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definition of teamwork

The Definition of Teamwork: biology, psychology and getting things done

This article will explore:

  • the definition of teamwork
  • the psychology behind teamwork based on human evolution
  • the different types of teams that exist in businesses, and how each functions

1) Teamwork is how it’s done


Naturally, you’ll know that nobody exists in a vacuum of solitude. The objects around you, the food in your mouth, the music from the radio… it’s all a product of human cooperation and collaboration. Very few people possess all the physical resources, bodily strength and various skills to survive alone. This is one reason why we have worked in roles for thousands of years: doctors, builders, teachers, writers, farmers, warriors, … and now developers, engineers, designers etc. Not everybody can develop expertise in everything due to time constraints, talent limitations and personal interests in a topic.

This can be seen in modern families: we are complementary because we need to be. People settle into roles that balance out what the family needs as a whole (or at least, that’s what is supposed to happen!). One person cooks, one person cleans…

And then there’s work, and the anxious managers putting “must be a team player” in job descriptions. It seems unnecessary, right? After all, we are by default all acting in teams day in, day out. Humans have always been cooperative by necessity, and also culturally. So why is teamwork such a challenge for managers? Let’s take a look at where it all started.

2) Human evolution and teamwork: it’s in our bones


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Humans are not the only species to work together, but they are amongst the best. Human society relied on teamwork to survive. This came in the form of coordinated hunting, for one. Teamwork played a number of roles in early human cultures that still stand true today. Did you ever wonder why you mostly treat inquiries from strangers with politeness and goodwill? We are instinctually inclined to be nice to strangers because there is a possibility that the encounter could become a mutually beneficial relationship. 

This lingering automatic goodwill is important for modern teamwork, where we are often mixed with people we don’t know.

The second interesting insight from times gone by are our deeply embedded rules for reciprocity: we reciprocate for status, for resources and for pleasure. In many cultures today, gift-giving and receiving rules are important to respect and understand lest a grievance be caused. Why is this important to teamwork?

We have a need to give back to someone who has given to us. This drives teamwork to be a pendulum of giving and receiving. Our need for status means that team leaders are unconsciously encouraged to go the extra mile for their colleagues. The desire for the “feel-good” factor will push others to participate in the team. Scientists argue whether it is for survival in a time of need; or, if it is to do with moral and ethical values that our part of our nature.

Our tendencies to reciprocate it make people ready for teamwork and ready to take on their roles in a positive manner.

However, there is evidence as well that our evolution has made us unfit for teamwork past a certain scale. The majority of human existence was carried out in a hunter-gatherer reality. This meant small nomadic groups highly reliant on each other, but in competition for resources to survive with other groups, or tribes. Loyalty to your closely-knit tribe and a sense of duty to win the most resources for them caused (and still causes) clashes between diverse groups and culturally differentiated people today.

In teamwork, this is why culture and diversity are so often talked about – we are deeply inclined to be suspicious of others dissimilar to ourselves, because in the past it often was a question of life or death. We are still the club-wielding apes of times gone by walking amongst skyscrapers! But we recognize the innovative value of differentiating life experiences and worldviews.

Larger and more diverse teams are more difficult to manage because we tend to form sub-groups within teams. This is due to our past protective mechanisms for survival based on trust and familiarity. But they are more valuable than undiversified teams.

3) Types of business teams

There are no specific numbers on the size of work teams, but there are multiple types of teams. The category of the team can help to understand each specific set of issues facing that team. They are as follows:

i) Task Force

ii) Cross-Functional

iii) Self-Managing

Because of modern technological developments and shifts in attitude, each of these teams also has the potential to be virtual or remote. “Virtual” cannot be a category in itself because it applies to all types of teams.

Task Force

Of this list, the “task force” is the most short-lived – a temporary group brought together to solve a specific problem or complete a temporary project. At the end, they disband and are unlikely to work together again. “Task force” is also sometimes used to refer to people who are grouped together to perform the same repetitive task (such as employees at call centres).

Famous task force: The Avengers


The cross-functional team is composed of workers from different departments, of different skills and/or from different levels of the hierarchy. This type of team can be disjointed. Working as a team can become fragmented due to hierarchical differences and narrow knowledge specialities (eg. accountant + designer + head of product). But it can also work wonderfully when people compliment each others’ skills gaps and learn how to work in situations where power is not equally distributed.

Famous cross-functional team: The Fellowship of the Ring


The self-managing team acts with a lot of autonomy within the larger structure of the business organization. They can make many of the day-to-day decisions and perform multiple roles from production to customer service. Self-managing teams are close, supportive and democratic because it is required when a group is responsible for an entire ecosystem. There is normally a team leader but a generally flat hierarchy where everyone is accessible.

Famous self-managed/virtual team: WordPress/Automattic

4) Today’s definition of teamwork

“Teamwork” is often coldly stated in dictionaries as being the activity of a number of individuals coordinated to achieve a goal. Teamwork is much more nuanced than that. We all know that teamwork is not that simple. It’s a complex network of different individuals from different cultures, with different habits and views of how things should be done.

With the entrepreneurship craze over the past two decades, smaller and more agile teams have become what companies are striving for. Steve Jobs famously said that “Apple is run like a start-up.” Things simply move faster today, in every aspect. “Long-term strategy” and “business planning” is becoming more and more meaningless. Product cycles are shorter. Marketing is in real-time. Customer support has to happen immediately. If this means a trend towards the self-managed and virtual team, then this is a good thing. Our inescapable evolution tells us that small groups of people relying on each other for the entire spectrum of needs is what we are ideally programmed to function as.

The definition of teamwork will always be basically defined as a group of individuals working together to achieve an objective. But that detached definition of teamwork does not add the nuances of human behaviour in teams, which we often forget is defined by our long ancestry of surviving as small groups in an often inhospitable environment. That’s not to say that business teams have to put up with inhospitable environments now :) but our instincts are still built that way.

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The best tips for working successfully within a team come from Forbes:

  • communicate directly to your colleagues rather than through management,
  • communicate openly with them,
  • and try to go the extra mile to help them out with a problem.