Category: Teams

Why it’s so important that team members believe they’re on the same page

One of the most important characteristics of successful teams is that team members believe in their collective potential – also known as team potency. But what can be done to foster this shared belief? A new study suggests that teams feel more potent when their members believe they share a common vision of how to work and what to achieve.

Caroline Aubé and her colleagues surveyed employees at a large Canadian public-sector organisation, including team members and managers. Within 101 teams, members reported their perceptions of whether the team agreed on ways of working – such as how to prioritise, or to respect deadlines – as well as the division of labour and overall team objectives.

Having more “perceived shared understanding” was correlated with the team’s feeling greater potency – members agreed with statements like “This team has confidence in itself” – and with greater team effort (according to managers’ reports). When we feel we’re on the same page, we feel more potent and are more motivated to put in extra effort, likely because it seems more destined to translate into real results. And the more effort produced by shared understanding, the more managers believed their teams were successful in meeting their goals.

Aubé and her co-researchers made a second prediction: that extra effort would have a stronger association with success in teams with predictable, routinised work. This proved to be true, likely because when you can’t work smarter by trying out new approaches, working harder is the only way to contribute more to the team.

The researchers expected this to mean that potency would matter more for teams with predictable work, and therefore that shared understanding would be more important for these teams too. But this didn’t pan out: a sense of shared direction mattered to all kinds of team – even those with adapting, unpredictable work environments became more successful when they believed they were on the same page. This is possibly because, as well as increasing effort, shared belief and potency may have contributed to success by other routes such as increasing helping behaviours, inventiveness, or unknown factors: further research will be needed to tell between the alternatives.

Previous studies on teams’ shared understanding have focused on objective measures of this important characteristic – such as whether team members do truly share the same objectives and values. This study is notable because it looks at team features that tend to co-occur with having a sense of shared vision, specifically how perceptions of unity translate into greater belief in the team and willingness to commit to it. If a team is objectively on the same page, but doesn’t believe it or realise it (perhaps its membership is fractured geographically and the chances to engage are scarce), then it’s possible that the team will operate at a lower potency than it deserves.


Aubé, C., Rousseau, V., & Tremblay, S. (2015). Perceived shared understanding in teams: The motivational effect of being ‘on the same page’ British Journal of Psychology, 106 (3), 468-486 DOI: 10.1111/bjop.12099

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Help me out – but hands off! How idea territoriality harms creative team work

If you want quality feedback on your creative ideas, don’t be too possessive about them

Patents, citations, and copyright all indicate how much it matters to people that they can claim an idea as their own. But new research suggests that staking a claim during the early stages of idea development can be counterproductive, as it cools the enthusiasm others have for making it better.

Graham Brown and Markus Baer asked their participants – 230 students at a Singaporean university – to provide feedback on a proposal on how to best promote a restaurant. Under one “hands off” condition, the covering letter for the proposal mentioned that “although I am asking you for your input, I consider this to be my proposal, not yours.” Participants who read this provided significantly less creative input, giving mundane and straightforward comments compared to those who hadn’t  read such a statement. They also gained less pleasure out of the feedback activity; it seemed as if they simply disengaged when they didn’t feel they could have any ownership or role in the direction of the idea.

In a second experiment with American students, Brown and Baer found that the effect was particularly strong when the participants asked to give feedback were also primed to think of themselves as independent people (they were told they stood out from others and how this is beneficial). When you feel independent-minded you want to make your own unique impact on the world, not be a cog in a larger wheel.

In contrast, priming participants to feel interdependent by describing how and why they fit in to society led to the opposite effect: they made better contributions in the ‘hands-off’ condition. An interdependent mindset prefers accord over dissent, making critical feedback an uncomfortable act, and the authors speculate that this discomfort is less when it’s apparent that any collaboration is going to be transient.

That is a sliver of good news, but this isn’t a desirable trade-off. Independent minded people are more disposed to provide challenging ideas that stand out from the norm, which means we want to encourage these people to get stuck in. If we are truly committed to the success of our vision, we may need to let it fly free in its infancy, and trust that credit will come to those who do the heavy lifting of helping ideas become reality.


