3D Team Leadership
A New Approach for Complex Teams
Bradley L. Kirkman and T. Brad Harris



The Dramatically Changing Landscape of Leading Teams

It's 6:26 A.M. on a mid-August morning in San Jose, California. Outside, the near perfect 60-degree temperature is accented by a gentle breeze from the south. The sun is making its daily debut, and, heeding its lead, commuters all across the western United States reluctantly surrender to their snooze buttons and fire up their coffee brewers in preparation for another workday.

But, unfortunately, not Anna. Anna has been holed up in her modest second-level office at a prominent technology firm since the very early morning hours and is looking desperately at her empty coffee cup for answers that might help her meet her increasingly complex and ever-expanding obligations. Today is an example. After a brief sleep and a paltry granola bar, Anna arrived at her office around 4:00 a.m. to lead a team meeting with new product engineers in Bengaluru (formerly known as Bangalore), India; Sydney, Australia; Dublin, Ireland; and Raleigh, North Carolina. Although Anna technically has the authority to conduct these meetings during local business hours (Pacific Standard Time in California), she rotates the meeting times so that each office is given at least one convenient local time slot per business quarter. This strategy doesn’t solve all cultural and geographic issues, of course, but at least it seems to boost overall engagement and fairness perceptions among her team members. Unfortunately, it also ensures that at least two members are worn down and temporally inconvenienced during the conversations—and today was Anna’s turn to sacrifice.

After her new product development team meeting, Anna spends 45 minutes responding to e-mails relating to her “actual” job (an increasingly ambiguous term encompassing things like employee evaluations, sending monthly P&L numbers, and corresponding with high-level customers), then begins preparing for an 8:30 a.m. meeting with one of the company’s ongoing communities of practice (the purpose of Anna’s community was to generate best practices in code writing that can be disseminated throughout her company worldwide). Anna serves as an ad hoc leader of the community and is tasked with coordinating and managing ten core members (those who are relatively permanent) and somewhere between forty and fifty more peripheral members (those who move in and out of the community depending on interest level). Similar to the new product team, these members are located in many different countries and are not easily rounded up for even simple conversations. Furthermore, because it is such a large team, just making sense of the roster feels like an overwhelming task--and don’t even get her started on trying to manage the actual personalities within it! Anna’s most recent “go-to” play for getting things done in the community was to form and use subteams (smaller sets of teams within the overall community) to address specific initiatives, then focus on helping those subteams coordinate with one another to contribute to overall community goals.

Following her community of practice meeting, Anna grabs another cup of coffee and joins a meeting of the company’s senior management team (a “privilege” afforded all senior vice presidents). Anna is not the leader of this team, but she is expected to actively contribute to discussions and action plans concerning her company’s current operational issues and strategic vision. Not only are these discussions vital for company well-being, they are also important to Anna’s career. They are, in essence, her chance to make a mark and impress key decision makers. As a result, Anna preps exhaustively. The meetings typically last between 60 and 90 minutes, which, on days like today, means that Anna has conducted three intensive team meetings before most restaurants even retire their breakfast menus.

Adding to all of these team responsibilities, Anna is also a member of a multicompany consortium and two to four company-specific project teams at any given time. In contrast to the ongoing teams, these project teams have limited life cycles ranging from a few weeks to several months. The special project teams, in particular, often move through various phases whereby members shift from working mostly individually and independently, then in smaller subteams, and then all together as one intact team. Although Anna is not typically the formally designated leader of these project teams, she and her colleagues often share certain leadership roles throughout each team’s life span. Anna is grateful that she has only one additional team meeting on this particular afternoon, but that doesn’t mean she won’t be responding to other team-related e-mails, phone calls, and short video chats throughout the day (and evening).

Anna’s work life is consumed by teamwork. On many days, she feels overwhelmed, even suffocated, by the prospect of managing (okay, juggling) her roles on each of her teams. They consume her time and energy, they divert her focus from her individual day-to-day responsibilities, and they even spill over into her personal life. Furthermore, she feels that her career is being decided in large part by the complex black box–like inner workings of teams—an unnerving proposition for someone used to controlling her own destiny. However, Anna knows that team-based arrangements can outperform classic individual-based ones; it was drilled relentlessly into her head during her MBA program years ago. She has also personally witnessed instances of incredible collective performance at work. In fact, her solid results on a highly visible team are a big reason that she was promoted to her current VP rank. Of course, and unfortunately, she has also recently observed just as many examples of team dysfunction--wasted time, free-riding, groupthink, nasty infighting--than the supposed synergy (that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts) her company told her teams would produce. Yet these instances have not tempered her company’s desire to form new teams to address every type of challenge and opportunity. In short, teams are everywhere, and if Anna wants to continue her career ascent, she must learn to thrive in all of them.

Does Anna’s story sound familiar? It should, but if not, it will soon enough. Anna’s experience reflects a common tale of the thousands of leaders we interviewed and consulted with during our careers as researchers, executive educators, and practitioners. If you are someone who, like Anna, is currently leading multiple teams, while also being a member of another set of teams, and you sometimes feel stressed, burned out, confused, overwhelmed, or all of these, this book is for you. Our approach—what we call 3-Dimensional Team Leadership (or “3D” Team Leadership, for short)—is designed to help you navigate what often feels like chaos in leading and working in today’s teams.

