Research shows happiness in teams improves productivity and reduces employee turnover.

Happy team members want to stay together, and longstanding teams tend to be more productive. And as all business leaders know, turnover is expensive.

New York-based writer Adrienne Sanders cites a 2012 study by the Center for American Progress:

“For most pay levels and industries, businesses spend about one-fifth of an employee’s annual salary to replace that worker.”

Happiness in Teams - Team Photo

Photo via Matt Madden, Flickr

Her article, “Daniel McFarland: What Is the Secret to a Happy Collaboration?” on the Stanford Graduate Business School’s webpage, examines the advantages of keeping work teams happy.

She reviews research by Stanford University’s Daniel McFarland, associate professor in the Graduate School of Education. The research indicates that people collaborate with the same team members from their professional networks again and again because of positive experiences they’ve had together.

McFarland conducted his research with co-author and former postdoctoral fellow Linus Dahlander, now an associate professor at Germany’s European School of Management.

They studied Stanford University professors, tracking new, untenured faculty members for 15 years and recording who chose to co-publish research projects, co-write grant proposals and co-advise doctoral students repeatedly.

What Makes for Lasting Partnerships?

Professional partnerships, Sanders writes:

“Often begin because two (or more) individuals who work in the same place see one another often, and have a lot in common. Beyond that, some people choose to associate with others in hopes of boosting their status or paycheck.”

But ongoing, these partnerships often continue simply because of “tie inertia”: 

“A tendency to stay with what is known out of a sense of familiarity and commitment.”

This is especially true if the people:

  • Have invested time and resources in the partnership.
  • Work together on more than one type of project.
  • Have complementary, but not identical experience.

Colleagues remain in these relationships regardless of who else may be available, Sanders writes. 

“Rather than risking the time and other commitments it takes to seek out new groups, co-workers tend to stay in useful teams they’ve already formed.”

Having a lot in common helps people form partnerships, but after a while if they’re too similar, it can limit creativity and cause “turf issues.” And if the partners have the same skills, knowledge, and contacts, they may not need each other’s help.

She quotes McFarland:

“The surviving ties are those with a degree of similarity so we can communicate but a degree of difference so we can plumb the relationship for additional value and skills one of us may not yet possess,” McFarland says.

Help Team Members Gain New Experiences and Skills

One way, Sanders suggests, is to have group members switch roles, rotating leadership, for example. This can keep partnerships fresh, “like a healthy marriage,” McFarland says.

Google goes further, notes Sanders. Management encourages employees to take on “bungee” assignments for several months to a year in other company areas. 

“Employees can acquire new skills and find out whether they like a new job (or are good at it) before committing to it. Most staffers return to their original jobs with new knowledge and experiences to share with their workmates, ideally fostering new energy into their collaborations, creativity within their original groups and job satisfaction for themselves.”

Hold Team-Building Activities

McFarland’s study recommends hosting team-building activities rather than just social occasions.

“Cocktail parties encourage people to meet one another and expand their networks, but it takes retreats and team-building exercises to encourage trust, communication, and interdependence among group members. It also requires a willingness to rotate your expertise and roles in relationships, so that you can learn new sides to one another and engage in fresh experiences.”

While team members’ personalities and styles likely also affect teams’ longevity—McFarland’s research didn’t address these factors—there’s still plenty you can control and help by keeping things fresh.

When you look at your teams, what makes the high performing teams successful at your company?

For more on fostering a culture of happiness in your workplace, download our FREE Guide to Workplace Gratitude.
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