Brown G, & Baer M (2015). Protecting the Turf: The Effect of Territorial Marking on Others’ Creativity. The Journal of applied psychology PMID: 25938721

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

How time pressure improves decision making in emergencies

A new simulation of a complex, realistic disaster event suggests that time pressure facilitates better decision-making among emergency responders. The two-day training exercise, overseen by Liverpool’s Centre for Critical and Major Incident Psychology, looked at the impact of a hypothetical aeroplane crash over a city. Nearly two hundred professionals were split into different rooms based on the agency they belonged to (14 agencies in all, including police, transport, health and science advisors), and each received realistic data according to their function.

As casualty data trickled into the Ambulance Room, did this give a clue to the cause of the crash? Could terrorism be ruled out? Would the hospital suffer outages, given damage to a power station? These were some of the considerations the teams had to contend with.

The researchers focused on six critical issues identified by a panel of experts as being key, and as emblematic of the wider challenge of the exercise as a whole: effective cross-agency collaboration.

Results showed that when issues needed responses from more than two agencies, successful action was actually more likely when there was a sense of time pressure. When this was missing, communication efforts were squandered as workers gathered more and more information from within their agency, as opposed to coordinating decisions and actions with other agencies.

Why did time pressure improve emergency responders’ decision making and communication? It has to do with the way that human beings avoid tough choices when we can – anticipated regret is a powerful deterrent. But imperfect decisions can actually be better than none: once initiated they can be monitored, evaluated and altered, whereas inaction begets inaction. In addition, a deferred decision may continue to eat up mental resources, making other decisions more difficult.

Evidence from this new field of “naturalistic decision making” suggests that time pressure leads experts into accurate intuitive “pattern-matching”. The “natural state” of expert decision-making involves leaps between decision stages rather than examination of every possibility, and time pressure encourages these leaps (or pattern matches).

One of the crisis issues – the handover of disaster management from emergency services to the local authority – had no clear deadlines attached. But in this case, the strategy unit had set the handover as a clear overarching goal, which led to more effective communication on this issue, including less in-agency discussion (less back-covering and abstract debate, perhaps), and more time engaging with other agencies. Even though the handover was required in the later recovery phase, the group were already planning and building contingencies during the initial response phase.

The message for organisations, then, is that human beings are tempted to delay when it’s most vital to act, thanks to anticipated regret. This is “The Psychology of Doing Nothing”.  Clearly articulated strategic goals are one way to stave this off. When it comes to time boundaries, the authors consider these “difficult to influence.” But artificial deadlines, or making unstated ones more explicit, may be useful ways to keep the urgency in the emergency services.


Alison, L., Power, N., van den Heuvel, C., Humann, M., Palasinksi, M., & Crego, J. (2015). Decision inertia: Deciding between least worst outcomes in emergency responses to disasters Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology DOI: 10.1111/joop.12108

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

Team effectiveness is disproportionately influenced by your group’s best performer or "extra-miler"

The quality of a team’s best performer
(the “extra miler”) is diagnostic of
the group’s overall effectiveness.

In The Hobbit, fifteen companions come together on a quest for a dragon’s treasure. Traditional team analysis would judge “Thorin and Company” on the sum of its parts: Ori is stalwart, and Dori strongly stalwart, and, ok, Bifur seems stalwart enough … a fairly stalwart team, then. But we’re beginning to understand that single individuals can have a disproportionate impact on group performance. A new paper from the University of Iowa demonstrates how extra milers put in remarkable efforts to make sure the team holds together.

The study looked at patterns of performance in a Chinese petrochemical company of 87 teams each of about seven members. Ning Li’s data showed teams performed better when they exhibited key processes, including: agreeing minimum working standards for the team, keeping tabs on progress to balance out members’ different workloads, and having extra help on hand when necessary. These team-level processes need to come from somewhere, so each team member rated their team-mates on qualities that might be useful: willingness to help, and expression of ideas and concerns (dubbed “voice”).