3D Team Leadership, boiled down, is about focus—knowing where to devote your time and attention at any given point to maximize your and your teams’ effectiveness. It’s about working smarter, not necessarily harder. There are thousands of leadership books and philosophies out there, and many of them have some great, time-tested tips and strategies for effectively leading teams, but making sense of all of them or just choosing the right ones can seem flat-out impossible. In this book, we distill the most powerful leadership tools into a clear, practically useful framework you can begin using in your team leader (and member) roles right away.

Importantly, this book puts forth the two primary leadership levers that you can use to maximize your teams’ effectiveness. First, there are elements of team design to consider, such as how work is structured, what kind of goals are set, and how rewards can be used to stimulate individual and team performance. Second, there are important behaviors associated with team coaching that maximizes member and team motivation and performance. Although there is at least some evidence that team design can be more important than coaching for team effectiveness1 (or, as we like to say, a well-designed team can survive a bad coach, but you cannot coach a team out of its poor design), we will show you in this book that leaders should strive to use both to create the highest-performing teams possible.

The tools contained in this book will help you become a premier team leader and, in doing so, unleash your potential to create more value for your company, generate more professional gains for yourself and others, and reduce your overall stress. We outline three basic dimensions inherent in all teams that require different degrees of focus according to a team’s current circumstances: individual team members, a team as a whole, and the subteams within an overall team. We then provide guidance to help you (1) recognize what situation your team is in, (2) know what behaviors are appropriate for that situation, and, if necessary, (3) shift your focus to different dimensions as teams move through different life cycle stages.2

The 3D Team Leadership model was inspired by our academic, consulting, and teaching experiences working with team leaders and members. In a nutshell, we have seen leaders make the same mistakes over and over: they are unable, or unwilling, to see the nuances of teams and, as a result, treat them as only one “thing” (usually a single, collective entity while overlooking individuals or the subteams in teams). As you might expect, they spend most of their time focusing on setting team goals, holding team retreats, coaching and motivating their teams, providing team feedback and after-action reviews, figuring out ways to help their teams be resilient when they face adversity and celebrating team success when their team achieves its goals. Unfortunately, sometimes these efforts result in frustration and inaction that actually hurt team performance.

To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with focusing on overall team functioning and performance. In fact, focusing on a team as a whole can be especially critical in many instances.3 Our point, however, is that sometimes leaders can get a bit too team focused (a tunnel vision, of sorts), especially in today’s business environments where we are constantly told teams can, and should, do everything. We’ve even heard some team leaders talk about feeling guilty if they take time to focus on their one-on-one team member relationships instead of exclusively focusing on their whole team; it’s almost as if they consider it cheating on their team! But the premise of 3D Team Leadership is that there are times when you should focus on individuals within your teams, other times when you should focus on your team as whole, and still others when it might be wise for you to focus on smaller subsets of team members (we refer to these as subteams throughout the book). The keys are knowing when to shift your focus from one dimension to another and being able to answer two questions: (1) What skills and behaviors does it take for me to lead individuals versus teams versus subteams? and (2) How do I know when it is most important to focus one of the three dimensions more than the others? In today’s complex business environments, the ability to focus has never been more important, and that is what this book will help you learn how to do.

Although many leaders are certainly intellectually capable of understanding the technical components of 3D Team Leadership, without guidance they often find it quite difficult to exhibit the actual behaviors the model requires. Using concrete, practical examples, we’ll teach you how to diagnose key aspects of situations, team life cycles, and your relationships with others that will push you forward in your leadership journey. As former managers and now academics (and when we serve as department heads, managers again) who have worked in and alongside dozens of organizations over a combined thirty years, we take an evidence-based approach to discussing these tools. So, if you are serious about improving your team leadership potential, join us on a journey toward learning how to see teams as they really are—in 3D!

Teams: Looking Back and Moving Forward

Teams are inherently messy and complex. Individual members have unique skill sets, distinct worldviews, and varying levels of motivation; team composition is fluid as critical members move on to other assignments and green newcomers join in their wake; and team dynamics and goals shift over time in response to various factors. Yet everything that makes teams complicated also has the potential to make them beautiful. Research and case evidence time and time again suggest that teams have the potential to outperform, outinnovate, and even outlast comparable groups of individuals working alone.4 As you undoubtedly know, however, this potential synergy does not occur by happenstance. Teams can also waste time, frustrate members, limit creativity, and produce subpar deliverables. One of the biggest factors that separates dysfunctional from high-performing teams is leadership.5

Team leadership, simply defined, is the process of motivating and directing the actions and energy of an interdependent collection of individuals toward a common goal. Several outstanding books have addressed the topics of teamwork and leadership over the past twenty-five years. We have benefited immensely from them and are careful here to integrate the key tried-and-true lessons of team leadership that are still relevant today. Yet without a doubt, this book is not old wine in a new bottle. Leading teams in today’s business environment is dramatically different and wildly more complex than twenty years ago (or even a decade ago), and our book, importantly, is written specifically for today’s teams.

To see the difference, let’s take a quick look back. In the early 1990s, companies typically assigned employees to a single team, at that time often referred to as “self-managing” or “high-performing” teams, with responsibility to deliver products, services, or ideas in a relatively stable and enduring fashion. When we began working with many of these organizations, including companies like Allstate and Prudential Insurance, IBM, Sara Lee, and municipal and federal government offices, it was relatively easy to analyze and understand team functioning and performance. Typically we would ask human resource managers for a roster of teams with member names attached, solicit information from each member using surveys or interviews, analyze the data, and report the results.

