The DNA Of Teamwork: What Does Research Tell Us About The Essential Elements Of Successful Teams

Teamwork (aka Group Work) empowers individuals to achieve tasks they couldn't complete as well alone. Learn about the elements of teamwork so you can lead teams, overcome interpersonal conflicts, set goals, evaluate colleagues' work and coordinate group projects.

Photo Credit: "Group work" by sparklefish is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

What is Teamwork?

Teamwork refers to a cluster of competencies that an individual should possess to interact effectively within a group in both academic and professional environments.

According to the National Research Council (2012), an esteemed institution that constitutes part of the U.S. National Academies, teamwork falls within the interpersonal domain, which includes two clusters of competencies: (1) teamwork and collaboration (2) and leadership. Under teamwork, the National Research Council (2012) asserts there are communication, collaboration, cooperation, coordination, interpersonal skills, empathy/perspective taking, trust, service orientation, conflict resolution, negotiation,

Source National Research Council 2012

More recently, in a comprehensive review of literature produced by scientists working for ETS (Educational Testing Services), the core competencies of teamwork are defined as “(a) team cohesion, (b) team empowerment, (c) team learning, (d) self-management and self-leadership, and (e) attitudes of open-mindedness, adaptability” (Oliveri et al. 2017).

For writers, speakers, knowledge workers, teamwork often involves a range of collaborative practices, including co authorship, peer review, and critique.

Related Concepts: Collaboration

The Essential Elements of Teamwork


Communication involves the exchange of ideas, perspectives, and feedback among team members, providing the foundation upon which all teamwork activities are built.

Collaboration and Cooperation

Collaboration and cooperation involve the shared contribution of knowledge, skills, and resources towards a common goal, fostering the ability to work effectively with diverse teams.


Coordination involves aligning and synchronizing team efforts to ensure efficient task execution.

Interpersonal Skills

Interpersonal skills foster effective interactions within a group and include empathy or perspective-taking, which allows individuals to understand and respect others’ viewpoints, and trust, which forms the foundation of any collaborative relationship.

Service Orientation

Service orientation underscores the commitment to assist and support other team members, fostering a cooperative and inclusive team culture.

Conflict Resolution and Negotiation

Conflict resolution and negotiation skills are essential when disagreements arise, enabling team members to address issues constructively and reach a consensus.


Leadership within teamwork involves guiding the team towards its objectives, motivating members, and creating a conducive environment for collaboration.


Responsibility refers to the commitment to fulfill one’s roles and tasks within the team context.

Assertive Communication

An extension of general communication, assertive communication ensures messages are conveyed with clarity and directness, facilitating clear understanding among team members.


Self-presentation involves an individual’s intentional effort to shape others’ perceptions of them within the team context.

Social Influence with Others

Social influence pertains to an individual’s ability to affect the behavior or attitudes of other team members towards achieving shared goals.

Goal Setting, Performance Management, Planning, and Task Coordination

Goal setting involves the establishment of specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals for the team. Performance management refers to the continuous process of setting objectives, assessing progress, and providing ongoing coaching and feedback. Planning requires developing a roadmap for achieving the team’s goals. Task coordination is about ensuring that tasks are performed in a synchronized manner for efficient team functioning (Oliveri et al., 2017).

How to Improve Teamwork

  1. Effective Communication: Encourage open dialogue and transparency; use regular meetings and collaborative platforms.
  2. Active Collaboration and Cooperation: Promote active contribution of skills and knowledge, respecting the diversity of skills and perspectives.
  3. Team Cohesion: Enhance understanding of roles and appreciation of each other’s interests and strengths to solidify team unity.
  4. Efficient Coordination and Self-Management: Organize tasks clearly and ensure everyone understands their responsibilities and how their work contributes to the overall team goal.
  5. Team Empowerment: Empower team members by challenging opinions and motivating them to take on additional challenges and leverage their strengths.
  6. Empathy and Trust Building: Foster an atmosphere where perspectives are understood and respected; encourage reliability and honesty.
  7. Conflict Resolution and Negotiation: Equip team members with skills to handle disagreements constructively.
  8. Leadership Skills and Team Learning: Encourage shared leadership and continuous learning within the team.
  9. Shared Responsibility: Encourage each member to take responsibility for their assigned tasks.
  10. Goal Setting, Performance Management and Self-Leadership: Establish clear, SMART goals for the team and regularly assess progress; encourage self-leadership behaviors.
  11. Planning and Task Coordination: Develop a clear plan with specific roles and tasks for each member; ensure effective coordination.
  12. Assertive Communication and Self-Presentation: Encourage assertive communication and self-presentation; everyone’s voice should be heard.
  13. Social Influence: Foster abilities to positively influence others, through negotiation, persuasion, and role modeling of beneficial teamwork behaviors.
  14. Open-mindedness, Adaptability, and Flexibility: Encourage the incorporation of diverse ideas, responsiveness to changes, and acceptance of necessary compromises.


Why is Teamwork Important?

Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships

Michael Jordan

Teams enable people with different aims and competencies to collaborate with one another to achieve tasks that individuals alone might find impossible to do. Teams of people with different skill sets collaborate with one another to achieve shared goals.

