Team composition: do you care about age, gender, culture?

A team needs the right members to function well. “The team composition in working life is comparable to a team in sport, which is only successful if all positions are filled with the right people,” says Dr. Florian Becker, Professor of Business Psychology at the Technical University of Rosenheim and author of the book “Teamwork, Team Psychology and Team Development”.

For example, if someone stands in the handball goal who only catches balls insecurely, no matter how good the others in the team, the team will most likely lose its games. Analogous to sport, the same applies to business: correctly assembled teams deliver better and faster results than haphazardly thrown together groups.

However, many people mistakenly believe that teamwork simply means working together on a task. “This assumption is wrong, because it would also include jobs on the assembly line,” says Becker. Teamwork means that people in a team organize, manage and lead themselves. This is an essential difference to the externally clocked assembly line.

Teamwork is now the most common form of organization in the workplace. Teams should be as big as necessary and as small as possible. “More members tend to lead to a loss of coordination and the risk of conflicts increases,” says Becker. “People tend to distract each other from their work and there are free riders who hide in the team and hardly make any contributions to the project.” Because these risks increase exponentially with the number of members on the team, large groups should be broken down into several small ones if possible.

Certain roles in teams can be observed again and again. Some tend to take care of social aspects and resolve interpersonal tensions. Others represent the group externally to customers. Still others have operational roles that are based on the task at hand. “The respective roles crystallize in the group by themselves,” says Becker. In agile software development based on Scrum, for example, fixed roles are defined. The product owner is the decision maker, the scrum master coordinates and the development team implements the concept in consultation with one another.

When putting together a team, it is also important to ensure that the team has the necessary professional skills. The team should lead itself, but that is very demanding for its members. “This creates a high pressure to qualify employees,” says Becker. When it comes to teamwork, companies expect their employees to have a lot more skills, especially with regard to social skills and independence.

In Becker’s opinion, when it comes to team composition, most companies pay too little attention to professional skills, but too little to personality, emotions and values. “Personality is important because it can hardly be changed and it shapes behavior,” says Becker. This includes dealing with other team members or customers.

People also have basic emotions that they radiate to their surroundings. “Some are full of energy and positive. They give others strength, energy and a good mood,” says Becker. There are also people with unhealthy psyche who can pull the whole group down. Emotions are contagious – in every direction.

In terms of team composition, many companies are currently following the trend that a certain proportion of women should be part of the team, this age-diverse should consist of young and older, as well as members of different cultural origins. “Diversity on this superficial level has certain effects, but these are not always positive for team success,” says Becker.

In his view, some organizations focus one-sidedly on these easily visible criteria and neglect more essential and deeper aspects such as personality or competencies. “Ultimately, however, these inner properties count,” says Becker. He argues that teams should not be put together according to superficial criteria, but rather that individual psychological characteristics should be considered.

Regarding the sexes, Dr. Clemens Striebing disagrees. He is a researcher in the Competence Team Corporate Culture and Transformation at the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering and Organization IAO. “Scientific studies show that the gender ratio in teams is related to their innovation and performance,” says Striebing.

In service, innovation is linear, which means: the more diverse the team is in terms of gender, the more innovative it is. In the case of product and process-related innovations, however, the ideal proportion of the underrepresented gender is between 30 and 40 percent. If it increases, productivity decreases. “It is assumed that then the potential for conflict increases and decision-making becomes more complex,” says Striebing.

According to this, gender-balanced teams can be more efficient than others. “The working atmosphere is better, more rational, more professional and the needs of the female target group are better taken into account in the innovation process,” says Striebing. “These are good reasons for gender-equitable teams.”

When leading a team, he thinks that there is not one approach that is always appropriate and justifies this with the team exercise ‘Build a free-standing spaghetti tower’. The building materials are dried spaghetti and marshmallows, the team with the highest tower wins.

Two types of groups do the best job. One has clear hierarchies: one decides and the other implements his requirements. The others are children who just try out what is possible and don’t concern themselves with hierarchies. “Depending on the task and the competencies of the individual team members, completely different methods can be suitable for team management,” says Striebing.

But one or the other only works if everyone in the team participates. Which in turn shows how important the team composition is.


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