These types of teams are rapidly approaching extinction.6 Today’s teams are unstable—members are constantly coming, going, and coming back to teams,7 meaning that a team roster today is often obsolete by tomorrow. Moreover, the business world is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (expressed by the acronym VUCA,8 which we use throughout this book), meaning that critical team tasks cannot always be easily identified (and how can you evaluate the level of team performance if you don’t even know the tasks that need to be performed?). Finally, teams are simply more pervasive in today’s companies. Not only are more employees members of teams, many employees (like Anna) are members of multiple teams9 (some managers we consulted with claimed membership on over ten teams in their company at a single time). Problematically, most of the books and articles that have been written to assist managers in their leadership of teams are based on the older, more stable forms of teaming. And although this material has been extremely helpful to millions worldwide, it has limited utility for the majority of us leading and working in today’s teams. To help illustrate, Table 1.1 summarizes the key differences between the teams of yesterday and today.

TABLE 1.1. Differences between Yesterday’s and Today’s Teams

The Importance of Leader Focus: The Key to 3D Team Leadership

Organizational life is more complex now than it ever has been before.10 As a result, trying to find a single leadership approach for your team is futile if not outright dangerous. There are simply too many factors that can affect you, your team, and everything in between. Just think about what could be happening at this moment. Right now your best, and seemingly most loyal, team member might be quietly interviewing for another job across the country to accommodate his or her spouse’s continuing education; your company’s chief financial officer might be casually pitching an acquisition idea to the CEO over lunch that will drastically alter the course of your entire firm; Wall Street analysts may overreact to after-hours data from across the world and downgrade your company’s buy rating (and thus hinder the ability to raise capital), which could prompt a massive “restructuring” (i.e., layoffs); or a competitor might issue a press release highlighting a new product—one that your team has been trying to develop for the past two years. You get the point. Any number of events—large or small, internal or external, work or personal—can, and probably will, affect your team. Clearly you need an adaptable leadership approach.

Those who study complexity theory (which examines uncertainty and nonlinearity in various systems, including organizations), and specifically the ones interested in leadership, have argued for several distinctions between leading in simple versus complex environments. In simple environments, leaders can use predetermined behaviors and highlight technical processes to boost performance (an administrative leadership approach). In more complex environments, however, leaders must understand that there are substantive “unknown unknowns” in their environment11 and, moreover, they themselves have cognitive limits on how much information they can accurately process.12 Thus, in contrast to traditional command-and-control leadership styles, they must instead work to create conditions that allow adaptive properties (e.g., problem solving, creativity) to emerge from team members.13 Leaders, in essence, do not need to worry about being the primary source of a team’s adaptability, but rather should prioritize being the enablers of their teams’ adaptive capabilities.14

Very much related to our discussion of complexity, behavioral scientists have developed several important theories (e.g., resource allocation theory,15 conservation of resources theory,16 ego depletion theory17) that generally suggest that leaders (and their team members) cannot focus intensely on all things all the time; clearly, we have finite cognitive (e.g., self-control, motivation, brainpower), physical (e.g., strength, energy/stamina), and other (e.g., time, money) resources that must be conserved and efficiently allocated toward our myriad goals in order to be effective. So in today’s environments that require us to juggle demands within and across so many teams, focusing on the right things at the right time is critical. Doing so helps you, and your teams, make sense of situations and optimize their efforts. Consistent with the premise that you simply don’t have the resources to do it all, empowering your teams and their individual members is vital for success in complex environments. On that note, a report on global human capital trends published by Deloitte stated, “The ‘new organization,’ as we call it, is built around highly empowered teams, driven by a new model of management, and led by a breed of younger, more globally diverse leaders.”18 We couldn’t agree more: this is the crux of 3D Team Leadership. Before going much further, we will establish some fundamental principles and terms that will anchor our discussions throughout the book.

Groups, Teams, and Everything in Between

What are the key differences between groups and teams? Does it really matter? Let’s take a leader we’ll call Amy, a 25-year-old up-and-comer at a major insurance company, as an example. Before starting her first job after college, Amy assumed a leadership role as a co-captain on her university’s college basketball team and, afterward, attended a top business school graduate program. After graduating from b-school, her current employer deemed her a high potential (or “hi-po”) employee, which meant she was given an opportunity to complete a formal management training program followed by several stretch assignments. Amy’s first assignment after training was as a client services team leader overseeing twenty-seven claims-processing employees whose primary responsibility was to serve as the initial contact when customers need to file an insurance claim. Her subordinates, or what her company referred to as team members, worked primarily on the phone to gather customer information, input it into a computer system, and create unique claim reports to pass on to claims adjusters who then physically assessed the extent of a customer’s suitability for an insurance payment.

Given her prior experiences (and successes), Amy was a big believer in the power of teams and considered herself an “expert” in team leadership. She now finds this term humorous. Not surprisingly, Amy’s first initiative when she was formally placed in her assignment was to focus intently on establishing the “team thing” for her claims processors. She set team goals; devoted substantial time toward team building, including off-site staff retreats; and even worked with human resources to help create a modest bonus system tied to team performance that replaced a small portion of members’ previously individually-based incentives. Within a few weeks, Amy (and others) could clearly see the results of her changes—and they were disastrous.

Her employees were confused and, worse, cynical toward all of what they called the “team building stuff.” They didn’t understand why they had a bonus tied to team goals when 99 percent of the time they worked “alone at their desks serving individual customers.” Basically, there was no opportunity for team members to have any influence or impact on their fellow coworkers, regardless of their motivational intent. Amy later lamented that calling this collection of individuals a “team” in the first place (which was not her choice) was wrong—a mistake we see all the time in companies. Amy learned the hard way that groups are not teams and teams are not groups. This is the first, and perhaps most fundamental, lesson of 3D Team Leadership.

