Characteristics of effective teams: a literature review.
ABSTRACT Effective healthcare teams often elude consistent definition because of the complexity of teamwork. Systems theory offers a dynamic view of teamwork, in which input conditions are transformed via optimum throughput processes into maximal output. This article describes eighteen characteristics of effective teams across input conditions and teamwork processes, which have been identified from the literature.
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Characteristics of effective teams:
a literature review
SHARON MICKAN AND SYLVIA RODGER
Sharon Mickan is a PhD student and Sylvia Rodger is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Occupational
Therapy at The University of Queensland. Sharon holds a NH&MRC Public Health Postgraduate
Effective healthcare teams often elude consistent definition because of the complexity of teamwork. Systems theory offers
a dynamic view of teamwork, in which input conditions are transformed via optimum throughput processes into
maximal output. This article describes eighteen characteristics of effective teams across input conditions and teamwork
processes, which have been identified from the literature.
Research into team effectiveness has traditionally searched for characteristics of effective teams. Quantitative
evaluations of specific interventions have largely been inconclusive and emphasised the need for further research
(Schwartzmann 1986). The complexity of team functioning precludes reducing teams to their least number of
components. Rather, a systems theory approach recognises the relationships and interdependence between and
within teams. Given the importance of teamwork to delivering healthcare, a better understanding of how teams
function effectively will be invaluable for educating and developing teams. This article will summarise and
evaluate characteristics that create and maintain teams in healthcare environments.
Defining the context
There is broad consensus in the literature about the defining features of teams. Katzenbach and Smith (1993)
stated that “... a team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common
purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable” (p 45). In
addition, regular communication, coordination, distinctive roles, interdependent tasks and shared norms are
important features (Ducanis & Golin 1979; Brannick & Prince 1997).
Most commonly, teams are viewed as a three-stage system where they utilise resources (input), maintain internal
processes (throughput) and produce specific products (output). Assuming this model, the necessary antecedent
conditions (input) together with the processes (throughput) of maintaining teams define the characteristics of
effective teams. Analysis of antecedent conditions and team processes often highlight issues for team development
and training. In contrast, outcomes (output) are generally used to judge or evaluate team effectiveness.
The emphasis for this article is on defining the characteristics of effective teams across three different levels of
organisational, team and individual function (Hackman 1990; West 1994; Brannick & Prince 1997). This
tripartite analysis can be linked with the systems model of teamwork, where organisational structure and
individual contributions refer to antecedent conditions (input) and team processes generally refer to throughput.
Characteristics of effective teams: a literature review
The literature abounds with empirical and anecdotal recommendations for creating effective teams. While there
is broad consensus about the characteristics of effective teams, the literature will be critically evaluated for its
contributions to healthcare environments. First, antecedent conditions will be described in terms of the
structure of the organisational environment. Second, individual contributions to teams will be summarised as
another antecedent condition. At the third level of analysis, team processes will be described in terms of their
ability to maintain the functioning of the team. Table 1 offers an overview, preliminary to the following
Table 1: Characteristics of effective teamwork
Organisational structure Individual contribution Team processes
Many theorists offer recommendations about the structural characteristics of teamwork, by referring to
relatively stable procedures of coordination and control. Seven of the most commonly described structural
characteristics include a clear purpose, appropriate culture, specified task, distinct roles, suitable leadership,
relevant members, and adequate resources. They will be described in turn below.
Organisations are pervaded either explicitly through mission statements or by particular assumptions or
behaviour. West (1994) emphasised the need for organisations to have a clear vision, which encompassed their
underlying values. Mission statements communicated and synchronised these shared values across the
organisation, thus engaging and motivating individuals (Beatty 1987; Headrick, Wilcock & Batalden 1998).
Clear and measurable team goals could be derived from the mission statement. As team members participated
in setting and prioritising goals, they better understood the task requirements and were more motivated to
achieve them (Kirkman & Rosen 1999).
Goal agreement in healthcare is often achieved through a common commitment to patients’ needs (Bassoff
1983; Headrick et al. 1998). Having a superordinate goal beyond professional goals motivates team members
to emphasise their similarities without diluting unique professional contributions (Ivey, Brown, Teske &
Silverman 1988; Loxley 1997). It follows that healthcare teams need to identify appropriate patient goals and
link these with both team and professional goals, while upholding the organisation’s mission (Maple 1987).