Team-member scores on helping and voice turned out to be good predictors of strong team processes … but here’s the thing: once you took into account the team’s stand-out helper, there was no value in looking at helpfulness of the other members; you already had your best guess at how constructive the team as a whole was likely to be. The same was true with voice: once you know where the strongest member stands, you can throw the other scores away. Li considers these maximally helpful individuals “extra-milers”, and when their extra is a mile, rather than just an inch, teams perform better.

Actually, it’s a little more complicated than that: there was one aspect of the other team members that mattered. This was how much their work thrust them into contact with the extra-miler in their team. Evidence suggests that minorities can influence behaviour in wider groups, but they need the opportunity to interact and model superior norms of behaviour. Accordingly, when the extra-miler was huddled away in the back room, their influence was minimal.

If you have a committed extra-miler well-embedded in a team, you don’t need to worry about measuring what everyone else is doing. What you do have to worry about is that the extra-miler has opportunities to interact with the team, spreading their positive way of doing things. In the case of Thorin and Company, success seemed to owe the presence of a headstrong hobbit willing to mix it up and act as a conscience. His inclusion was a wise wizardly choice. I mean, a solid managerial decision.


Li, N., Zhao, H., Walter, S., Zhang, X., & Yu, J. (2015). Achieving More With Less: Extra Milers’ Behavioral Influences in Teams. Journal of Applied Psychology DOI: 10.1037/apl0000010

–further reading–
Why your team should appoint a “meta-knowledge” champion – one person who’s aware of everyone else’s area of expertise

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

"I did it for the team" – How outsiders cheat in pursuit of popularity

If you would do anything to stay popular with your team-mates, what might follow? Bending the rules? Cheating? Sabotage of rivals? An international team led by Stefan Thau of INSEAD investigated “pro-group” unethical behaviours, and they suggest the people most likely to connive to boost the team are those at its margins, fearful of exclusion.

The experiment gave participants an easy opportunity to cheat at an anagram task, as the setup meant they themselves reported how many they solved, with no way to be checked. (Conveniently, the experimenters had an easy way to verify whether success had been over-reported: the ten anagrams were entirely unsolvable.)

In the key condition, participants were told that if they scored better than their “Red Team” competitor sitting in another room, then the other members of their own (Blue) team would all get a cash reward. The Blue Team had met and chatted at the start of the experiment, and just before the anagram task, they voted provisionally on which member should be excluded from a final group task, with a final vote to follow once the anagram contest results were made public.

The provisional vote was rigged so half of the participants had the impression that they were likely to be excluded. These at-risk individuals reported solving more of the impossible anagrams than their safe peers. They broke the rules to do a good turn for their group, in the hope that it wouldn’t go unrewarded. And the cheating was even higher for those participants who, in a questionnaire, described having a high “need to belong”.

In another condition, anagram victory generated a personal reward, not one shared with team-mates. Neither risk of exclusion nor the need to belong had any effect on cheating in this condition. This suggests that being under threat doesn’t simply increase unethical behaviour but encourages targeted actions aimed at raising standing.

Thau’s team showed that the effect generalised to other behaviours using a survey of 228 working adults. People who felt excluded – sharing heartbreaking beliefs such as  “I feel like it is likely that my workgroup members will not invite me for lunch” – were more likely to withhold information from non-team members or discredit another workgroup, all to make their own group look better.

Supporting your in-group in this way can only hurt the organisation in the longer-term, and can have profoundly damaging effects, such as the example the article gives, of a detective who framed people to get higher rates of arrest for his colleagues. There is no more chilling excuse for the inexcusable than “but I did it all for you!”


Thau, S., Derfler-Rozin, R., Pitesa, M., Mitchell, M., & Pillutla, M. (2015). Unethical for the sake of the group: Risk of social exclusion and pro-group unethical behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100 (1), 98-113 DOI: 10.1037/a0036708

further reading
Are children from collectivist cultures more likely to say it’s okay to lie for the group?