To be clear, a team is typically defined as an interdependent collection of individuals who are mutually accountable and share responsibility for specific outcomes for their company.19 Members of teams with high interdependence constantly exchange the “stuff” with which they work (e.g., information, materials, ideas), have high levels of coordination and integration, and require high degrees of collaboration to get work done. In these teams, you might sometimes find it difficult to disentangle individual member contributions to the team—in other words, determine who actually contributed what in the process.

The type of interdependence just described is often referred to as task interdependence, because it concerns how team members work together to carry out their tasks. We should note, however, that there are two other main types of interdependence: goal interdependence, or the extent to which members’ goals are compatible and team focused, and outcome interdependence, or the extent to which rewards and feedback are tied to overall team, not individual, performance.20 Each of these is important, to be sure. Nevertheless, when we use the word interdependence here, we are referring primarily to task interdependence because it is the dimension you as a leader are most likely to have control over (note that we do offer some discussions on goals and reward systems throughout the book as well).

Mutual accountability means that team members are accountable not only to one another, but, importantly, as a team to their company. Team members also have shared responsibility for delivering something specific, and it is the whole team, not individual members, that delivers a product, service, idea, or decision. A business example might be a software development team that is writing computer code for a complex piece of software. Many hands do the writing of such code, with information moving constantly among members to accomplish their tasks. In the sports world, an example is a team of rowers moving in perfect synchronization with one another.

In contrast to teams, groups are typically defined as people who learn from one another and share ideas but are otherwise not interdependent or working toward a shared goal.21 The keys here, again, are low levels of interdependence, little shared responsibility or accountability, and individuals, not entire teams, who are delivering a product, service, idea, or decision. An example might be a group of insurance salespeople working in a particular geographic territory. On a day-to-day basis, these insurance agents work primarily independently with very little coordination needed among them to sell insurance. They might share best practices, sales tips, or other information occasionally, but they do not fully rely on one another to complete their work. All income they earn, of course, gets pooled together for the benefit of the company, but the generation of those sales and income is based on the summation of individual efforts. Importantly, despite the bandwagon effect that has occurred with teaming, teams are not unequivocally superior to groups and groups are not superior to teams. Whether a team or group is better able to accomplish work depends on what type of structure is better suited to the task. For highly interdependent work, a team is often the better choice. In contrast, for more independent work, groups often surpass teams in performance.

According to the definitions we have offered, Amy was actually leading a group, not a team. Unfortunately, she was leading her group as if it were a team, which resulted in a great deal of confusion and frustration. Interestingly, Amy’s mistake is quite common. After all, many companies use the word team to refer to any collection of individuals working in a similar capacity (e.g., sales team) or location (e.g., Midwest service team), regardless of whether those individuals actually depend on one another to successfully complete their jobs. Likewise, team is often used casually to motivate some sort of collective pride, irrespective of the actual arrangement of work (though, in fairness, the overapplication of the word team can be loosely justified because all employees do have at least some shared interest and accountability in making sure the company performs well enough to survive—their salaries depend on it!).

In their classic book, The Wisdom of Teams, Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith suggested that the practical terminology used in companies is an issue of semantics—it really does not matter what you call a collection of people in your organization as long as they are performing at a high level.22 We agree. Our goal in this book is not to rewrite corporate organizational charts or act as vocabulary police. The more substantive point to understand, which Katzenbach and Smith also keenly pointed out, is that the conceptual distinction between groups and teams is necessary for optimal leadership. Simply put, you can call the collection of individuals you lead whatever you want (group, team, gaggle, pride, herd, coalition of knuckleheads), but you must first determine whether they operate—or should operate—as a team or a group before you determine how to lead them. This lesson is profoundly simple, but profound nonetheless.

The managers we consult with and teach in executive education courses often have “aha!” moments in response to this point. They say things like, “Oh, all this time I thought I was leading a team, so I’ve been doing all of these ‘team things,’ but what I actually have is a group. No wonder my people are confused.” Or, on the flip side, “I have been treating my team more like a group, and maybe that’s why I am having team performance issues.”

Amy’s story, we are pleased to report, has a happy ending. Once the group-versus-team distinction became apparent to her, she dropped the emphasis on teams and started focusing more on one-on-one mentoring and coaching, and she got HR to help her implement new individual performance–based incentive systems. Her focus on individuals, paired with her excellent but once misguided leadership skills, led to stellar increases in productivity and employee morale.

An important addendum to Amy’s story is that leaders cannot, and should not, assume that the distinction between groups and teams reflects a clean or stable either-or dichotomy. Past work, for instance, has noted that groups and teams often go through development stages whereby they start out as groups before becoming real teams.23 For example, in one classic development model, educational psychologist Bruce Tuckman suggested that groups move through sequential stages of forming, storming, norming, and performing.24 Although today’s teams are quite distinct from the types he studied (in fact, many of the groups he included in his review were therapy groups and groups involved in human relations training), the overall lesson here is that the quicker you can get your teams past the first three stages, the better. In another classic team development model, Connie Gersick found that MBA students who were assigned a team task in a laboratory setting typically performed at low levels of intensity until they crossed some temporal milestone, at which point they worked more fervently to finish their tasks. In her findings, this change in intensity happened when the teams had used about half of their available task time and, thus, her theory became known as “punctuated equilibrium.”25 Of course, we have seen this type of “first-half inertia” play out all the time when we assign team projects to our MBA students.