Teams should be recognised and integrated within their organisations (Pearce & Ravlin 1987). Organisations
need to clearly define their expectations and mechanisms of accountability for all teams (Sundstrom, De Meuse
& Futrell 1990). Organisational culture needs to transform shared values into behavioural norms (Brill 1976;
Blechert, Christiansen & Kari 1987). For example, team success is fostered by a culture that incorporates shared
experiences of success. In times of economic rationalism, there may be cultural conflict and inconsistency
between norms of maintaining clinical standards and adhering to the healthcare organisation’s mission (Firth-
Cozens 1998). Team members with higher status also have less regard for team norms and may exacerbate
internal conflict (Kane 1975).
Australian Health Review[Vol 23 • No 3] 2000
Teams require tasks that make a tangible contribution to the organisation and are consistent with the team’s
purpose, abilities and attitudes. Tasks need to be sufficiently motivating for team members to share
responsibility and accountability for achievement (Sundstrom et al. 1990). Healthcare teams need to clearly
define the specific aspect of complex and inter-related patient care which they address (Firth-Cozens 1998).
Within a team, individual roles need to be clarified and understood by all. However, role construction can be
influenced by personal expectations, and by organisational and interpersonal factors (Maple 1987). Therefore,
roles need to be flexible enough to accommodate individual differences, personal development needs and
membership changes (Blechert et al. 1987).
Ideally, individuals should be able to negotiate their roles to perform unique and meaningful tasks and team
roles should be interchangeable (Brannick & Prince 1997). However, many healthcare team members are
unable to choose with whom they work and professional specialisation limits the transferability of roles
(Headrick et al. 1998). There is often inconsistency between a professional’s role and the way others perceive
it, due to differences in status, skills and social abilities (Kane 1975; Cott 1997). Although role conflict can be
accentuated by different priorities between clinical and professional issues, it can be alleviated when healthcare
professionals work across disciplinary boundaries in the best interests of the patient.
The more complex and dynamic the team’s task, the more a leader is needed. Leadership should reflect the
team’s stage of development. Leaders need to maintain a strategic focus to support the organisation’s vision,
facilitate goal setting, educate, and evaluate achievements (Barczak 1996; Proctor-Childs, Freeman & Miller
1998). When leaders delegate responsibility appropriately, team members become more confident and
autonomous in their work (Capko 1996).
Traditionally, doctors have been accorded and have assumed leadership of healthcare teams, regardless of their
competence (Horwitz 1970). However, new roles for healthcare leaders are emerging that incorporate team
development, in order to maintain clinical productivity and patient satisfaction (Carr 1995). Kane (1975)
suggested that leadership be allocated to the team member with the most expertise, rather than being linked to
Teams require the right number of members with the appropriate mix and diversity of task and interpersonal
skills. A balance between homogeneity and heterogeneity of members’ skills, interests and backgrounds is
preferred (Hackman 1990). Homogenous teams are composed of similar individuals who complete tasks
efficiently with minimal conflict. In contrast, heterogenous teams incorporate membership diversity and
therefore facilitate innovation and problem solving (Pearce & Ravlin 1987). Healthcare teams are often large,
due to norms of professional representation, regardless of contribution to patient care. Further, it is often
unclear as to whether patients and their families are team members (Maple 1987).
West (1994) emphasised that organisations need to provide teams with adequate financial resources,
administrative and technical support and professional education. A safe physical environment where team
members work in close proximity to each other can promote communication and cohesion (Sundstrom et al.
1990). The real costs of setting up and maintaining teamwork need to be formally recognised and sufficiently
resourced (Loxley 1997).
In healthcare environments, there may be conflict between clinical responsibilities and training needs, and over
issues of patient risk and privacy (Hackman 1990). Clinical care often takes precedence over professional
education during economic scarcity. Healthcare professionals seldom prioritise training that is not directly
related to their clinical setting, despite wanting to become skilled in teamwork (Loxley 1997).
Characteristics of effective teams: a literature review
The literature highlights different levels of individuals’ experience and skills within teams. Although individual
contributions are not normally considered antecedent conditions, they can be perceived as pre-requisite
characteristics of effective teamwork. Establishing and managing relationships between individuals who have a
variety of personalities and a range of professional and non-professional experiences is a critical component of
teamwork (Brill 1976). At a minimum, individual participation in teams requires self-knowledge, trust,
commitment and flexibility.
Each individual brings to the team a unique personality and position, which reciprocally affects team function
(Maple 1987). Individuals need to be independent and self-aware before they can be satisfied, productive and
respectful of others (Blechert et al. 1987). In healthcare environments, Horwitz (1970) described four images
that each individual contributes to a team. These are a personal and professional self-image, professional
expectations, an understanding of colleagues’ skills and responsibilities, and a perception of colleagues’ images
of the individual. Of these four images, Maple (1987) suggested that the professional’s self-image was the most
influential in team members understanding and interacting with each other.
