Learning teamwork as a foreign language

I’ve researched teams and group dynamics in all sorts of contexts: professional kitchens, the armed forces, reality television, doctors, astronauts – even theme park queues. My conclusion is that teamwork is weird. It’s also elusive: it’s everywhere and it’s nowhere at the same time; we all know what it is, but we find it hard to describe; we all know how to do it, but most of us struggle to do it well. Teamwork suffers from what I think of as the opposite of the Goldilocks zone (not too hot, not too cold: just right)…teamwork is not too unfamiliar to warrant effort in its execution, but it’s not familiar enough to mean that we generally do it well (We’re not that bad at it, but not good enough at it either: not quite right).

My metaphor for this is the classic ‘Brit Abroad’ stereotype. British people are famous for heading off to Spain on their holidays and turning up expecting to be able to navigate the culture using only a couple of words that they’ve picked up on tv, an approach enabled mainly by some heavy linguistic subsidisation from the locals who have actually learned to speak English. The result is the bewitching sensation that one is speaking Spanish because adding por favor at the end of a question otherwise expressed entirely in English seems to be understood by our interlocutors. There is nothing wrong with this approach (it works for both sides: the tourists feel more comfortable and the destination gets more tourism), but its linguistic utility expires devastatingly quickly when the locals revert to Spanish instead – suddenly we are atrapado en la corriente de mierda sin remo.

My experience of researching teams is similar. Often teams believe they are successfully displaying teamwork without realising that they are in fact operating in a parallel zone where the environment is reasonably forgiving of their relative lack of teamwork skills. Suddenly, they find themselves in a situation where those ambient affordances disappear and they don’t have the skills, experience or understanding to successfully confront the teamwork challenges they now face. What I mean is that in organisational settings it is easy to be seduced by the illusion of doing ‘good’ teamwork based on evidence that is in fact explained by other factors. Camaraderie is an example; when a group gets along well, this becomes an easy analogue for ‘team spirit’ and this illusion can sustain a group effectively so long as its environment remains consistent. Eventually a challenge, setback or mistake shocks the team into confronting a situation that cannot be contained by camaraderie alone. Another example is psychological safety. Team psychological safety, pioneered by Harvard scholar Professor Amy Edmondson, is a property of a team where the individual members feel that they are ‘safe’ to take interpersonal risks such as challenging each other, asking questions or voicing an opinion. Often teams will mistake a climate where ‘nobody ever fights’ as evidence of psychological safety, but in fact that team has no evidence of psychological safety – not fighting is not the same as being safe to take risks. Suddenly, when the team encounters difficulty the unhealthy conflict surfaces right at the point where that culture of safety is most needed.

There is also the tendency to attribute a success to ‘good’ teamwork, but not particularly scrutinise what it was about the teamwork that created the success. The same applies in the opposite direction, failures are often blamed on ‘bad’ teamwork. In both cases, the team does not learn. When we high-five each other for a success and celebrate good teamwork, we are using teamwork as an excuse to legitimise group celebration without really considering what features of our teamwork were particularly effective – the equivalent of a football team coming off the pitch and going ‘we won so we must have played well as a team’. When we blame teamwork for a failure, we are pinning responsibility on an abstract concept, allowing us to create distance between the failure and personal responsibility. Accounting for the role of teamwork when reviewing successes and failures is necessary, but it needs to be specific, nuanced and sincere.

There is a rather alarming example from aviation of what the consequences of this trend can be. Dismukes et al. (2017) reflect on the accidents they investigated for the National Transport Safety Board in the US. In a series of 37 accidents analysed over a 12-year period between 1978 and 1990, 73% of the accidents involved pilots who were flying together for the first time that day. What does this suggest? It tells us that pilots, highly skilled and renowned for their training and capacity to function in high pressure situations, potentially over-rely on the environmental illusion of ‘good’ teamwork created by a shared understanding of what each other is doing at any given time. When significant challenges appear, relative lack of prior teamworking experience together features in the cause of an accident.

The upshot for me with any organisational setting is about acknowledging how difficult building capacity for effective teamwork can be. This is something Anne Donnellon (1996) highlights in her book, Team Talk, that there is disparity between the idealist visions of the power of teamwork and the very slow and very painful experience of anyone involved in organising, leading or participating in teams in reality. For many teams, teamwork is still a foreign language. So, coming back to my somewhat flippant example of the Brit Abroad, getting by for a couple of weeks in July will be okay for some, but accepting the reality of what it means to be able to truly navigate the environment you’re in and leaning-in to learning teamwork as a foreign language is the path to optimal success and competency building.


Dismukes, R. K., Berman, B. A., & Loukopoulos, L. (2017). The limits of expertise: Rethinking pilot error and the causes of airline accidents. Ashgate: Hampshire, UK.

Donnellon, A. (1996). Team talk: The power of language in team dynamics. Boston, MA: HBS Press.