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Team Culture

9 Facts Every Creative Needs to Know About Collaborative Teams

The mere presence of other people can boost your performance, and 8 other research-backed findings about collaboration and teamwork.


Look behind any creative success story and you’ll usually find a great team, a group of passionate people who raised each other’s game.  When thinking about productivity we often focus on the individual, yet it’s by optimizing teams that we can truly take our projects to the next level.

How? One secret weapon you have is to appreciate the psychological factors that turn a group of individuals into a cohesive team unit. To help you optimize your team selection and working habits, here are nine facts that can help you get the most out of working with others:

1. The mere presence of other people can boost your performance.

One the earliest findings in social psychology was the “social facilitation” effect – the way the mere presence of other people engaged in the same task as us can boost our motivation. In 1920, social psychologist Floyd Allport showed that a group of people working individually at the same table performed better on a whole range of tasks even though they weren’t cooperating or competing. Allport’s research illustrates how the energy of other people can act as a substitute team even if we’re working solo (this is why many creatives enjoy working at their local café surrounded by industrious strangers).

2. A familiar team has benefits like a home stadium.

Everyone knows that sports teams enjoy an advantage when they compete in the familiar surroundings of their home stadium. Less recognized are the benefits of having familiar faces around you. Consider a 2006 Harvard study that showed the performance of heart surgeons improved over time when working at their main hospital surrounded by their usual team. Crucially, this improvement didn’t translate to other hospitals with unfamiliar personnel when the surgeons would cover for other doctors. The surgeons knew these other hospitals well, but didn’t have the same tacit understanding with the local personnel as they did with their main team.

By working repeatedly with the same people, you get to know their strengths and weaknesses; you have shared experiences to draw on; and you develop unspoken habits and rules that aid your mutual understanding. A related lesson here: take a star performer out of their usual team environment and you might find their performance disappoints.

The mere presence of other people engaged in the same task as us can boost our motivation.

3. Virtual teams can outperform face-to-face teams.

A 2009 survey by Cisco of thousands of teleworkers found 69 percent said their productivity was higher when they worked remotely and 83 percent said their communication with other team members was either unaffected or enhanced by being dispersed. And in 2009, a research team led by Frank Siebdrat assessed the performance of 80 software companies around the world and found that more dispersed teams often outperformed “co-located” teams.

Siebdrat and his colleagues said the most important factor in the success of a remote team was having processes in place to make sure each member contributes fully, including adequate support and communication. Other good practices include scheduling time for virtual camaraderie building, including chatting in an informal context (see point 9).

4. A balance of extroverts and introverts makes for a better team.

When Corrine Bendersky and Neha Parikh Shah at UCLA organised hundreds of MBA students into five-person teams for ten weeks of group assignments, they found that introverts started off with the lowest status: their peers didn’t think they had much influence, nor did they expect them to contribute as much to the team as the bolder, brasher team members. Yet, by the end of the quarter, the students had seen what introverts have to offer – their status had climbed while the extraverts’ status had fallen.

While extroverts will grab your attention and showcase their abilities, you might need to search a little harder to spot the talented quiet types. But don’t go too far the other way and ignore extroverts — a balance of complementary personalities is often the most effective mix.

More dispersed teams often outperformed “co-located” teams.

5. Most good teams have one analytic thinker on board.

Team members with a big picture thinking style are great for brainstorming and creative problem solving but when it comes to idea execution a study published this year suggests it’s a good idea to have at least one focused, analytic thinker on your team — that is, someone who can focus on the details of your project.

Ishani Aggarwal and Anita Woolley at the Tepper School of Business found that teams with an analytic thinker tended to perform better on “execution tasks” because they paid more attention to “process focus” – identifying sub-tasks and the resources needed to complete them. Aggarwal and Tepper warned this benefit needs to be balanced as big picture thinkers and analytical thinkers can disagree on strategic priorities, harming team performance. To avoid this, foster a team-wide appreciation of process focus and get team members to agree explicitly on strategic priorities. Recruiting a rare individual with a mixed cognitive style (big picture and analytic) can also help foster communication between team members with different thinking styles.