The ability to trust originates from self-knowledge and competence. Trust must be slowly built up across team
members who have different competencies, assumptions and priorities, through developing confidence in each
other’s competence and reliability. Trusting individuals are willing to share their knowledge and skills without
fear of being diminished or exploited. They often have an increased capacity for individual learning (Bassoff
1983). Incorporated with trust is respect for another’s skills and expertise (Ivey et al. 1988; Loxley 1997). To
develop respect, healthcare professionals need to discuss openly any similarities and differences in their
professional values and standards. Trust develops as team members recognise and appreciate the unique skills
and contributions of each other to coordinated patient care (Snyder 1981).
Self-knowledge and an ability to trust others are the building blocks of commitment. Commitment to a unified
set of team goals and values provides direction and motivation for individual members. Further, commitment
is increased by and increases feelings of responsibility for and participation in the team’s work (Pearce & Ravlin
1987). Goleman (1998) emphasised that committed individuals were willing to make short term personal
sacrifices, believing that they could generate a greater good. In addition, high levels of commitment enabled
individuals to thrive amongst challenges and pressures that may otherwise be perceived as stressful.
Healthcare teams generate commitment through a shared goal of comprehensive patient care and a common belief
that the team is the best way to deliver this coordinated care (Proctor-Childs et al. 1998). Committed individuals
are more willing to invest personally in the team, contribute to the decision making and respect the balance of
interdependence and collaboration (Bassoff 1983).
Flexibility is the ability to maintain an open attitude, accommodate different personal values and be receptive
to the ideas of others. Flexibility requires honesty, self-knowledge, reflection and regulation. Without
understanding the diversity of personal and professional values, individuals risk judging others according to
their own value systems. In healthcare teams, individuals need to accept role overlap and be supportive in
assisting colleagues to meet patients’ needs (Bassoff 1983). Further, professional values, identity and frames of
reference often require renegotiation in response to policy and resource changes (Loxley 1997).
Team processes describe subtle aspects of interaction and patterns of organising that transform input into output.
For this article, team processes will be described in terms of seven characteristics; coordination, communication,
cohesion, decision making, conflict management, social relationships and performance feedback.
Australian Health Review[Vol 23 • No 3] 2000
Coordination is described as the orderly interpersonal actions required to perform complex tasks (Pearce &
Ravlin 1987). Teams need to harness the variety and minimise the differences of members, to ensure that expert
skills and knowledge are well utilised. Throughout a team’s development and evolution, its coordination needs
will vary. However, a shared understanding of the team’s purpose and culture facilitates coordination as team
members accept the costs and recognise the benefits of teamwork (Loxley 1997).
Communication involves an observable interchange of information and subtle interactions of power, attitudes
and values (Loxley 1997). Effective teams require reliable communication processes, with clearly defined
responsibilities and appropriate delegation (Husting 1996). Individuals need to listen frequently to each other
and collaborate in order to develop mutual knowledge, which enhances communication. Joint decision making
and formal and informal interchanges can also enhance communication (Headrick et al. 1998). As a major
form of communication, meetings need to have clear agendas, and be managed so that all members contribute
(Loxley 1997). In addition, clear two-way communication channels across team boundaries and with the
organisation ensures the relevance of the team’s functioning (Firth-Cozens 1998).
Team cohesion acknowledges members’ personal attraction to the team and the task. Members cooperate
interdependently around the team’s task in order to meet team goals (Pearce & Ravlin 1987). Socially, members
feel as if they belong and want to remain with the team for future tasks. Cohesion can be fostered through small
team sizes, similar attitudes and physical proximity. It also increases with accurate performance feedback,
success in adversity, good communication and conformity to norms (Husting 1996).
Education about teamwork is strongly recommended for healthcare professionals to promote the interpersonal
team processes of coordination, communication, and cohesion. Education needs to be offered consistently to
all team members, to minimise the different attitudes to teamwork traditionally perpetuated through different
professional models of practice (Snyder 1981; Beatty 1987; Ivey et al. 1988).
A broad range of members’ knowledge and skills usually contributes expanded information and generates more
legitimate decisions. However, individual autonomy may decrease as decisions are shared and responsibility
diffused to all team members (Kirkman & Rosen 1999). In addition, there are varying needs for different types of
decision making processes depending on the nature of the team’s purpose and its developmental stage. Democratic
voting schemes reduced the decision making time and limited interpersonal conflict, at a cost of decreased
participation and acceptance of the decisions made (Green & Taber 1980). In contrast, when team members were
fully informed and participated in decisions, they were more committed and productive (Blechert et al. 1987).
