How Reckless Teams Are Born

Within just 20 minutes of coming together, team members will form expectations that will determine their ultimate success
team in meeting room

The essentials

  • Newly-formed teams that lack the confidence in their ability to succeed take greater risks and thereby achieve less than teams in which members are confident that they’re set up for success.
  • Such group expectations develop within just 20 minutes of team members working together, even before members are familiar with one another or with the team’s key task.
  • For a team to thrive, strong group dynamics must be established from the first meeting to ensure members know that they have the skills and resources to tackle the task at hand.

Let’s say two teams are competing in a world-class soccer event. There are five minutes to go in the match and one team is losing quite badly. In a last-ditch attempt to score, the losing team decides to pull a defender and give their all to get back into the game. What happens instead, however, is that the winning team takes the opportunity to score another two goals, sealing their victory. 

Though it did little to improve the game’s outcome, the seeds of that decision – a risky one – might have been planted back when the team was first formed. Though the soccer pitch may be a far cry from the boardroom, new research by Matthias Spitzmuller and a team of researchers in the United States confirms that a team’s inclination towards taking risks, which can affect its ability to succeed, is established in its earliest moments.

“If you’re confident in your own abilities, you’ll believe that you don’t have to take excessive risks,” says Spitzmuller, associate professor of organizational behaviour at Smith School of Business, as well an unabashed soccer fanatic. “But if you don’t have that confidence, then you believe that you have to be riskier to compensate for the lack of innate talent.”

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

The research indicates that a team’s ultimate success is determined even before members are familiar with one another or with the team’s key task. The team’s “gain or loss context” is also established at the same time, affecting the inclination of team members to take risks down the road.

“The problem is that when you feel you’re operating in a loss context, you don’t just take slightly riskier decisions. You can easily become excessively risk-taking because you feel that you’re on the losing side,” says Spitzmuller. “As humans, we’ve been primed to avoid losses at all costs because that can oftentimes mean you’d be fighting for your life.”

As Spitzmuller explains, if a team is going to thrive, it is critically important to establish strong group dynamics from the get-go – from helping members get comfortable with each other in those vulnerable first moments to making sure they know they have been brought together because they have the skills to tackle the task at hand.

“When you feel you’re operating in a loss context, you can easily become excessively risk-taking because you feel that you’re on the losing side”

“It’s about ensuring team members can see one another in a positive light, with a focus on the strengths that everyone brings to the table,” says Spitzmuller. “Also, after very early performance episodes, it’s important to spend some time reflecting not only on what didn’t go well but also what did go well, because through that you’ll help develop confidence.

In other words, whether or not a team succeeds at a task is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: those teams that are set up to do well will take fewer harmful risks — and see greater achievement — than those that are not.

Setting a team up for failure by giving them tight deadlines, telling them the task is critical to the organization, or providing insufficient resources – in other words, situations that will create stress – without the positive baseline may prompt more risk-taking behaviour, ultimately resulting in a reduced chance of success.

20 Minutes to Success

To come to their conclusions, Spitzmuller and colleagues Dustin J. Sleesman, John R. Hollenbeck, and Maartje E. Schouten created a controlled environment for newly formed groups. They studied 540 students in 108 five-member teams working for three to four hours. Though the researchers did not expect to see highly innovative behaviour due to the constraints of the group task, they were curious about how each group would handle complex decision-making tasks and whether or not they achieved the outcome.

“The interesting part of this study,” says Spitzmuller, “is that those initial expectations [about whether a team would succeed] were formed after just 20 minutes of training, which shows that teams, very early on in their existence, have already developed an understanding of ‘how good we are at this’.

“You would hope that teams would be able to suspend their beliefs about one another and the team dynamics as a whole until they had enough concrete information to make a sound judgment, but the somewhat disappointing and counterintuitive reality is that teams jump to early conclusions on how well they’ll perform in the future. We find it intriguing that such self-fulfilling prophecies develop in just 20 minutes of teams working together with each other.”

That’s why it is important for teams, and those who manage them, to understand that initial performance expectations are strongly corelated to outcomes. The research indicates that leaders must communicate with confidence to set a positive tone and expectation of success within their teams, while also intervening when members offer pessimistic or self-defeating views on the group’s ability to achieve their outcome.

Be warned: the self-fulfilling prophecy goes both ways. “You might actually have a team that does have the talents and skills required to perform well. But if the initial perception is that ‘we don’t’, then the team might in the end fulfill that prophecy, not by behaving like a team that does have all the necessary skills, but by taking excessive risks, and then failing.”

Meredith Dault

Smith School of Business

Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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