Interestingly, each of these models focused primarily on groups and teams with relatively stable membership. Yet today’s teams often have fluid, revolving door–type memberships; as a result, linear models of team development may not always be appropriate. So although leaders fifty years ago may have been able to facilitate group discussions that led to quicker forming, storming, and norming processes, today’s leaders may instead have to individually socialize new members on a one-on-one basis to help them see and understand team norms that were established months ago.

Beyond team development, many of today’s teams also go through life cycles with either repeated patterns of episodes or stages with members moving back and forth between independent and interdependent roles. As a result, they might look very much like teams at certain time periods and very much like groups at others.26 So rather than helping leaders like Amy determine whether they are leading a team or a group, we should instead be focusing on determining where their entity falls on the group-team continuum (we will use the terms group-like and team-like to better acknowledge this continuum throughout the book). After all, team members can work together in myriad ways that range from low to high interdependence and everything in between.

Of course, this makes things a lot more complicated for team leaders. In the simple example, all Amy had to do was figure out what type of entity she was leading based on the type of work being done—in her case, a group—and then exhibit the right type of coaching on an ongoing basis and design and implement the right performance management system. In contrast, in the more complex example in which a team’s work often changes, you have to constantly evaluate what level of interdependence is optimal and then shift your coaching behavior and team design actions to match the corresponding entity (group-like or team-like); that is, you need the wisdom to know exactly what you are leading at any given time and have the flexibility and adaptability to shift your leadership approach to match.

This caveat represents a meaningful departure from the classic work on teams (including even relatively recent classics). For instance, the book Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances27 by the late Richard Hackman, who was at the time of his passing one of the foremost experts on teams in the world, long served as a premier guide for how to design effective teams. However, most of the lessons from his book were focused on teams of the past: relatively stable entities with members and leaders primarily focused on one team and little movement between the group-like versus team-like distinction.

For example, at the beginning of his book, Hackman outlined four essential features of what he called “real teams.” The first essential, related to our points above, is a team task. Essentially a team task is akin to part of our definition of teams: a team task requires members “to work together to produce something—a product, service, or decision for which members are collectively accountable and whose acceptability is potentially assessable.”28 Such an either-or treatment of teams or groups assumes long-term stability in the way members work together and carry out their tasks, which may have been true in the 1980s and 1990s (when Hackman carried out most of his research), but is not necessarily true today.

The same can be said for Hackman’s three other essential features of “real teams.” The second feature he described is clear boundaries: team members are crystal clear as to who is, and who is not, part of their team. However, in today’s teams, members move into and out of teams frequently and on a regular basis to respond to VUCA conditions, and team boundaries are often fuzzy rather than clear. A software engineer with whom we worked at a large technology-based storage company expressed frustration with the fuzziness of one of his teams and stated,

One of the teams I lead is a performance automation team that builds software used by our performance teams. What that means is that with the variety of customers we have—and their rapidly changing needs—we bring people in and out of our team on a regular basis to try to serve these customers. Many team members will actually be out there working with customers, so their day-to-day work is sitting with a different team trying to figure out what they need. A lot of this team switching is informal; nobody does this for us. It’s more self-organizing based on customer needs. It happens fast and very organically.

In another example, a regional manager for a large energy services firm told us, “When I look internally now, and I try to identify specific teams, it’s almost like we don’t have formally defined teams; it’s constantly fuzzy! As business changes and grows, business development teams are constantly growing and then contracting and back again. These are mostly customer teams, so people move in and out of the teams as needed.”

Hackman’s third essential condition is delimited authority, which means that managers must “specify when a team is formed just how much authority the team initially will have and to make sure that members understand clearly what decisions are and are not theirs to make.”29 Although we agree that it is a good idea to get as much clarity as possible up front in a team’s life cycle, business conditions change so rapidly today that it is not always feasible to have absolute clarity with regard to lines of authority. For example, a senior engineering manager at a high-tech company described this situation and said,

In our world, we sometimes have a single product owner, which makes the lines of authority pretty clear. However, sometimes we have a product owner team consisting of multiple people. The product owner team will decide to ship a product on a certain date, and then a team leader will sometimes swoop in and change the ship date without even informing the team! The complexity of the business market in an enterprise organization is intense, and for that reason, sometimes leaders can undermine the empowerment of the team. And, unfortunately, that also undermines the team’s confidence in the future.

Finally, Hackman’s fourth essential condition is stability over time. At this point, given our discussion, perhaps it goes without saying that this might be the most tenuous of essential conditions given the dynamic nature of today’s teams. Despite his citing the research evidence that teams with stable membership perform better than those that have to deal with inflows and outflows of members due to constantly changing conditions in VUCA environments, today’s teams are anything but stable in their membership. Indeed, stability is a luxury many of today’s teams cannot afford. A vice president of business development for a large energy services company we worked with echoed this lack of stability and said, “We are a multinational company and a multidisciplinary organization. It should come as no surprise then that our company aggressively promotes people changing positions, locations, and assignments. That means our teams change around a lot. So you’re constantly in the position of having to brief people, make sure the dynamics are still working, and teams will often be unbalanced for a certain period of time. That’s just the world we live in.”