6. Teams perform better when they include both men and women.

In 2012, Credit Suisse published an analysis of nearly 2,400 international companies, finding that those with at least one woman on their boards tended to be the strongest performers. The benefits of having both men and women in the controlling team were especially apparent in tougher operating conditions and was attributed by the report authors to issues such as better team diversity (see point 5) and a balance of leadership skills.

What’s the optimum gender balance to aim for? An experiment published in 2011 by European researchers found that teams of business students with a 50-50 mix of men and women performed best at a business venture game. The researchers said this was at least partly due to mixed-gender groups engaging in more “mutual monitoring” – making sure everyone pulled their weight for the team’s benefit.

7. There’s a danger of teams splitting into sub-groups.

It’s inevitable that allegiances and friendships will form within teams. Research with space crews and arctic explorers has shown how these “micro-cultures” can be particularly strong when they’re based on forms of social identity – such as ethnicity or gender – that predate the creation of the team. For multi-disciplinary teams, these divisions can also form along shared professional identities.

A study led by psychologist Doris Fay investigated this problem in the UK’s healthcare system. Fay found that diversity was a bonus – multi-disciplinary teams produced better quality innovations than more homogeneous teams – but only if certain processes were in place to help prevent internal splits. These included making sure all team members were committed to the same cause; ensuring everyone felt listened to; the team reflected on its own performance; and there was plenty of communication between team members (see point 9).

Companies with at least one woman on their boards tended to be the strongest performers.

8. Effective teams depend on “social sensitivity.”

Research has shown that the “collective intelligence” of teams (as judged by their ability to perform well across a range of challenges) is based not on the average IQ of individual team members, but on the way team members take turns during conversations, and having a higher proportion of women in the group (see points 6 and 9).

The research led by Anita Woolley suggests we should road-test our teams for these characteristics — known as “social sensitivity” — just like we assess individuals. If a team flops at this assessment, then adjust the personnel to find a better mix, or train the team in better communication.

9. The best teams communicate outside of formal meetings.

Researchers at MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory have found conversations outside of formal meetings are the most important factor that contributes to team success. Their research showed that the energy and engagement of these informal interactions accounts for one third of the differences in productivity between groups.

There are simple steps we can take to increase these valuable encounters, including scheduling coffee breaks so that all team members get to chat with each other and planning social events. Related to this, the most productive creative teams are those that strike the perfect balance between “exploration” and “engagement” – sourcing new ideas from outside the team and integrating ideas within the team.

How about you?

What conditions do you think lead to better collaboration?

Christian Jarrett

Dr. Christian Jarrett seeks out exciting new research and showcases its relevance for life. A psychologist turned writer, he’s editor and creator of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog, a columnist on personality for BBC Future, and author of The Rough Guide to Psychology and Great Myths of the Brain. On Twitter @Psych_Writer.

Comments (57)
  • Karthik Radhakrishnan

    Your listings here are proofs in my ex-team, which I could co-relate every point listed out!
    But, as its mentioned too, every thing has an Alarming point eg.-
    ->Cannot have many introvert guys in team. This would lack co-ordination.
    ->Cannot have too many women on team – Meeting would lean towards their domination alone(So as men)😉
    -> Not many analytic thinkers as you mentioned
    -> Virtual teams sometimes and mainly fail in coming up with an constructive meeting as face to face communication serve at its best
    So, these are to be phrased – Too much of anything isn’t good😀

    • Alex Santiago

      True points. I think this is the type of knowledge and direction management should take under consideration, even perhaps professors. The people creating these teams, especially in the advertising world, should be able to get the right people together. Their success and character depends on it.

  • http://www.weboutsourcing-gateway.com/ Web Outsourcing Gateway

    A team is like the human body. Each has its own function and purpose. Each part is important and indispensable. True teamwork is defined by harmony,unity in diversity.

