Most work today is done in teams. While teamwork can lead to innovative ideas and strong performance, it can also be stressful. Conflicts arise, people become too dependent on each other, some don’t get their fair share of credit– there are numerous coordination costs that come with making teams work well.
But research hasn’t told us much about just how stressful teamwork can be, and where that stress tends to come from. From studying the effects of teamwork on employee wellbeing, I’ve found that a lot of this stress stems from the pressure that managers put on employees. While some pressure is necessary to get employees to perform at their best, pushing a team too hard can cause big problems, such as poor performance, low productivity, and high turnover.
I analyzed data from structured face-to-face interviews with 664 managers from different British workplaces where all employees worked in formally designated teams. The managers talked about how teamwork operates at their workplace, from how much team members depend on each other to do their jobs, to whether team members make joint decisions about how work is done. The managers also reported how their workplaces fared on key aspects of performance – including labor productivity, financial performance, and quality of product or service – compared to other workplaces in the same industry. Next, I analyzed survey data from a random selection of five to 20 employees in each workplace where the management interviews were conducted, which amounted to reports from 4,311 workers. The survey asked employees to report on their levels of commitment to the organization, the amount of pressure they experienced at work, and how often they felt tense, worried or anxious due to work.
When I matched the data from both the management interviews and employees’ reports, I found that teamwork seems to affect organizational performance and employee well-being differently. On one hand, there was a positive relationship between teamwork and organizational performance, which was partly explained by employees’ sense of commitment towards the organization. In workplaces where employees had to share responsibility for specific products and services, managers reported increased productivity levels and better quality of products and services. In workplaces where employees relied on each other to do their work, managers reported financial performance had improved, while employees expressed an increased sense of organizational commitment.
On the other hand, I found that more teamwork increased the level of work demands on employees, which made them more anxious about their job. The more employees felt that their teammates relied upon them, the more they felt that they had insufficient time to do their work, which resulted in a major source of anxiety. When employees were faced with the shared responsibility for specific products and services, they were more likely to feel tense and compelled to put in very long hours at work.
But I also found that a greater sense of commitment toward the organization can help stem the experience of anxiety. If employees felt a sense of pride in working for the organization, or if they shared many of the organization’s values, they reported feeling less stressed by teamwork than others who were not as committed to the organization. It would appear that higher levels of commitment improved engagement and helped some employees cope with the demands of working in teams.
Upon looking further into the data, I saw certain patterns among workplaces where teams fared better in key performance areas. One was that managers were more likely to recognize the benefits of providing the right skills and resources to employees. They reported how employees were given time away from work to attend training and improve their skills in team working, communication, leadership, and problem-solving methods. When asked specifically about employees’ work conditions, more than a third of these managers said employees had a lot of variety in their tasks, had reasonable control over the pace of work, and were allowed to have input into decisions about their work responsibilities. Employees reported feeling that the organization cared about employee well-being and helped them cope better with stress.
The data revealed a slightly different story for workplaces where teams did not perform very well. In these cases, managers did not afford employees enough opportunities to develop their skills through training, nor did they give employees the freedom to influence their work responsibilities. Consequently, employees felt that managers did not treat them fairly and were less sincere in keeping to their promises. Employees also reported how managers did not encourage people to develop their skills, and that when they gave input to workplace decisions, managers did not act upon their suggestions. In short: the main barriers to team performance were poor relations between managers and employees, which caused constant disputes and made employees feel more stressed at work.
Teamwork isn’t going away any time soon, but it’s important for managers and employees to understand the potential ‘dark side’ that comes with having to work closely alongside others. To achieve better results, managers would do well to consider the stress that comes with teamwork. When delegating work, they should clarify which tasks have higher priorities and perhaps discuss the priorities with the team. In cases where employees are faced with conflicting demands, managers should highlight possible areas of concern – like time constraints, strict deadlines or any other issues that may come up– so that employees have a better understanding of their roles or what is expected of them. Otherwise, work pressure would rise to unhealthy levels and well-being will deteriorate.
Employees have a role to play too. They could work to develop trust with team members and show appreciation for the value that each person brings to a project. Of course, working together is not always easy. Teams are often subject to conflicts between members, differences in opinion, and performance pressures that increase stress.
But great teams are built by people who are unafraid to compromise and offer concessions. When employees engage in extensive discussions, remember that everyone bears the responsibility to contribute — and should be able to do so freely, constructively, and in a supportive manner. This has positive consequences, including better interpersonal relationships, strong team morale, and support that helps reduce stress. If teamwork is done properly, employees will be happier and the benefits of working together will be more sustainable.
All Rights Reserved for Chidiebere Ogbonnaya