Reinforcing all of these newer issues, our colleagues writing about teamwork in today’s companies summed it up nicely and stated: “Contemporary teams tend to overlap, with members working simultaneously on more than one team . . . [and] can therefore rarely be sure what subset of the membership will convene at any given time. In short, it can be a puzzle—or even a matter of contention—to say who is on the team.”30 We couldn’t agree more with this assertion and note that it is a dramatic departure from the essential features of the teams that Hackman described. We also agree that “interdependence is a fundamental element of teams, but [we] . . . must take into account the fact that it can unfold in non-obvious ways and may well change over a team’s life.”31

Importantly, rather than being assigned a level of interdependence (or what might be called structural interdependence), today’s members of more fluid and dynamic teams are just as likely to choose varying levels of interdependence, depending on changing task needs or business conditions (or what might be called behavioral interdependence). Based on these assertions, a key recommendation is to “relax the definitional elements of what makes a real team and explore what is interesting in contemporary collaboration.”32 Ten years after the publication of Leading Teams, Hackman himself acknowledged as much and stated, “The time is right to rethink how we construe and study [teams] because the balls are in the air and in ways that pose direct challenges to traditional conceptual models and research methodologies.”33

From our experience, we should all be in agreement that the nature of teamwork has changed dramatically in the past twenty-five years, and perhaps exponentially in just the past decade. We also agree that most of the current research has not caught up to practice in this regard. That was the impetus for our book. We believe that the approach we offer here, 3D Team Leadership, advances a highly effective and evidence-based approach to leading today’s teams. In large part, the success of all 3D team leaders rests on their ability to focus on the right things at the right time for the entities they lead. Indeed, Hackman put this eloquently: “Coaching, then, is not just a matter of helping a [team] deal with problems and opportunities that come up. Instead, it involves giving focused attention to where a team is in its temporal life cycle—and then providing the kind of assistance that is likely to be especially helpful at that particular time.”34 Unfortunately, given the complexity of today’s teaming, such advice is tough to follow. We next review the various tensions of team leadership that make this advice so challenging to implement.

The Classic (But Still Relevant) Tensions of Team Leadership

One of the most important elements of teamwork that makes such seemingly straightforward advice so difficult to translate into action is the notion that team leadership consists of a set of seemingly intractable tensions (or paradoxes) with which you must grapple. As we will argue throughout this book, the 3D Team Leadership approach will equip you with the tools you need to reduce unnecessary strains. Some of the most critical tensions are classics that were originally articulated decades ago but still ring true today. Others are relatively unique to today’s teams. We describe the seven most pressing tensions, starting with four classics and then moving on to three unique ones for teams today. These are summarized in Figure 1.1.

FIGURE 1.1. The Tensions of Team Leadership: Striking a Balance

Note: The tensions in boldface type represent the new tensions identified in our work; the others are more established (but still relevant) tensions from Linda Hill’s Harvard Business School note, “Managing Your Team.”

One of the foremost experts in leadership today, Linda Hill of Harvard Business School, articulated the classic tensions of leading teams in her Harvard Business School note entitled, “Managing Your Team”35 as well as her book, Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader.36 The first paradox is embracing individual differences while simultaneously emphasizing team identity and goals.37 Because teams are composed of individuals, there are two potentially competing forces here, particularly in Western countries that place more emphasis on individuals compared to groups. That is, although most people desire to be a part of groups and teams and have a sense of belonging to them, they also simultaneously desire to be unique and have a sense of themselves as individuals. Those who study social identity theory, which refers to the part of an individual’s self-concept that is determined by both group or team membership as well as the emotional significance of the membership,38 acknowledge the fundamental tension between the human need to be both similar to and also different from others simultaneously.39 Such research demonstrates that people will achieve an optimal sense of social identity and demonstrate the highest degree of team loyalty if a team can provide individuals with a sense of belonging and distinctiveness simultaneously.40 This begs the question: How much emphasis should be placed on motivating, recognizing, and rewarding individuals versus motivating, recognizing, and rewarding entire teams?41

A senior engineering manager at a high-tech company we worked with talked about the delicate balancing act for getting a win-win when it comes leading individuals and teams:

You certainly grow individuals, but you’re also thinking about the team at the same time. I spend a lot of time on one-on-ones—so much so that most of my people say they’ve never had a leader spend as much one-on-one time as I do, but I think it’s critical. I do this with each of my direct reports every other week. I also have team meetings to reinforce team goals and achievements. To keep the balance, I constantly pay attention to where individuals want to grow, but at the same time I also focus on where the team is going. It’s not seamless; sometimes you have to be creative. I always remind individuals what the team goals are in my one-on-ones. These meetings are really the lifeblood of how I manage. I have to figure out how to plug individuals into the overall team dynamic so that individuals are successful and the team is successful. I try to find particular tasks that raise the individuals’ visibility, even if it’s outside a given project.

The second tension is encouraging team members to support one another while simultaneously creating conditions under which members can confront one another and have healthy levels of functional team conflict.42 Clearly, if team members are too supportive, they will be reluctant to disagree with or criticize one another’s ideas. Such reluctance would lead to the typical pitfalls associated with team decision making such as groupthink,43 conflict avoidance,44 or the common knowledge effect, known as situations in which team members simply discuss information that is already commonly known because they are afraid that bringing up unique or unpopular information or ideas might put them at risk for ostracizing by fellow team members.45 Conversely, if team members get too confrontational, what might start out as healthy, functional, task-based conflict might turn into unhealthy, dysfunctional, relationship-based conflict.46 If teams move too far in either direction, it will be very difficult to steer them back from one side to the other. You have to find a sweet spot between support and confrontation.

