Challenges Surrounding Teamwork Posed by J. Richard Hackman

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The modern educational curriculum builds around the framework of teams. In order for sustained success, students learn that they need others with them as they pursue their goals. In the business world, associates often come together to construct presentations and marketing sessions where team brainstorming and the inclusiveness of ideas take top priority. Working alone in a cubicle requires separation from other people, and, in the wake of a culture seemingly dominated by extroverts who gain energy from human interaction, team-building exercises make sense. Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology J. Richard Hackman contends that amassing large amounts of talented people on the same team can lead to lukewarm results. While collaboration between colleagues may add fresh perspectives and new insights to given projects, teamwork ultimately becomes counterproductive if left without thorough preparation and a clear leader.

If someone decides to implement cross-functional teamwork as a central cog in a project, Hackman suggests a number of solutions. In an interview with Diane Coutu, he describes methods for effective teamwork. Hackman argues that a team leader must set a definitive direction, an action often “emotionally demanding because it always involves the exercise of authority and that inevitably arouses angst and ambivalence—for both the person exercising it and the people on the receiving end” (Coutu, 2009). Making a bold statement and taking a step towards it simultaneously guides the group dynamic and eliminates immediate openness to alternative solutions. Hackman calls for leaders willing to take risks that cause anxiety for the sake of momentarily unrealized objectives. Some leaders fail in this endeavor; the ones who do not earn respect for their foresight and ability to plan ahead. As highlighted in the thesis, however, clear leadership fulfills only half of the equation.

If people dare to work as a team, they must understand the inherent advantages and disadvantages of coming together. In his book Collaborative Intelligence, Hackman calls attention to the talent and passion of intelligence agency officials in Washington and their substantially personal commitment to public service in a world where they could earn significantly more in the private sector. Teams in these bureaucratic intelligence roles passionately care about the work they are involved in (Hackman, 2011a). Nevertheless, with bureaucracy comes to size and with it comes a monstrosity of external input that dilutes even the most inspired groupthink imperatives. The obstacles standing between a team’s ability to complete a complex project continue from there.

In examining the life of Professor Hackman, it remains clear that he gained his inspiration from highlighting pitfalls and roadblocks to the establishment of successful teams. He stood against the prevailing notion of making things bigger, better, faster, and stronger, all the while headed by an inexhaustible leader who tirelessly micro-managed his team’s progress. Hackman poked holes in this “good ’ole boy” mirage by calling for leaders who would “get a team established on a good trajectory, and . . . make small adjustments along the way to help members succeed” (Hackman, 2002). Hackman wanted leaders who knew how to get out of the way of their own success so that others could properly do their job.

Hackman also argued against simplistic harmony between co-workers, claiming that in his study of various symphonies, orchestras with generally grumpy dispositions tended to play together better than “happy” ones. Hackman attributed this anomaly to catalysts of controlled conflicts that fell clearly within the line of group objectives. The spirited professional competition generated positive results. A second misconstrued truth Hackman called into question was the belief in fresh energy for innovative results. Instead, Hackman viewed such additions as counter-productive to that of a team that has remained together for a long time (Hackman, 2011b). Anyone who has committed their energies music ensemble knows the great truth lying in this attitude. Musical phrasing opens up into lush and compelling expressions because of the rapport built between individuals. Such colorful displays of interaction and chemistry win competitions and rave concert reviews. Hackman’s recognition of these traits undoubtedly gained his influence among his colleagues.

Achieving peak performance sometimes seems more an elusive mirage than an achievable result. Some scholars propose a series of four frames in order for efficient teamwork: the structural frame based on clear planning, the human resource frame joining the organization and individual together, the political frame to network and compromise, and the symbolic frame for a chaotic world that still must have some meaning (Bolman & Deal, 1992). Hackman’s “classic” book, Groups that Work and Those that Don’t, was cited in their selected bibliography.

Fundamentally, Hackman presented research showing that measured team performance is usually less than the sum total of the individual’s sum contribution standing alone. To break that equation, individuals need enabling conditions, positive outcomes over time, and clear design factors (Gibson & Cohen, 2003), all characteristics that Hackman would stand by. Together, these factors contribute to sustainable group success.

In spite of extroverted environments focusing on teamwork and camaraderie, clever administrators will take care to build teams with strong leadership directives and enabling personalities. They will choose team members with strong histories of successful collaboration. Even in the face of conflict, they will maintain it within the boundaries of work to achieve a successful end result. Otherwise, the sum value will only degrade the true worth of the components within.


Bolman, L., & Deal, T. (1992). What makes a teamwork? Organizational Dynamics, 21(2), 34-44.

Coutu, D., & Hackman, J. R. (2009). Why teams don't work. Harvard Business Review, 1. Retrieved December 5, 2013, from

Gibson, C. B., & Cohen, S. G. (2003). Virtual teams that work creating conditions for virtual team effectiveness. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hackman, J. R. (2011a, June 7). Six common misperceptions about teamwork. Harvard Business Review, 1. Retrieved December 5, 2013, from

Hackman, J. R. (2002). Leading teams: setting the stage for great performances. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press.

Hackman, J. R. (2011b). Collaborative intelligence using teams to solve hard problems. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.