  • growthguided

    Thank you for the great post!

    3. Virtual teams can outperform face-to-face teams.

    I think this may be beneficial for tasks of the menial variety. But for allocation of serious responsibilities, as a business owner I want to have that face to face dialogue and interaction. Not, forgetting that most of our communication is non-verbal and it’s vital to pick up on these subtle cues when in project negotiation! @GrowthGuided

    • soundofnature

      well use skype.. or similar.. if meeting is impossible… social media work

    • delgaroreya

      Absolutely. Trying to teach someone leadership when they’re not in your zip code, no matter how much phone time and video chatting you put in, hasn’t worked in my creative environment. Art directing people with high-pressure deadlines remotely is an absolute nightmare—working together and walking over to someone’s desk and working with them on their screen, with everyone listening to your discussion and weighing in or absorbing info, is priceless to me.

  • Santosh

    Excellent Post … , I will use this in my Organization behavior class on teams/groups….

  • Juan Eduardo G.

    I think a better collaboration is created when the people who worked in a project has similar experiences in his life. Same goals, and one perspective not so much different to see the life.

    • Alex Santiago

      Then how can you create something fresh and different, if everyone is pulling from the same place?

      This ideal may have worked 100 years ago.

  • http://www.psychologywriter.org.uk/ Christian Jarrett

    hi Marissa, Remember that virtual workers can still be surrounded by (and therefore benefit from) other people, just not their team members – consistent with point 1. The point of 3 is really not to be downbeat about being away from your team. If you have the right skill mix and talent there are ways of making teams excel over distance.

    • theydopaymetothink

      I personally experienced this as one position I held had me working physically in the same location as other similar professionals in our Denver HQ, but reporting to a manager in Canada while my team was all in Bangalore. We met twice a week for at least an hour each time, rotating between convenient for them and convenient for me. I was free to strategize alone and leverage (and be leveraged by) my Denver pod-mates and then sync up my designs with my manager before discussing the work to my Bangalore teammates. It worked well — we went three years with no turnover in the team while producing at a high level.

      • http://www.psychologywriter.org.uk/ Christian Jarrett

        thanks – I think this is a great real-life example of how teams can and do operate successfully over distance, while also benefiting from the presence of like-minded professionals.

  • Juan Dahik

    Great article!!!

  • Mauricio Collier Darocha

    Dears, thank you very much for sharing this article. I believe in teams. We are social individuals. But we are not bees or ants. A group is made of individuals. People like to hide themselves in groups. So, in groups, sometimes we have a few leaders and a lot of people following somebody else point of view. Congratu;ations. Sorry my poor english.

  • Shannon

    Excellent article. Would like to learn about how to create that team, and how they might differ between professional groups and personal groups. How to attract the right people, how to get the best from everyone without burning people out, so much to learn about this dynamic and creating win-win-win scenarios. Thanks!

  • Jeff Nixon Creative

    I couldn’t have said it better myself. Well put. I especially find point 3 interesting and helpful in that I am working on developing a virtual agency in order to keep overhead cost low to survive in any economy and offer competitive rates to clients. However, I have been trying to address the productivity concern. This article is reassuring but I wish it would either elaborate or have a redirect on the processes said to be the most important factor that atributes to the success of a virtual team. If anyone can provide examples or an article that addresses the said processes would be greatly appreciated.

    Point 9 is interesting as well in that I have found the ECD at my previous company would ask the team to participate in conversation but not many would. However, after the meeting coworkers would converse and express their opinions. It seems as though a formal meeting is better utilized to inform or as a way to plant a seed, or topic, rather than expecting an immediate solution to rear its head in a forced collaborative conversation. It can be quite intimidating to voice your opinion or throw out ideas when talking amongst peers, your boss or the CEO. Especially when the company has a set hierarchy rather than open collaboration across the board. I read this article on Google Ventures and found their emphasis on the importance of a collaborative approach inspiring: http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/25/a-different-approach-at-google-ventures/?_r=0

    • http://www.psychologywriter.org.uk/ Christian Jarrett

      hi Jeff, there’s more detail on virtual teams here but it’s behind a paywall: http://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/how-to-manage-virtual-teams/

      Re point 9 – I hear what you’re saying about forced social situations. I think the trick is to try to facilitate natural chances for off-work interaction, such as the shared coffee breaks. According to the MIT research, these informal interactions have a huge benefit for team productivity.