A regional manager at a large energy services company we worked with described the benefits of creating a certain amount of tension in a team:

I am a huge fan of friction for teams. I think when team members challenge each other, it’s extremely beneficial. I don’t mind a few complaints coming across my desk. What that means to me is that people are fully engaged and looking for new ways of doing things. We are a heavily matrixed organization, which is essentially there to create friction and challenge. I guess we’re used to challenging each other without it becoming personal, and we try to keep it more business focused. In fact, when I’m leading a team meeting, I’ll always point out one or two people who consistently challenge me on things; I openly identify them in the meeting. That way, I’m giving the group permission to challenge me and each other.

The third tension is focusing on successful performance while simultaneously creating learning experiences that come from making mistakes and failing.47 In today’s hypercompetitive VUCA business environments, companies are typically focused on creating and sustaining the highest levels of performance possible. Pressures from shareholders often create a short-term focus in many publicly held companies that works against the notion of allowing learning from mistakes and failure. The problem here is that there is general consensus that much more lasting and deep learning occurs from failure compared to success.48 In fact, Stanford University professor John Krumboltz (along with his colleague Ryan Babineaux) even created a continuing studies course, Fail Fast, Fail Often (which they also turned into a book), to emphasize that happy and successful people spend less time planning and more time acting and, as a result, making mistakes and failing.49

This is also related to the work on individuals’ goal orientations, which suggests that some individuals are motivated by a learning-goal orientation; that is, they try to develop their competence by building new skills and mastering new situations.50 Other people have a performance-goal orientation, which means that they seek out situations that they can perform well in and, as a result, avoid negative judgments. The former will not be as afraid as much as the latter to stumble every now and again as long as they are learning something valuable. Although some aspects of these orientations are personality driven (i.e., traits), people can also be primed to have a stronger orientation for one or the other in particular situations (i.e., states).51 Thus, leaders can play a role in encouraging a specific orientation.

Of course, if you were to encourage too much risk taking in order to enhance learning and too much failure ensues, you run the risk of damaging your career and reputation, as well as your team’s. However, if you focus only on performance to the exclusion of any failure-based learning experiences, your teams will likely be unable to adapt when business conditions change. You have to figure out how to balance a focus on performance, success, and creating shareholder value (if you’re in a public company) versus creating the conditions that allow team members to learn from their mistakes.

Although some of the leaders with whom we work tell us that making mistakes and failure are not really tolerated in their companies (“the cutting edge is the bleeding edge” was a particular phrase that emerged), others found ways to create more tolerance for these kinds of learning experiences. For example, a manager in a large energy services company said,

We’re a team of engineers; we’re very analytical, very precise, and too much of that can lead us to analysis paralysis. I don’t think any of us are expecting perfection by any means. All solutions will be flawed to some extent. I’d rather have a slightly flawed solution that we can learn from now rather than perfection much later. We’ve actually been incorporating some Silicon Valley thinking into our projects now—you know, the whole “minimal viable product” concept. We take things to market, find out what works and what does not work. We make mistakes from time to time. We learn a lot of valuable things along the way.

The fourth tension is balancing leader authority with team member discretion and authority.52 This concept is similar to Hackman’s delimited authority, which refers to specifying which decisions will be made by team leaders and which ones will be in the hands of team members. This paradox is best described by the notion of team empowerment. Team leaders can retain most of the decision-making authority in their teams, which would result in a very low level of team empowerment. Or these leaders can decide to empower their teams to make most of the team’s decisions, which would allow the leaders to turn their attention to more external team matters.

The most important questions underlying this tension are: “How much empowerment should a team ultimately have overall?” and, “On which particular areas or dimensions of team responsibility will a team take most control and on which areas will that team’s leader retain more authority?” Even before the arrival of teams in great numbers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, leaders struggled with the issue of how much authority to give to those who work for them. In fact, in our work with companies, this seemed to be the most troubling tension for most managers. One vice president of business development at a large energy services company said, “This is where I struggle the most sometimes—not decision making so much but problem solving. I will give them decision-making authority, but if a problem lands on my desk, I have to catch myself from blurting out a solution I know is right. I have a tendency to come up with solutions rather than letting them do so.”

In a similar vein, a senior engineering manager at a large technology company said, “My one-on-ones are my way to get alignment on this issue with my team members. I try to remain disciplined with respect to staying out of decisions, at least for those that are less impactful. If the stakes are higher, then I’ll push back and ask them to reevaluate. If I’ve learned anything through this process, it’s that empowerment is so important. It’s what makes them stay late and work on weekends and own the destiny of the project.”

The New Tensions of Team Leadership for Today’s Teams

Our work with today’s teams suggests that leaders must figure out how to manage at least three additional tensions. The first is simultaneously balancing team leadership roles and responsibilities in some teams with team membership roles and responsibilities in other teams. We have already pointed out that people are likely to be on many teams, sometimes as team leaders and other times as team members. If a person is taking on leadership roles in one or more teams and yet is a member of other teams, there is an inherent tension in trying to balance these roles across the various team types. Perhaps even more basic than the challenge of managing time commitments and role transitions (leader to member and back), evidence also tells us that people commonly suffer from “attention residue,”53 which makes it hard to shift focus from one task to another. Simply put, our attentional resources are sticky, and our minds can stay with one team even though our body is present on another.