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

Jokey team meetings are more productive, as long as people laugh along

Science suggests a funnier workplace should be a more effective one, encouraging positive mood and a playful, open approach. But much of the evidence to date rests on theoretical argument or lab experiments. Now a new study of genuine team meetings shows that laughter begets laughter and that bouts of humour really can clear the ground for new approaches and better performance.

Using videos taken as part of an improvement process run across two German companies, the study was able to determine the flow of interactions within real team meetings. Researchers Nale Lehmann-Willenbrock and Joseph Allen found laughter was likely to follow attempts at humour – although damp squibs were also possible – and that laughter could also trigger more jokes, effectively producing humour-laughter-humour chains. This tallies with past contributions to the field that suggest humour tends to stick around when introduced.

Moments after the laughter died down from a joke, teams were more likely to engage in productive, open behaviours, such as proposing new ideas, asking questions, or offering praise or encouraging participation by others. This fits with the broaden-and-build model of positive states, where a good mood opens us up to other people and different ideas – all useful in a collaborative context.

These behaviours appear to contribute to longer-term performance, according to ratings given by team supervisors post-meeting and two years on. The higher the number of “humour plus laughter” incidents (but not humour or laughter alone), the better these ratings tended to be. The repeated importance of humour in tandem with laughter suggest that it’s not purely elevated mood or a quality of wannabe jokers, but a more dynamic give and take between team members that makes the difference.

We’re still in the early days of understanding humour’s effects in real work environments. This study only considered positive humour and set aside ridicule or spiteful jokes. We know from the lab that sarcasm can have surprising, even beneficial effects, but will this translate to a real-world context? Also, this study only looked at teams with members fairly long in tenure, so what about the other extreme: the consequences of a team’s first shared joke? Plenty of punchlines yet to come!


Lehmann-Willenbrock, N., & Allen, J. (2014). How fun are your meetings? Investigating the relationship between humor patterns in team interactions and team performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99 (6), 1278-1287 DOI: 10.1037/a0038083

–Further reading–
Jokes are a serious part of business
The psychology of humour and comedy (Psychologist magazine feature)

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

How to improve collaboration in virtual teams? Members’ avatar style could be key

When a team rarely gets to be in a room together, it misses out on many of the in-person subtle cues that help members make sense of their relationships. The signals that are available become more important: subtext in email messages, tone of voice on a conference call, or seemingly minor visual features. That’s why researchers have become interested in the humble avatar – the image that’s used to represent each person in a virtual interaction.

Sarah van der Land and her colleagues asked 80 three-student teams to solve a crime mystery. Although clues available to all team members pointed to one culprit, the true answer required collaboration to exchange information that was only available to individual participants. To do this, each virtual team had 40 minutes discussion time, using an online chat system where contributions were labelled with the person’s name and an avatar.

In one condition, all team members shared the same avatar (a cartoon bear icon), whereas in another condition, each team member had their own unique avatar (their photo). In a third, critical condition, each team member’s avatar consisted of what they thought was their own photo morphed with elements of their team-mates’ photos – in other words, each person’s avatar was universal but also personalised.

Teams performed better when their avatars
reflected a mix of each member and
their team-mates. Image: Van der Land et al.

After the task, groups in this morphed condition reported feeling more social attraction towards their team-mates, and this was the reason that these groups performed better, reaching the correct solution 70 per cent of the time, compared to a success rate of, at best, 50 per cent in the other conditions.

Van der Land argues that this is because generic and unique/realistic avatars both have a downside. Individualised pictures do little to create a sense of shared group membership, and although common avatars do, their lack of resemblance to us can underline our distance from a real workspace, making us feel more anonymous, likelier to emotionally disengage, and readier to shirk duties. The morphed avatar, meanwhile, gives us both group membership and a sense of presence.

We should be aware the study used an exaggerated format to prove its point. Participants believed each person’s morphed avatar reflected a mix of that person’s face with the faces of the other two team members. In truth, each team member saw the same avatar against their own name and that of their colleagues: one made up of 60 per cent their own face and 40 per cent the face of a student who didn’t actually take part in the study.

