Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

Unlocking the secret to building better teams

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Matthew Feinberg

Knowing how to build cohesive teams is one of the million-dollar questions in management.

It’s also a challenge that has long-interested professor Matthew Feinberg.

“If you’ve been among fans in a packed stadium or part of a very productive team, you know that there’s something special about being part of collective action,” explains Feinberg, who is a professor in the organizational behaviour and human resource management area at the Rotman School. “What I find most fascinating is understanding the things that unite us and the things that divide us.”

His work — which asks somewhat unconventional questions about gossip and political identity with the objective of understanding groups better — has attracted the attention of major media outlets like the Washington Post, the New YorTimes and The Atlantic.

Here are three big ideas to keep in mind when building and leading effective teams.

Gossip can be a good thing for teams

Managers, take note: a bit of gossip in groups might actually be productive, according to Feinberg’s findings.

One of his most cited studies went something like this: about 200 participants were given tokens and put into small groups to play rounds of an economic game. At the start of each game, individuals had to decide whether to pool their tokens with the rest of the team for a chance for every player to walk away with a big payoff or to hang onto their chips and reap the rewards alone.

After each game, players were shuffled and matched with different players. In some cases, researchers allowed the players to gossip about former teammates, and players could then vote to exclude specific individuals from playing in the next round. Surprisingly, gossip had an overwhelmingly positive effect: it brought cooperative players together, and players who had been ostracized were more likely to cooperate when they were brought back into the fold.

“You can think of gossip as the original Yelp or letter of recommendation,” explains Feinberg. “It spreads helpful reputational information that can instill trust and bring people together, but it can also keep underperformers or bad apples in line.”

Sometimes there isn’t an "us" or "them"

Recent current events can tell us a lot about how large entities — like countries — can come together or divide. Watching the last U.S. election play out inspired a few of Feinberg’s recent research projects.

“We’re in an interesting time when the country seems so polarized,” explains Feinberg, who is American. “My co-authors and I were really curious about the range of political opinions, and if the country really is as divided as it appears.”

In a 2017 study, he pored over national election survey data and examined the voting behaviours, home states and political stances of self-identified liberals, conservatives and moderates on nine political issues that tend to divide democrats and republicans (such as affirmative actions and abortion).

Based on the data, Feinberg found that the country was not as divided as it seemed.

“People are not as different as they think they are. While there might be extremes on both sides of the political spectrum, in general, people are good-natured and pretty moderate in their views.”

Unfortunately, stereotypes perpetuate ideas about our differences and that can stop real progress, says Feinberg. “Maybe it’s a self-perpetuating cycle: we are told by analysts and the media that we are different, and we create silos. If we can’t come together, it’s a real barrier to progress.”

To build strong teams, find out what motivates them

If you want to understand why groups are so hard to build, you have to understand human nature, says Feinberg.

“Every person on a team faces a dilemma: how do you balance your personal interests with the interests of the wider group?” he says.

The hard part is getting individuals to focus on the team’s goals.

Different strategies might work for different teams. For instance, a very charismatic leader might convince team members to sacrifice a few of their own interests for the good of the group. Another leader might frame projects in such a way that individuals are motivated to work harder so that they don’t feel like they are letting their teammates down.

“A manager’s job is a tough one, but it helps to identify the specific things that motivate your team, and use that knowledge to bring people together,” says Feinberg.

Matthew Feinberg is an associate professor of organizational behaviour at Rotman.