Team decision making can be problematic in healthcare environments when doctors’ opinions are rewarded
very differently from those of other team members (Firth-Cozens 1998). Current medico-legal requirements
also reinforce unequal responsibility for clinical decisions.
Team conflict can source both creativity and destruction. For teams to value creative contributions and promote
effective problem solving, diversity needs careful management (Payne 1982). Destructive team conflict often has
an interpersonal basis in work role or organisational factors. Conflict emerges in healthcare teams when the value
and intention of other team members is perceived solely in terms of the professional’s own frame of reference
(Loxley 1997). Therefore, teams need mediation strategies to manage conflict and avoid its destructive interference
(West 1994; Firth-Cozens 1998). In healthcare teams, professional assumptions and differences need to be openly
acknowledged and negotiated around a patient focus to limit interpersonal conflict (Maple 1987).
Characteristics of effective teams: a literature review
Good social relationships maintain effective teams. Personally, team members who are empathic and supportive
of their colleagues offer practical assistance, share information and collaboratively solve problems. Social
networks within and beyond teams also enhance individuals’ access to strategic information, facilitate a better
understanding of team tasks and an increased belief in the team’s effectiveness (Kirkman & Rosen 1999). A
major risk in healthcare teams arises from caring for patients who have significant physical and emotional needs.
This work is emotionally complex and taxing for all team members and needs careful management to prevent
individual burnout and patient objectification (Hackman 1990).
Individuals, the team and the organisation all require accurate and timely feedback about the team’s performance
in order to maintain their effectiveness. Hackman (1990) recommended balancing the more traditional individual
reward systems with team-based incentives that are contingent upon the whole team’s performance, and emphasise
co-operation rather than competition. Traditional individual feedback and reward systems in healthcare are very
unequal, because of inherent status differences between professionals. Team based feedback, such as clinical audits,
are an alternative method of determining team achievements (Firth-Cozens 1998).
Hierarchy of characteristic conditions
Having described eighteen characteristics of effective teams across the organisational structure, individual
contributions and team processes, it is obvious that there are too many factors for most team training initiatives.
Suggestions have been made about a hierarchy of factors, to identify the most potent point of intervention.
There is preliminary support for the primacy of the organisational structure. Dysfunctional teams respond
better to organisational structure improvements, rather than process interventions (Hackman 1990). Similarly,
Gladstein (1984) confirmed that organisational structure variables influenced team effectiveness via group
processes. Appropriate team structures and processes can maximise individuals’ contributions and limit the
potential for interprofessional conflict (Loxley 1997).
In reality, teams are dynamic and there is often a degree of circularity between team structures and processes.
Generally, appropriate team structures facilitate the development of team processes. Yet as teams evolve, team
processes often shape the structures within which they function best. Therefore, there is a need to consider both
team structures and processes equally when building effective teams.
From the literature reviewed, teamwork is a complex phenomenon. Supportive organisational structures and
optimal individual contributions set the scene for effective teamwork. Healthcare teams need a clear purpose that
incorporates specific diagnostic groups and aspects of patient care. When teams have a clear purpose that is
consistent with the organisation’s mission, they can be more clearly integrated, supported and resourced. Further,
strategic planning processes can clarify the alignment of multiple teams within healthcare organisations.
Leadership styles and patterns need to be explicit and appropriate to the team’s developmental stage. Ideally, the
team leader should be appropriately skilled and all team members need clearly delineated and necessary roles.
Teams are more efficient with the minimum number of members to meet their purpose and membership
should be regularly clarified in response to patient needs.
Team members must simultaneously recognise and value their contribution to the team. With sufficient self-
knowledge, individuals can trust and respect the contributions of their colleagues. Regular formal and informal
contact assists members to recognise their own and others’ contributions to patient care. When individuals feel
confident of the need for all team members, they understand the benefits of working as a team. Over time,
commitment reinforces effective teamwork.
Australian Health Review[Vol 23 • No 3] 2000
Once teams have developed clear structures, they need to maintain explicit processes through agreed and formal
systems of communication and co-ordination. Consistent education and support for team building and
development should be accessible for all healthcare workers. When all team members are cohesive, make
decisions jointly and manage conflict, the team is more effective. Both individuals and the team need regular
feedback and recognition of their progress towards the team’s goals.
Finally, there is a need to build and maintain effective teams to maximise the specialist skills of healthcare
professionals in meeting complex patient needs. Team development and performance can be promoted through
education if there is knowledge of the most important characteristics of teamwork in healthcare settings. Patient
care will ultimately be enhanced through the co-ordinated efforts of effective healthcare teams.
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