquarters and that report directly to the CEO. Professors Murray Barrick, Bret Bradley, and Amy Colbert studied 94 credit unions, with TMT size ranging from 4 to 14 members. They interviewed 517 of the 601 TMT members at these credit unions. To assess TMT effectiveness, they measured the team’s own ratings of their effectiveness, and then they waited one year and measured each firm’s performance using data from the National Credit Union Administration.

Using some fairly sophisticated statistics, they demonstrated that when teams are more interdependent, coherence and communication more strongly predict the team’s performance and the firm’s performance over the following year. But what’s interesting is that there were two different kinds of teams. For teams that were highly interdependent, high coherence and good communication predicted both team performance and firm performance. But for teams that were not interdependent, low coherence and less communication was related to better performance. The top performing teams and firms were those with interdependent teams and high cohesion and communication; but the non-interdependent teams with low cohesion and communication only performed slightly worse.

The key message is that you need a match: between the degree of interdependence on the one hand, and coherence and communication on the other. The least successful teams were those for which these two features were mismatched.

I would add one tip from my own studies of innovation: significant innovations always emerge from interdependent teams, and rarely come from teams low in interdependence. That’s why innovations tend to come from teams that are high in group flow, high in cohesion and with constant communication. Credit unions aren’t generally associated with high innovation; I’d like to see this study repeated, but in an industry that is associated with constant innovation.

*Barrick, M. R., Bradley, B. H., Colbert, A. E. (2007). The moderating role of top management team interdependence: Implications for real teams and working groups. Academy of Management Journal, 50(3), 544-557.


Written by keithsawyer

August 25, 2007 at 10:44 pm

4 Responses

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  1. How do you know when to use each type of team? Is it just a matter of the technology adopted driving the subsequent choice of interactivity mode?

    There’s an echo here of structure driving strategy …



    August 26, 2007 at 1:44 am

  2. I would disagree, although I know very little about innovation and organizational theory – so if this is wildly off the mark, please accept my apologies.

    I actually think that baseball is an excellent example of some types of teams – even innovative ones. Here’s why: While not every player is involved in every play, every player must know what is going on in every play. Growing up, I watched Cal Ripken, Jr. on the Orioles and it seemed like nothing got by the left side of the infield if it was hit on the ground. Why? He explained later that he picked up the pitch from the catcher, knew the hitter’s tendencies and could predict where the ball was going to go. While the shortstop is the most important position on the field, an argument can be made about all of the players being on the same page.

    Another example that might prove to be better. Much of the teamwork that goes on in baseball I would argue is actually unseen. But, having watched my fiance teach softball to high school girls, I realize its importance. If you notice on every play when the ball is hit, all of the fielders move to specified (and predictable) positions. The catcher moves down the line to back up a throw to first, a rightfielder will come in on a ground ball near the right field line, the pitcher will back up the catcher if there is a play at the plate. Having watched my fiance’s team be unable to grasp these basic concepts, one cannot begin to describe its importance for the quality (and watch-ability) of the game. But, much like a modern corporation, much of the team-work can only be seen when it doesn’t work and it all breaks down. Otherwise, the improvisation and reliance on team members goes unseen.

    That all being said, I think that it is not as improvosational as a basketball team which has much more minute-to-minute action. But, on many teams, that minute-to-minute improvisation is accomplished by a single player (like Kobe or Dwayne Wade). That may be true in many teams, but I don’t think that it is that different from baseball.



    August 26, 2007 at 2:45 am

  3. Regarding baseball: I agree with you that the response of the defense to a hit is interdependent teamwork. But more important to the game is the pitcher’s ability, independent of the rest of the team, and how well each batter does, which is also independent of the rest of the team.

    Regarding when to use each team type: Based on the research article I cited, the situational demands of the team’s task determine which sort of team you need. Faced with an interdependent task, you need a cohesive and highly communicating team. And my own claim is, essentially, that innovation is an interdependent task.



    August 27, 2007 at 7:30 pm

  4. […] Some neat posts by former guest Keith Sawyer. […]


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