In 1976, Bela and Martha Karolyi made history when their protegee, Nadia Comaneci, became the first-ever Olympic gymnast to score a perfect 10.0 in her routine. But their legacy didn’t end there. After defecting from communist Romania to America, the Karolyis set out to accomplish an even bigger goal: Coach the US gymnasts to win their very first gold medal as a unified Olympic team.
After returning from the Barcelona Olympics with only a bronze, the Karolyis realized they’d been making a huge mistake. The gymnasts had been training separately with their own coaches, and only came together as a team at the actual Games. That’s when Martha decided to dramatically revamp their strategy. Before the centennial Olympics in Atlanta, she insisted that all seven athletes meet and train at a team camp for two weeks.
“That was the first moment when the US had a program that put team orientation in front of the individual success,” Martha said in NBC’s documentary, Karolyi. “If the team is doing good, it’s very good for all the individuals. So your goal should be to be part of this team, because then you will become successful.” Unsurprisingly, that was the year they won the gold medal.
While people can, of course, accomplish great feats on their own, several studies have shown that teamwork boosts productivity. After all, when people work together towards a common goal, they can combine their skills, solve complex problems more efficiently, and strengthen their commitment to a positive outcome.
Let’s take a look at seven studies, in particular, that prove what the Karolyis have known for decades: People just work better in teams.
1. Floyd Allport: The social facilitation effect
In 1920, social psychologist Floyd Allport found that people worked better in teams even if they weren’t collaborating, competing, or actively communicating with each other. This finding came to be known as the “social facilitation” effect, which, as Lifehacker notes, proves how “the mere presence of other people engaged in the same task as us can boost our motivation.”
2. Oxford University: Row, baby, row
In 2009, researchers at Oxford University found that “team players can tolerate twice as much pain as those who work alone.” They made this discovery by observing the Oxford University rowing team during two 45-minute training sessions. Evidently, the rowers exhibited a greater pain threshold after training together than when they went through the same routines individually. To make sure their results were sound, the researchers even repeated the study the following week and found the same outcomes.
As the report’s co-author Robin Dunbar told The Guardian: "What this study shows us is that synchrony alone seems to ramp up the production of endorphins so as to heighten the effect when we do these activities in groups.”
3. Harvard University: You look familiar
In 2006, researchers at Harvard University found that heart surgeons’ performance improved when they worked with their standard team in their usual hospital. On the other hand, this improvement wasn’t evident when the doctors worked with unfamiliar colleagues in different settings—such as when they filled in for other surgeons—even if they were familiar with those settings.
As Christian Jarrett wrote for 99u: “By working repeatedly with the same people, you get to know their strengths and weaknesses; you have shared experiences to draw on; and you develop unspoken habits and rules that aid your mutual understanding."
4. MIT Sloan: So happy (not) together
In 2009, a study from MIT Sloan showed that virtual teams actually perform better than teams working in the same location—that is, if they have the proper communication and collaboration tools. The report states: “
Even the smallest degrees of dispersion, such as working on different floors in the same building, can greatly affect the quality of collaboration” … “Such geographically distributed teams have commonly been referred to as ‘virtual’ teams, but that label is something of a misnomer, because these groups are very real with respect to the work they can accomplish.”
5. Silicon Valley: Mo’ teamwork, mo’ money
In 2012, Google launched Project Aristotle, a bold initiative that set out to discover how to build the perfect team. While the researchers’ findings weren’t as conclusive as they might’ve hoped, they did report that “psychological safety” was an incredibly important aspect to fostering teamwork. That is, team members need to feel comfortable enough to take risks, make mistakes, and voice their opinions.
On a note that’s more relevant to this piece, The New York Times unearthed some interesting information in its coverage of Google’s project: “In a 2015 study, executives said that profitability increases when workers are persuaded to collaborate more” … “If a company wants to outstrip its competitors, it needs to influence not only how people work but also how they work together.”
6. Peter Kuhn: Et tu, Brute?
In 2013, Peter Kuhn, an economics professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that placing too much emphasis on individual performance can actually be damaging to company culture. As Business Insider reported, “It may create a culture of back-stabbing and colleagues hoarding information from one another.”
To create a company culture that encourages collaboration, Kuhn advises incorporating team-based incentives into the workflow, and ranking group performance as opposed to just individual achievements. Kuhn added, “If you give employees incentives to cooperate, they will share information and take time to train their colleagues instead of thinking [only about] themselves.”
7. Marjorie E. Shaw: Riddle me this
In 1932, social psychologist Marjorie E. Shaw conducted an experiment for an article called, “A Comparison of Individuals and Small Groups in the Rational Solution of Complex Problems.” The setup: Participants were given a set of riddles to solve; some were instructed to work alone while others worked in groups of four. As a result, she found that the groups accurately solved more riddles than the individuals, proving the effect that teamwork can have on productivity and efficiency.
Bonus: Debunking “social loafing”
Here’s a common argument against team productivity: If you group people together in a team, they’ll be inclined to loaf off and not work as hard. However, a 1996 study by Stroebe, Diehl, and Abakoumkin found quite the opposite to be true. After conducting an experiment in which participants turned a wheel with a brake for 10 minutes, they discovered the following:
- When two people of the same ability work together, their individual performances increase by more than 5%.
- When two people of differing abilities work together, the weaker one’s performance increases by more than 10%.
In other words, team members can actually motivate each other to be more productive. Adding to that, a University of Kentucky article pointed out that “social loafing occurs primarily when no one can distinguish each member's personal contribution to group output.” Meaning, if project managers can clearly outline each team member’s responsibility, they can likely prevent social loafing.
Building the perfect team
Despite these inspiring studies, it’s not fair to say that if you lump your employees together into a team, you’ll be sure to increase productivity and achieve success. You still have to figure out how to build the right team for your business.
While—as Google found—it's tough to build a perfect team, there are many factors that can go into creating one that’s highly functioning. For instance, teams should be well-managed, equipped with tools for communication, and able to work together virtually.
If anything, take a page from the Karolyi’s playbook. By finding ways to train, incentivize, and build collaborative teams within your company, you’ll be well on your way to winning gold.