Teams can be powerful. Small teams have changed the world. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, for instance, created Apple (now Alphabet) working out of Steve Jobs’ garage.

After critical thinking and problem solving, teamwork has been ranked #2 or #3 s the most sought after competency by employers in the U.S. over the past five years (NACE 2022). According to NACE’s Job Outlook 2022, teamwork competencies are the third most important attribute employers look for in candidates (after critical thinking and communication competencies).

What factors affect teamwork?

Our past experiences influence how we experience teamwork and co-authorship. Our past efforts at co-authorship, conflict resolution, and critique & feedback invariably affect our success and failures when we join new team settings. We bring with us baggage from previous collaborations. We hold attitudes and histories that influence how we experience teamwork. Having a Growth Mindset and being intellectually open are key to listening to others. Metacognitive skills enable us to identify our blindspots and better identify team members who can excel in competencies we are a bit weaker in.

Growth Mindset
Intellectual Openness

In the context of Writing Studies, interpersonal competencies such as a writer’s past experience with co-authorship, conflict resolution, and critique & feedback can play an in important role in how well teams function.

Conflict Resolution
Critique & Feedback

Peer Review
Collaboration Tools

What are the four most Important factors needed for effective teamwork?

Teams can develop Synergy. This happens when the efforts of two people can equal the outcomes you’d expect from 3 or more people (i.e., 1 + 1 = 3) . In other words, a team is said to have synergy when the outcome of the group far exceeds what the individual group members could have achieved on their own.

There is no single recipe for synergy. The eventual productivity of groups is really difficult to predict. The homogeneity of a group, the level of expertise in the group, the gender of the group–these sorts of variables are never exactly correlated with success. The interpersonal dynamics of people on a team can create unexpected results. Even one really destructive person can overwhelm a team’s potential.

However, teamwork is not exactly the equivalent to a moonwalk. Based on anecdote and research, the following competencies and dispositions have been associated with productive teams:

  1. Meritocracy
    1. The group leader works to ensure members feel safe expressing ideas, works to create channels of communication that facilitate the free flow of ideas
    2. Team members are sincerely open to idea they may know the best solution
    3. Decisions are based on evidence and logic rather than politics and ideology.
  2. Self Management
    1. Did members self manage? Complete tasks as agreed in a timely manner?
  3. Social Engagement
    1. Do team members engage in active listening? Do their responses to group conversations and activities reflect they are listening to team members? Do team members cite one another?
    2. Do team members contribute to others’ ideas, synthesizing others’ ideas, taking turns in conversation Team Cohesion
    3. How alike or dissimilar are team members? Do their skills complement one another? Do the people in the group share the same mental mindset about the team’s goals? Does the group culture foster diverse opinions, research methods, and information literacy strategies? Do group members respect one another?
  4. Team Engagement & Empowerment
    1. How committed are team members to the team? Do team members attend group meetings?
    2. Do team members mentor, inspire and challenge one another? Do the conversations and actions of the group reflect the values of radical transparency (see Critique).
    3. Has the knowledge and ability of team members evolved as a result of the team’s efforts?
    4. Is the whole, the totality of the group’s efforts, greater than the parts, the individual contributions of group members?
    5. How well do the outcomes of the group measure up to its goals?

For a class or work assignment, what should I do if one or more team members aren’t pulling their weight?

1. Open Communication: Start with a non-confrontational conversation with the team member(s) in question as soon as you notice the issue. It’s possible they’re facing a misunderstanding or personal problems affecting their performance.

2. Revisit Roles and Responsibilities: Make sure everyone is clear about what their tasks are. Often, people aren’t contributing simply because they don’t understand their responsibilities.

3. Alert Your Instructor or Supervisor Early: If the issue continues after you’ve attempted to resolve it internally, don’t wait until the assignment is due to inform your instructor or supervisor. They can offer guidance and, if necessary, intervene to address the problem.

4. Practice Empathy: Keep in mind that everyone is dealing with different circumstances. If a team member is facing personal issues, showing understanding and offering assistance can help.

5. Recognize That Sometimes, You’ll Need to Pick Up the Slack: In both academic and professional settings, there might be times when you have to do more than your fair share. Although this can be challenging, it’s part of working in a team. If you consistently deliver high-quality work and contribute significantly to your team’s success, your efforts will likely be recognized, benefiting your academic or professional progression.

6. Reflect and Learn: Regardless of the outcome, use this as a learning experience. Dealing with team dynamics can be challenging but can teach valuable lessons about communication, conflict resolution, and adaptability.

By dealing with these issues proactively and learning from them, you can improve your teamwork skills, which are vital in both academic and professional settings.

Works Cited

NACE 2022. Job Outlook 2022. National Association of Colleges and Employers. Accessed 9/3/2022.

NACE 2021. Job Outlook 2021. U.S. Government Printing Office.

National Research Council. (2012). Education for life and work: Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st Century. In J.W. Pellegrino and M.L. Hilton (Eds.), Committee on defining deeper Learning and 21st Century Skills, Center for Education, Board on Testing and Assessment. Division of Behavioral Sciences.

Olivieri, M., Lawless, R., & Molloy, H. (2017). A literature review on collaborative problem solving for workforce readiness. GRE Board Research Report Series and ETS Research Report Series, 1-27. Doi:10.1002/ets12133