When a team is less than the sum of its parts: tensions between individual and team wellbeing

March 17, 2024

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When a team is less than the sum of its parts: tensions between individual and team wellbeing

Teams have been in the research news this week. For example a new study highlights the conflict between the needs of a team and the needs of the individuals in the team – and what leaders can do to strike the right balance to keep things ticking smoothly.

What the researchers say: “If a team focuses only on the wellbeing and needs of the team, the individuals in it may be at risk of burnout. And the same is true in reverse: if individuals only care about themselves, team wellbeing suffers,” the lead author said.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, studied 69 people across 12 teams. Participants kept a qualitative diary, and the researchers also used questionnaires to measure individual work engagement and the risk of burnout, as well as team viability, team satisfaction, and the quality of interpersonal relationships among members.

“Today’s work life, where disruptions cascade one after another, highlights the differences between what teams need and what individuals need,” she continued. “Many of the participants in our study prioritized their own needs without regard for the wellbeing of the team, bringing down team morale and commitment” “ Other people prioritized the survival of their teams and put a lot of effort into that at the expense of their own well-being – which meant their risk of burnout increased.”

As Alicia and I have observed in our combined 40 years of working with organizations, most of them do a lot of pulse surveys of employee wellbeing and measure individual engagement, but the wellbeing of a team isn’t just the sum of the wellbeing of the people in it. The danger is that the results of surveys measuring individual wellbeing may look really positive, but at the same time teams may no longer work at all.

The responses to the researchers survey also revealed that people's coping strategies often don’t actually contribute to their recovery. “People often don’t know what’s stressing them and what to do about it,” the researchers noted. “For example, if a person is feeling lonely, running alone in the woods may not be the best solution. On the other hand, if your team is overcommunicating and you feel overwhelmed, the team should create some rules for communication to enable both connection and focus time.”

According to the study, the teams that engaged in reflection were the ones that did best, both as individuals and as a team. Team members openly shared their experiences and concerns, and then the team and members adapted their practices to ensure everyone’s wellbeing. That’s typical of high performing teams, but these teams are in the minority (5% of teams), according to the study.

“Working life is now very individual-oriented, which means that the team may be forgotten altogether. That has an impact on the viability of organizations for the long haul,’” the lead author said. “Team leaders should make sure that team members are communicating and making informed compromises with each other so that individual and team wellbeing both receive enough attention.

So, what? Collective concern or each individual within the team is in our DNA. It is universally found in hunter-gatherer teams and in corporate high performing teams. Empasis on the individual—indeed individualism itself—is antithetical to the way that humans are designed to be with each other.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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