Professor West, in your book “Effective Teamwork” (2012), you say that the growth of modern organisations has created a context in which teams must work with other teams and use organisational systems and processes to achieve their goals.  Therefore, the first question is very simple:

Why is teamwork so important for organisations today?

Organisations today operate in more dynamic, complex and competitive environments than ever before. Top-down hierarchies are too slow and rigid to cope. We need team based organizations where decisions are made by teams of people at the closest possible point to the customer or service users. Teams formed of people with the right skills and working together effectively will make better decisions more quickly than senior managers in rigid hierarchies.

The above being true, what would be the best way for an organisation to create effective teams and what role should the organisation play in this process?

Teams must be built around tasks. What are the tasks we need teams to perform? The team members will be those who have the required skills needed to perform the task. It is vital that teams have a clear purpose aligned to the organization’s overall vision and strategic direction. The organization must provide support for team working, training for team working and build its structures and processes around teams – such as team based appraisals and team development supports. The top team must model effective and outstanding team working. And all teams must work to increase their effective cooperation and support for other teams they work with in the organization.

michael-west-byefWhen reading your book, one realises that sometimes one’s idea of a team is inaccurate. You call them pseudo-teams. What distinguishes a real team from a pseudo-team? Is it only about being more effective or less effective?

At a minimum a real team will have a number of agreed, clear, shared objectives. Team members must work effectively together to achieve the team objectives (rather than simply working independently on separate elements), team members must have clear roles and the team must meet regularly to review performance and how it can be improved. If any of these elements is missing, it is likely that it is simply a ‘co-acting group’ rather than a real team. And that applies to the top management ‘team’ also.

Managing effective teams requires a specific type of leadership. What skills must a good team leader have? In addition to this, when speaking of the team members, what skills should they have for the team to be effective?

A good team leader will ensure the team has an inspiring vision and clear direction, particularly ensuring a small number of clear, agreed and challenging objectives. He or she will ensure regular and positive team meetings and encourage positive, supportive relationships by resolving and preventing intense conflicts. The leader will be good at listening and encouraging team members to listen and understand each other. This also means encouraging positive attitudes in the team towards diversity of background, profession, views and ideas. The team leader will play a key role in leading inter-team cooperation and emphasising and enabling team learning, improvement & innovation. Above all, the leader should be positive in his or her behaviours, encouraging optimism, team cohesion and a sense of efficacy. Expressing appreciation, using positive humour and valuing people’s contributions is fundamental. And these skills and responsibilities all fall to team members also. The more there is shared leadership rather than dominating leadership in teams, the better they perform. Although there will probably be a hierarchical team leader, in the most effective teams, leadership is shared and shifts depending on the task at hand and the skills and motivations of team members. So all team members should look to fulfil these leadership roles in their teams rather than leaving it to the designated hierarchical leader.

Recently, when discussing the BYEF Forum, in which you will be taking part soon, somebody said that the issue of effective teams in organisations is not of interest for the economic world. What are your views? And, to what extent would you say that effective teams in organisations have a real impact on the economic environment in which that organisation operates?

We have clear evidence from many studies of the importance of effective team working to the achievement of organizational objectives in every sector of the economy – manufacturing, finance, oil and gas, health services, military, public sector social care etc. Moreover, there is strong evidence that team based working in organizations in the private sector is associated with higher levels of productivity, profitability and innovation.

You have researched and worked a lot in the health sector; mainly in the public sector. Is it easier to work as a team in the public sector than in the private sector?

There is no difference. We have been working in teams as a species since the early stages of our evolutionary development. It is a form of working that has enabled us to make the extraordinary progress we have and we are well-adapted to working in teams. The complexities of working in teams arise when we seek to replicate this form of working in large modern organizations. To be successful we have to ensure that the basic principles of effective team working are applied in these huge complex organizations as well as in smaller companies where the challenges to team working are perhaps less demanding.

Motivation is an aspect repeatedly mentioned in your book as a key element of people’s commitment to teamwork. However, you say this requires a strong sense of the value of the work the team performs; how do you achieve this sense of value?

It is about finding a fit between people’s values and their work. So encouraging doctors to focus on throughput of patients as the key value of the team’s work will not be successful. We must emphasize care quality and compassion. Telling sales people that what matters is the company profitability will not be inspiring but emphasising providing effective and warm customer service is likely to be more motivating The teams of the Youth Employment Forum will probably be more motivated and therefore effective if  the teams have a sense of a strong focus on helping young people fulfil their potential as human beings and live flourishing lives rather than simply measures of productivity and percentages of placements.

Professor West, all this about effective teams; in short, is it about being good to other people?

Yes, in one sense. We thrive when we feel part of a positive, cohesive and caring team, where we feel we belong, and we feel valued, respected and supported. But team work is also about getting the structural aspects right – ensuring clear, shared team objectives, clear roles, and regular effective meetings to review performance and how it can be improved.

What final message would you give to organisations today, and to the young people who want to join them?

We must create work environments that reflect human needs and capacities, ensuring that people flourish rather than languish as a result of their work experience. Young people should seek out organizations where their well-being, growth and development and aspirations will be nurtured rather than blunted by their work experience, wherever possible. There are many examples of such enlightened organizations in every sector and every country. And if one organization can achieve this, all can.