  • Boshambone

    I think that #3 might be true of coders or software engineers or people who are “cooperating” to solve a problem. But I don’t think that it is an absolute statement that is true all the time. I think for true “collaboration” to happen, in-person interactions are vital. There is a transfer of energy between participants that is necessary for a team to effectively collaborate on something, and that energy transfer cannot happen virtually.

    • Jodysk

      Agreed!

  • http://www.psychologywriter.org.uk/ Christian Jarrett

    Nothing gets past you eagle-eyes

    • Dustin Grella

      😛

      More importantly it was a great read! I work in complete isolation (even though the studio is located in downtown New York) and the concept of team building is very difficult for me. Although I’m very aware that in order for me to grow as an artist and as creative I need clear this hurdle. Thanks for making the concept a little more palatable.

      • http://www.psychologywriter.org.uk/ Christian Jarrett

        hey, thanks Dustin!

  • http://www.psychologywriter.org.uk/ Christian Jarrett

    hi, thanks for your feedback. I think your point about respect chimes with the research showing the importance of social sensitivity and turn-taking in teams. I think there’s always a danger in teams of the loudest, most confident members dominating so it’s vital to make everyone feel like their input is valued.

    • certifyD

      Totally agree Christian. An I mean respect in the most basic sense—that shows an open minded mentality without forgetting timeline/deadlines. All opinions and points of view should be welcomed but in the end decision-makers need to do their job and get things going, make the tough calls and live with the outcome.

  • http://horizon2020consulting.com/ Scott Wagers

    Great post. I particularly like the point about virtual teams outperforming face to face teams. I work with a lot of scientists and there are a number of them that like to say that they prefer face to face meetings. While face to face is good for forming the group and getting to know one another, the meetings tend to be dominated by slide presentations 75% of which is just repeating information that everyone in attendance should already know. Highly inefficient. There is something about working on a teleconference that focuses the team on more concrete aspects. Really bringing them to the analytical level, or maybe even it is that in a teleconference the analytical types can drive the discussion more readily. I mention teleconferences because in sharp distinction to software development many scientists, at least not the ones I work with, will go anywhere near an online forum which is a great frustration.

    • http://www.psychologywriter.org.uk/ Christian Jarrett

      hi Scott – it’s really interesting to hear your experiences in a scientific context. People often underestimate just how creative science is. Thanks for sharing.

  • BKLTD | LONDON

    #ForWesterners: Recognise the VALUE if a team member is from homogeneous cultures like #Asia and #Africa ~ and leverage those assets! Westerners tend put on the blinders, and in effect can seem culturally “pushy”at times – consequently, missing out on fresh, foreign ideas. Xenophobia and racism are artificial schemes and render optimal creativity helpless. Realise your #EthnicAssets!

  • LuisPauloLohmann

    I believe some readers are misinterpretating the text. It clearly states in the FIRST paragraph: “here are nine facts that can help you get the most out of working with others”. The nine items here described are very LIKELY to improve team performance, but they’re not stated anywhere to be “true all the time” (quoting one of the comments).

    In my experience working with teams in the last 15 years, I confirm that having a diverse team in genre/personality/experience/skills is very important. But I would add that having team members with more-or-less the same socioeconomic background helps, since they tend to meet and interact more also outside the work environment, creating a greater familiarity with each other.

    • http://www.psychologywriter.org.uk/ Christian Jarrett

      Thanks Luis – you’re absolutely right. These aren’t meant to be hard and fast rules. They’re observations based on research studies that hopefully will provide food for thought. I agree with you – I think finding the right balance between a diverse team and a cohesive team is one of the most important factors. Ideally you want diverse personalities, skills and experiences in your personnel but for them to feel united by their shared identity as team members.