Simply put, this set-up gave participants the impression their team-mates were uncannily similar to them (to an extent that would call for an identical twin in the team), which likely played up the levels of social attraction. I would be interested to see the effect of accurate avatar blends in real teams, as well as other ways of exploring this mixed avatar approach, such as whether pairing personalised faces with standardised uniforms also generates these effects.


van der Land, S., Schouten, A., Feldberg, F., Huysman, M., & van den Hooff, B. (2015). Does Avatar Appearance Matter? How Team Visual Similarity and Member-Avatar Similarity Influence Virtual Team Performance Human Communication Research, 41 (1), 128-153 DOI: 10.1111/hcre.12044

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

By helping other people, you’ll find it easier to accept the help you need

Receiving help can sting. Admitting that others can do what you can’t and feeling indebted to them can lead to a sense of dependence and incompetence, and even resentment towards the very person who helped you. Luckily, Katherina Alvarez and Esther van Leeuwen have published some helpful research on one way to take the sting away.

Their study asked student participants to complete a series of tricky maths puzzles. If a puzzle was stumping them, assistance was available in the form of help cards supposedly written by another student more experienced with these puzzles. For some participants, these cards simply provided the solution whereas others provided hints to help the participants figure it out themselves.

The first type of help is considered “dependency-oriented”, meaning the helper takes over and fixes things on the recipient’s behalf. Participants who received this type of help later rated themselves as less competent and respected, and they felt less happy about seeking the help compared to those who received hints.

Hints help you solve your own problems, so are “autonomy-oriented”, and participants who got these, felt the card creator was more similar to themselves, as well as more qualified and well-intentioned. This fits with our understanding that dependency-oriented help carries a higher risk of negative reactions.

Alvarez and Van Leeuwen went on to show how recipients of help can bounce back. In a second stage of the study, participants tackled another set of puzzles and were invited to write help cards for three they had answered correctly, for the benefit of future participants. With this shift from help-receiver to helper, all participants reported an increase in confidence, as well as more affinity for their previous helper.

But paying it forward was especially important for those who had previously received dependency-oriented help. Their confidence received a bigger boost, and their affinity to the person helping them jumped up – even though they were not directly repaying the debt to that person. Simply taking a role within a chain of benefactors was enough to instill a sense of re-empowerment. It also turns out that knowing in advance that they would be helping others, made participants more relaxed in the first part of the study – participants given this information were more comfortable with receiving help and had warmer feelings towards the card creator.

We know that systems where help is passed forward can be very effective, for example in propagating health information from professionals on through relays of peers. This research shows us there is also a powerful psychological benefit. Harnessing this could help prevent situations where those deeply in need of support are reluctant to take it.


Alvarez, K., & van Leeuwen, E. (2015). Paying it forward: how helping others can reduce the psychological threat of receiving help Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 45 (1), 1-9 DOI: 10.1111/jasp.12270

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

Reverse psychology: How bad managers inspire team camaraderie

An unfair, uncaring manager makes for an uncertain working life, one characterised by stress, absenteeism and poor performance. But new research suggests a silver lining: when the boss is unjust, team members come together.

A multi-institution collaboration led by Adam Stoverink presented teams of students with an awkward event. The students thought they’d been recruited to solve tasks for a cash prize, but they were left twiddling their thumbs while waiting for an assigned supervisor to show up. When he eventually did, he gave a sincere apology to half of the groups, but the rest were fobbed off with a shrug, as he explained, “clearly my time is more important than yours.” Post-experiment, participants who were fobbed off rated their supervisor poorly, but also expressed feeling closer to their team-mates.

The evidence suggests the participants were seeking to relieve cognitive dissonance, the discomfort caused by an ambiguous situation that doesn’t line up with their beliefs. One way to do this is to seek solidarity with others in the same position. This was characterised as “misery doesn’t just love any kind of company, it loves only miserable company” by eminent social psychologist Stanley Schachter on the back of his classic experiment, where people who had volunteered for an electric shock of unknown severity unanimously chose to wait in a room with others sharing their fate, rather than people who didn’t. In the current study, ambiguity was provoked through injustice (who doesn’t believe that they deserve to be treated justly?), in the form of a leader who didn’t appear to have his team’s interests at heart. As predicted, the greater the participants’ unease, the closer they felt to others in the same boat.

