Why are Some Teams Productive?

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Many of us have worked on cross-functional teams. The challenge is  how do organizations put together teams that are productive, efficient, and enable learning for the individuals, the team, and the organization? I have worked in effective and ineffective cross-functional teams and I wanted to understand a bit more about the concept of effective teams. The most productive teams I have been on have had the following attributes:

  • All members were all relatively equal in terms of the power within the organization
  • All had the same relative expertise in our specific areas
  • The team was empowered to make decisions
  • The team had an identification and each person had an emotional connection to the team
  • We were comfortable with each other and felt safe disagreeing, debating and collaborating.

When one or more of these conditions was not present, the team was not as productive as it should have been and learning was limited.

There are many factors that drive team effectiveness. The first is the level of expertise on the team. According to G.S Van der Vegt… “Expertise diversity within a team is maximized when members’ areas of expertise reflect equal representation of a relevant set of expertise…” (Van der Vegt & Bunderson, 2005). When I think of successful cross-functional teams, all members, whether they were from architecture, development, QA, or services, had the same relative level of expertise. Each member also knew enough about the others domains such that collaboration and team learning persisted throughout the project. Many of my unsuccessful project teams have had a mixed level of expertise with some who have been at such a higher level of expertise than others on the team which impacted collaboration and learning.

A second key to success is the creation of a collective identity. For example, the Gamification Team. Each member identified with the group, was emotionally connected, and understood how the project tied to the overall Kronos strategy. When there are high levels “of collective team identification, individuals are committed to the team and its goals rather than their own goals” (Van der Vegt & Bunderson, 2005). With the Gamification Team, we were focused on the goals of the team versus our own individual goals. Along the way, there was extensive learning as we figured out together how to get a complex project/product to market.

Teams cannot be effective without psychological safety. The most effective teams I have been on created a sense of safety amongst its members. The approach was collegial with everyone being comfortable sharing ideas, airing disagreements, asking for help, and suggesting potential experiments. From the A. Edmondson ”Team psychological safety involves but goes beyond interpersonal trust; it describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves” (Edmondson, 1999). When I am safe on a team, I can be my authentic self and learn and grow with the team. This safety is directly tied to learning behavior according to A. Edmondson. Team leaders are crucial in fostering safety. If the leader is supporting, open to ideas and learning, and has non-defensive responses to questions, then the team will conclude that the team is a safe environment.

The last facet of a productive team is whether there is a ‘bad apple’ on the team. Bad apples “chronically display behavior which asymmetrically impairs group functioning” (Felps, W., Mitchell T.R. & Byington E., 2006). There are many ways of dealing with this bad apple including changing the person’s behavior, removing them from the team or becoming defensive. Having a bad apple in a group can be destructive to the teams functioning, motivation, learning, and cooperation. This person can inhibit group function and psychological safety by “undermining…the positive expectation or presumption that interpersonal risk can be assumed with a reasonable degree of confidence that others will not betray or violate the trust” (Felps, W., Mitchell T.R. & Byington E., 2006). One of the most destructive elements of the bad apple is when the other team members react to him/her with defensiveness. The defensiveness of the others on the team can go to the extreme of emotional explosions, distraction, denial and withdrawal. Their reaction to the bad apple can also undermine their credibility within the organization.

Having a productive, learning team is a complex process which includes selecting the right people with the proper skills and diversity, nominating the right leader, having the right amount of psychological safety, and ensuring that there are processes in place for handling any potential ‘bad apples’.


Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350-383.

Felps, W., Mitchell T.R. & Byington E. (2006). How, when, and why bad apples spoil the barrel: Negative group members and dysfunctional groups. Research in Organizational Behavior, 27, 175-222.

Van der Vegt, G.S. & Buderson, J.S. (2005). Learning and performance in multidisciplinary teams: The importance of collective team identification. Academy of Management Journal, 48(3(, 532-547.