  • lisa wain

    Great article! Living in a rural and remote town in Queensland Australia I have been working in multiple remote teams for the past 14 years. The development of technology over that time has been amazing and breaks down any barriers that may be perceived by not being in the same room. Being accessible is key and the use of tools such as skype means that we can pass comment, share ideas and even have a coffee break together. The use of emoticons is a great way of replacing body language and facial expression and I have found that the introverts are a lot more confident and expressive with this mode of communication too. We use gotomeeting for formal meetings, asana for task management, facebook groups for forum discussions and facebook friends for social communication and chat. Working this way is a necessity for me and I love it….technology has saved me many hours driving between meetings (sometimes 3 or 4 hours 1 way) and saved me a lot of money in fuel, meal and accommodation costs. I work in diverse industries such as technology, agriculture, economic and business development, event management and we own a butcher shop and meat processing plant so remote work is not only for the tech industry. The fact that my software engineer is in Germany is a mere time zone issue and doesnt pose any problems. Face to face is a great occassion for us but certainly most of our productive work is done remotely…and the fact that I can stay in my pyjamas all day some days is an added bonus:)

    • Bev Johnson

      Thanks for the tip about emoticons. I was thinking they didn’t look professional but I can now see that they can help with building communication. I haven’t used asana as I use Google calendar and task manager.

      My move to working in virtual teams is new and working well. Once we have negotiated our project plan we are clear about what to do and just get on with it.

  • http://kevinjmellis.com/ Kevin J Mellis Photography

    This is a great article! The more the creative minds the better for me! I’m open to input, but I have been on teams where this is shut down – very frustrating to build a culture of openness when openness is not welcomed. I tend to move on to better teams when they are defined in this matter – simply not conducive to growth! thanx again – great article! Kevin, Calgary, Alberta.

  • sunnybeegood

    Well said. I hope people implement this at work.

  • erbPIX

    Interesting…but I’m not convinced. I see a lot of supporting evidence, of course,
    but there are also some key points missing. First is trust – I don’t see that word mentioned even once. Second are ground rules. Yes, I see the phrase “develop unspoken habits and rules” but that seems left to chance. Third is leadership, not to be confused with analytical thinking. If not formerly established at the outset albeit, it will emerge, often in ways not conducive to the original purpose of the team.

    Relative to the third item I think it only fair to mention that not long after Cisco’s 2009 survey about teleworkers, their leadership was forced to publically abandon their policy of ‘management by committee,’ code speak for lack of leadership, around about the same time they began tossing quite a number of employees overboard.

  • Geoff

    Thanks for the interesting article Christian.

    One point of discussion… despite the convincing arguments offered here, doesn’t history suggest that innovative thinking usually comes from inspired individuals (and therefore fuzzy thinking from groups)? Apart from the obvious examples such as inventors and discoverers – think of Darwin and Newton – don’t nearly all ‘creatives’ (painters, authors) choose to work alone, unhindered by lesser – interfering – individuals? Would King Lear have been better written by a team? Or would Guernica have been less disturbing with some useful outside input (‘The perspective’s all wrong!’)?

    • http://www.psychologywriter.org.uk/ Christian Jarrett

      hi Geoff, thanks for your comments. Despite the intro to my article, it isn’t really meant to be about the virtue of working alone vs. in teams. You’re right there are some people who do their best work alone. However, look behind many apparent solo success stories and you will find that a team was involved. For a successful author for instance this could be the editor(s), the agent, the marketing team and so on. Darwin certainly didn’t travel to the Galapagos on his own. Also many modern creative endeavours require teams simply because no single person has all the skill-sets that are required. The 9 points above aren’t meant to be prescriptive. Hopefully they are some useful findings from psychology and organisational science that can help people working in teams take things up another level.