Bad situations can generate perverse benefits: in this case, solidarity amongst mistreated people. I can certainly recall times where I stuck with my team-mates in spite of the boss we had, not because of her. But this is still a silver lining on a dark cloud: in this paper alone, a follow-up study reports that teams with a rude supervisor squandered more of their precious remaining time trying to make sense of the supervisor’s rudeness, instead of progressing on the tasks. More broadly, such employees would be beset by rumination, doubting and second-guessing motivations, to say nothing of the effects of specific acts of injustice against them. And of course, some unjust leaders, whether by design or through incompetence, end up playing team members against one another, thereby counteracting the camaraderie effects reported here.

The lesson for organisations is not to assume that a cohesive team is a credit to their leader; sometimes the opposite is the case.


Stoverink, A., Umphress, E., Gardner, R., & Miner, K. (2014). Misery loves company: Team dissonance and the influence of supervisor-focused interpersonal justice climate on team cohesiveness. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99 (6), 1059-1073 DOI: 10.1037/a0037915

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

Do you remember the time? How collective nostalgia inspires group loyalty

Nostalgia seems like a distraction in a world that’s moving forward. But new research proposes a powerful function of the emotion: as a glue to bind members of social groups.

Students from the University of Southampton recalled and wrote about an experience either involving other students, or where they were alone. They were either asked to choose an ordinary event or one that triggered nostalgic feeling, defined in the instructions as “sentimental longing for the past”.

Next they were asked how many hours they would be prepared to invest in a publicity campaign for the university. Most willing to help were those who had recalled a nostalgic memory involving other students, because (according to a post-study survey) it made them  prize their student identity more highly.

Could these intentions just be the result of a better mood? Unlikely; although textual analysis showed the nostalgic memory descriptions were more positive, across all conditions positivity was no indicator of intention to volunteer. Moreover, another experiment showed that recalling a collective “fortunate event” did not lead to more good intentions towards other students, even though these memories were very positive. Lead author Tim Wildschut points out that nostalgia is distinctive in part because it blends both positive and wistful features, and that it is this longing that makes it a more active emotion than amusement or satisfaction, inspiring people to want to revisit or protect the things that trigger it.

Nostalgia alters how people say they will behave, but is that just talk? A follow-up experiment indicated otherwise. After a nostalgic or ordinary recall of a collective event, Irish participants were given a set amount of tokens and then asked to observe a token-sharing transaction between an Englishman and an Irishman. When they saw the Englishman make an unfair offer, the participants had the chance to punish him, but at their own cost in tokens. Choosing to punish the unfair English player was taken as a sign of in-group loyalty.

Nostalgia encouraged more self-sacrifice for the group, but only in some participants. Specifically, those who strongly identified as Irish from the outset of the study sacrificed nearly half their stash for a stranger. Those who felt less affiliated sacrificed a fifth, which was no more vengeful than those without a nostalgia induction. Wildschut notes that direct effects of emotion onto specific behaviours are generally much weaker than intentions, because participants might find other ways to act outside of the confines of the study.

Rather than being without function, it appears that nostalgia is an organising emotion, strengthening group membership and developing collective identities. It can be used to ugly ends: politicians appealing to mythical pasts to paint outsiders as threats. But it may also help migrants to maintain solidarity and meaning in new environments that can be hostile or non-inclusive. And for any of us, giving in to a nostalgic impulse may be enough to inspire picking up a phone and making contact with people we’ve been apart from for too long.


Wildschut, T., Bruder, M., Robertson, S., van Tilburg, W., & Sedikides, C. (2014). Collective nostalgia: A group-level emotion that confers unique benefits on the group. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107 (5), 844-863 DOI: 10.1037/a0037760

further reading
Feeling chilly? Indulge in some nostalgia
Nostalgia – from cowbells to the meaning of life
Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.