Exemplifying this puzzle, a manager at a large energy services company with whom we worked said, “I do this multiple times on a daily basis! As a result, it is very hard to shift this mind-set. I’m managing up and down about half the time. I get impatient and I want to take over. What I do to correct this is make a deliberate effort to shift my mind-set and ask the leader of the team, ‘What do you need from me on this project?’ That helps me shift from leader mode to follower mode; it’s a mental switch.”

A senior engineering manager at a large technology company said,

You never really stop being a leader. It comes down to what’s needed in any given situation. When I’m designated the team leader, I’m much more disciplined in terms of setting agendas, alignment, communication—all those things; but when I’m a team member, I’m mostly interested in the outcomes. I can step up and lead occasionally, but I really mostly work with the leader to help the project succeed. My natural personality is to not have to be out in front all of the time. As long as the right outcomes are occurring, I’m comfortable.

Although leader-member tension often occurs across different teams, it could also conceivably occur within a single team. The notion of shared or emergent team leadership has grown in popularity in both organizations and the academic management literature.54 Shared leadership suggests that different team members will emerge as team leaders at different times depending on the nature of the tasks at hand or where the team is in its performance life cycle. As a result, leaders might evolve into members, back into leaders, and so forth. How a person is able to shift between these roles and balance the tensions that accompany this shifting is an area in great need of additional examination. For now, based on our work with many of today’s companies, we can say for sure that it represents one of the most important, and difficult-to-manage, tensions for team leaders.

The second new tension in today’s teams is balancing the need for belongingness associated with face-to-face teamwork against the requirements for efficient teamwork associated with more technology-based, virtual approaches. Indeed, this is one of the most commonly addressed issues among executives when we discuss best practices for managing virtual teams—teams that work primarily using technology-based communication tools rather than large amounts of face-to-face contact. We are asked: How much face-to-face interaction should I create in my team? How often should we have face-to-face meetings? When should I insist on some type of videoconferencing tools versus audioconferencing? We discuss answers to these questions later in the book, but for now it is safe to say that trying to balance the amount of face-to-face teamwork versus virtual working represents an important tension that leaders of today’s teams have to navigate. For example, a region manager from an energy services company said,

Right now, my team is spread out through North America. I’m going to have to make the sacrifice to go to them . . . that really builds trust and credibility . . . it’s so beneficial. I try to keep in mind that there is so much value in face-to-face contact, and I try not get too caught up in the cost. I often ask them if we need face-to-face, and then I respond. I encourage them to come to me as well. We operate on an out-of-sight, out-of-mind situation. I tell folks that they need to cheerlead for themselves and make their contributions known. You can’t do that over technology very well.

A final tension in today’s teams is to leverage newcomers’ fresh perspectives with the pressure to get them quickly acclimated to an existing status quo. As we have noted, membership in today’s teams is dynamic. People shift on and off teams on a whim and, even more generally, employees shift companies more than they ever have in the past. Member turnover can be problematic, of course, because it disrupts the norms and flow that teams need to perform at a high level, but on the flip side, adding new members can also be valuable. Evidence shows, for example, that being a newcomer can be extremely stressful, but in this stress, newcomers can generate creativity55 that combats groupthink and look at problems from a different point of view. In addition, new team members are often assigned because they have specialized expertise or experience that addresses a gap in a team’s current composition. Given that fighting against turnover is increasingly futile in today’s environment, particularly given the influx of turnover-prone millennials (those born between approximately 1980 and 2000) into the workforce, leaders must be prepared to leverage it in the best way possible for their team.

Organization of the Book

As we hope we have made crystal clear by now, the complexity of teaming in today’s environment is increasing exponentially. Moreover, there are constant tensions that can make leading (and working on) teams feel impossible at times. Rest assured, though, that it doesn’t have to be this way. Our book will show you how to cut through the complexity of teams by using a clean, sensible framework. It will help you filter out the seemingly endless noise of teamwork and pay attention to the meaningful cues you’ll need to guide your leadership behaviors and decision making. By honing your focus, you will unleash your own leadership potential as well as the true power of your teams.

The rest of our book proceeds as follows. In Chapter 2, we provide a more detailed description of what we mean by 3D Team Leadership and give examples of the concept. In Chapter 3, we provide a more thorough understanding of the first of the three dimensions of 3D Team Leadership: the individuals on a team, along with a set of recommendations for maximizing individual performance in team settings, particularly with regard to empowering individuals. In Chapter 4, we discuss the second dimension of our 3D model, a team as a whole, and we focus on how to maximize overall team performance with a special emphasis on team empowerment. In Chapter 5, we tackle the third and final dimension of our 3D Team Leadership approach, the subteams within an overall team, and we use recent evidence from work on multiteam systems to help you understand how to manage multiple subteams and their interrelationships. In Chapter 6, we bring all the dimensions together and discuss how you can effectively manage each of the three dimensions; importantly, we provide guidance as to how you can recognize when you should focus more intently on which dimension. In Chapter 7, we go global with our 3D Team Leadership model and describe how to adapt it for use in different countries or with teams composed of people from different countries. In Chapter 8, we add still another layer of complexity by discussing the role of virtual teaming and how it affects your use of the 3D Team Leadership model. In Chapter 9, we address the needs of individual team leaders and provide practical tools for helping you build the key competencies that will enable you to become a highly effective 3D Team Leader. In Chapter 10, we discuss the broad applicability of our approach and introduce a series of self-assessment tools designed to measure your effectiveness at using the 3D Team Leadership model, as well as team assessments for measuring the health of the teams you lead.


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