Creating the Perfect Science TEAM: Together Everyone Achieves More
Teamwork makes the dream work – I know that’s cheesy but it’s definitely true. However a good science team doesn’t happen by itself, you have to work at it, and there are lots of things you can do to improve your team’s chances of success.
In the lab, and the field of science in general, there are clearly huge benefits to team working. But what are the ingredients for the perfect team, and how can you ensure that it is successful? In this blog post I will share what I consider to be a framework for great teamwork…
Teamwork is never easy
Remember that being a team is not easy! It’s a lot more complicated than just being a group of expert scientists that collectively work on a project. The better you work together, the more successful the team will be in achieving its goals. Teams can be stable and long-lasting, in which each group member knows each other very well and works together in the best way possible. However, teams can also be super-flexible in their composition, often starting out with one clear leader, but with this duty being ‘floated’ to others on a variable basis, depending on the specific task the team needs to do.
In today’s post-Covid flexible work society, we are asked to join more and more short-term teams, often with members from all over the world. These people will not have adapted to each other and might have a harder time working together. But certain workplace values in members from both the stable and temporary teams can still make them highly efficient. As I said, teamwork can be daunting but good team working skills are beneficial if you hope to move forward in your career. You will be seen as someone with a positive attitude, which can help you get more opportunities, responsibility, training and promotions over time.
The effective functionality of teamwork has been expertly analyzed by many researchers such as Richard Hackman, Ruth Wageman and Karlene Roberts. Using a rigorous academic approach these studies have started to identify and outline teamwork basics that can be applied to many different situations and are very relevant to scientists. One of the most important outcomes of this research is the need for certain “enabling conditions” in order for a team to thrive. These include a compelling direction, strong structure, and a supportive context, which are all vital to a team’s success. A shared mindset is needed as a fourth critical condition to overcome the ever so dangerous “us versus them” mentality. I will give you the most important aspects of each condition so you can take this with you in your future teamwork endeavors.
1. Compelling direction: Where are we going as a team?
Without having explicit goals, teams don’t know what they are working towards and thus cannot be inspired. These goals should always be challenging enough to motivate the team, but make those goals too challenging and people will get dispirited. To have a truly excellent team it is super-important that each member understands how they best contribute to the goal – hopefully, in a diverse manner, as having identical team players could lead to cliques within the team. To get people to care about achieving the goal, certain compensations must be achievable. These can be extrinsic rewards like payment, recognition, a possible promotion; or intrinsic rewards such as feelings of satisfaction and a sense of meaning. It’s essential for the team leader to reward different types of activity and behavior to make sure that the limelight is shared between team members. Put simply, we all have different skills and these should be identified and rewarded on this diverse basis. Additionally, it’s important for each team member to be able to articulate exactly what their specific roles are and how they intersect with others in their team in order to achieve the ultimate goal.
2. Strong structure: Effective diversity is everything
An effective science team is composed of members with a balance of skills, who all understand what the team goal is and can step in at any time to make an important change of structure or direction. Ideally, all team members should be able to contribute at every level. Diversity is important to help teams be more creative and avoid group thinking. Including members of not only different ages, races, and gender but also members with a diversity in academic or commercial experience, perspectives and knowledge, can lead to high-performing teams. However, more team members can lead to problems with communication, lack of accountability, and fragmentation of the team. To avoid this vulnerability, your science team leader has a very important role to play. By making sure that each member is responsible for a significant part of the work, as well as by giving regular performance feedback, they can avoid these problems.
Additionally, it is crucial to be careful of destructive dynamics within your team. Unfortunately, at some point in time we’ve all had to deal with team members withholding information, casting blame, and pressuring people to conform. These are factors that can undermine collaborative efforts and could be avoided by establishing certain norms and values. Things like making sure that you arrive on time for meetings and giving everyone a chance to speak can instill mutual respect, reducing the potential for destructive dynamics within the team. If you show respect to your fellow teammates there is a much higher chance that they will listen to your opinions and take note of your concerns. This is especially important when working in a team that operates across different countries or cultures, since your teammates may not share the same view or values as you.
3. Supportive context: The need for support systems
Ensuring several support systems are in place is a huge benefit for a great teamwork environment. This includes reinforcing good performance with a reward system, having an information system to provide the necessary data to everybody, and an educational system that offers training regarding the project. Lastly, the material resources required for the job, such as funding and technological assistance, need to be secured. This last one is especially difficult for teams with members from various geographical locations since the resources available to each member may vary a lot. It has often been found that problems presumably caused by a clash between cultures were actually the result of differences in resources across the team.