      • bsaunders

        I believe that where the disconnect happens is here: some very extroverted people don’t like to be alone. Those people confuse team work with being in constant contact. That supports your point about virtual teams being more productive than face-to-face ones.

        For many years, I thought I NEEDED to work by myself at home. Once I got established doing that, though, I realized that my true preference is a team where I am free to withdraw to a private office or a few hours alone to think. At the moment, I have a great balance: I work with a (highly extroverted) person, but we each work at home. We g-chat, email, and talk on the phone several times a day. We meet frequently in person for coffee, dinner, drinks as well as work talk and client engagements. But most days I spend hours alone, take my breaks alone, do my workouts alone while she spends her time with people.

      • Geoff

        Thanks for responding Christian.
        The subtitle above does seem to suggest that creativity is usually best achieved by a team; ‘Look behind any creative success story and you’ll usually find a great team…’ If I can follow your explanation above, ‘team’ can be a pretty flexible concept. An author’s ‘team’ includes his/her editor and agent. Darwin’s ‘team’ included the ship’s captain and cook. Being inclusive is an endearing modern quality – how often do people at award ceremonies give thanks to their family and friends, without who (whom?) none of their success would have been possible? – but let’s not mistake what’s taking place. The ‘significant other’ might well play an important role (support and motivation) but don’t mistake their input with ‘being creative’. It’s the painter who’s creative, not the assistant who cleans the brushes, prepares the canvases and admires the result.

      • http://www.psychologywriter.org.uk/ Christian Jarrett

        hi Geoff, to pick up briefly on your example of Charles Darwin as a lone worker. This is a myth, he actually collaborated with a small army of other scientists, amateurs and friends – see here: http://processguy.blogspot.co.uk/2009/02/charles-darwin-collaboration-and.html and here: http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/womens-scientific-participation for some initial insights. I am not denying that there are some people who achieve brilliance on their own, but I reckon most creative success stories usually emerge from a team effort. Either way, the purpose of this article was not so much to argue for the importance of team work vs lone work, but rather to highlight some useful and interesting research findings in the area of collaborative team work, to help people who work in teams, or who are in the process of building a team.

      • Geoff

        I agree with you in general, Christian. There’s no doubt that almost all working situations, or ‘productivity’, are improved by collaboration and ‘teamwork’. You can’t manufacture a car on your own, or land on the moon. My beef – if I can call it that – remains with the particular reference in your text to ‘creative’. I don’t see what terms such as ‘trust’, ‘ground rules’ and ‘leadership’ have to do with the creative process; which in my experience is a very selfish activity. Best done individually, without interference; without moderation or consideration for others, I suppose. The famous example of ‘A camel is a horse designed by a committee’ comes to mind. Group thinking means compromise.

        But don’t let me distract from an interesting and well written article. I’m obviously the only reader who has a problem with the ‘creative’ association, and therefore now bow gracefully out of the discussion…

  • Alex Santiago

    This was written flawlessly. Great work.

    Real interesting list you put together. I have found that working remotely and only meeting when truly necessary makes the work better. You are responsible and fully accountable, which makes you (me) want to shine a little brighter because the work does the talking for me. Plus, we had less nonsense meetings and arguments based on personality rather than the work.

    • http://www.psychologywriter.org.uk/ Christian Jarrett

      thanks Alex!

  • David Reid

    Christian – Great article and very thought provoking. I often find when you have a collaborative team with introverts and extroverts, the difficulty is finding out who is acting out of their positional leadership and who is being true to their personality, but socially sensitive as you say. The death of any integrated team can come from overbearing extroverts with high authority. On the flip side those same extroverts can lend immeasurable benefit by showing a bit of restraint during teamwork. We all need to listen more than we talk. Good work!

  • Randal Bazzano

    Good work Christine! Shades of ” group process” and Dr. Schultz come to mind. Thanks… Randal Bazzano, Flames Of Passion Productions, ceo

  • Wilson Masaka

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful article. I fully agree with all the points… Keep me posted.

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