4. A group mindset: Many brains to solve the problem
Developing a shared mindset among team members is the solution for teams prone to the "us versus them" mentality and the incomplete information problem. As we all feel the rise of technology, our way of communicating and interacting with each other is changing, which allows teamwork over a greater distance and with more diversity. However, this also leads to teams no longer perceiving themselves as one cohesive group but as a combination of smaller subgroups. If team leaders don't foster a common identity and understanding within the team, it could result in tension and problems with collaboration between the different subgroups. It’s not humanly possible to be the perfect team member who is an expert in every specialized area. Therefore, it’s only normal that certain team members have important information that others do not. When you see your own group as superior, this information will likely not be communicated to the rest of the team and hence will not add much value to the project.
Fortunately, there is a solution to these problems. Team leaders are very important key players of a team, but whether you are the leader yourself or not, it is always in your best interest to actively participate in enforcing a shared identity and understanding between the team members. This will cause the barriers for cooperation and information exchange to break down and lead to a hyper-functional team. The million-dollar question is of course, how can you or your team leader do this? One compelling strategy is using "structured unstructured time" in which all team members can talk about matters that are not directly connected to the task at hand. An example is blocking off a 10-minute timeframe at the beginning of teamwide meetings to have an open discussion. This will promote shared understanding and each subgroup will feel validated because they can express their opinion and know they are being listened to.
5. Humility, hunger and heuristic intelligence
Lastly, there are some values that are intrinsic to a great team player. The first one is humility. If you want to be successful, both in the workplace and in life, too much pride is never the way to go. People will see you as arrogant and it will prevent you from compromising when necessary. However, humility is not as straightforward as you might think. A lack of confidence and thus never voicing your opinion or talking about your ideas is not humility, and could by itself cause further problems. Humility in this context revolves around the idea that one should be able to listen to someone else and be open to other opinions and approaches.
Along with humility, you also need the hunger to get work done and move forward. This is the characteristic that you need to develop earliest in life and it’s important to keep expanding your knowledge, both inside and outside your particular field. You should always work hard for everything you do but be careful that you don’t get completely swallowed by work. Those who display a hunger for success will go above and beyond, and will have very high standards for their own and their teammate's work.
A third characteristic is heuristic intelligence. Being intellectually smart is always a bonus but more importantly, emotional intelligence will make you an ideal team player. How we understand people and how we use our words and actions to bring out the best in others is not only an important part of teamwork, but an incredibly useful life skill. If this is not yet your star characteristic, don't worry, you can keep developing this skill as you progress in life and as long as you keep improving, you will become a better team player each day.
It’s not all kittens and rainbows.... and although I’ve tried to give you a framework for great teamwork, of course things won’t always go according to plan. One alternate mechanism to improve teamwork may not be just to enhance the positive but also to attenuate the negatives. Yes, it’s a tough thorn to grasp but it’s often needed when progress stops. Some of the teamwork hindrances to look out for include, absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results.
As I’ve already pointed out, the leadership role in a great team can be shared between members given any specific task. So, in a similar manner monitoring and correcting the issues I’ve just mentioned should also be a shared task as well – having course corrections given by more than one team member will help maintain a healthy 'responsibility balance’. Too often the most conscious team member can start to feel overwhelmed by taking on the oversight burden all the time. To prevent this, it is imperative to trust one another, engage in unfiltered conflict around ideas, commit to decisions and plans of action, hold one another accountable for delivering those plans, and focus on the achievement of collective results.
So, whatever your team, your goals or your teammates, these points can be applied to help make your team the real ‘dream team’ in which you enjoy an augmented sense of worth and satisfaction. Science is tough work, but as a team you can face the day-to-day challenges with the knowledge that you have support, kindness and assistance to your left and your right. Everyone benefits from great teamwork so get out there and make your fellow team members better than they were the day before – they’ll be doing just the same for you too!
Romi Vandoren is a second year Masters student in Biochemistry and Biotechnology at the University of Antwerp. She is doing her major in 'Molecular and Cellular Neurosciences' with a minor focused on ‘Research’. In her second year, she participated in the Honors College program and completed an internship at the VIB Center for Molecular Neurology. She worked on the implications of ABCA7 nonsense mutations in Alzheimer’s Disease. In her last year, she will be completing her Masters thesis at the Receptor Biology Lab of Professor Stuart Maudsley.
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