3 disruptors that are shaking up teams


Authored by Amy Walters, Senior Research Consultant

We’ve been conducting extensive research over the past 20 years to identify factors that distinguish high performing teams from those that simply function.1 While these factors remain fundamental, the world in which teams exist has changed significantly. Disruption is everywhere. Our latest research into high performing teams explores three key disruptors shaking up the landscape for teams.2 As a leader, it’s vital you understand the challenges and opportunities these disruptors bring so you can turn them to your team’s advantage.

Disruptor 1: The pace of change

The modern business environment is a hub of rapid change. With new and increasingly affordable technology on offer, start-ups aren’t restrained by previous barriers to market entry like high start-up costs or access to suppliers. Today, even the smallest enterprise can reach a global market and disrupt a well-established industry, seemingly out of nowhere, and all without ‘owning’ or ‘providing’ very much in the traditional sense. As they say in Silicon Valley, ‘it’s no longer big eats small, but fast eats slow.’ So, to keep up in this volatile and rapidly changing environment, team structures are becoming more dynamic, and there are many more temporary teams.3

These temporary team structures allow organisations to be more agile by helping them to reallocate resources quickly. However, one of the key challenges for these teams is building trust. Team members in temporary teams tend not to know one another well and, due to their agile nature, don’t have the luxury of building trust over time. They have to build ‘swift trust’. This is a concept that teams in the military, healthcare, crisis response and aviation are very familiar with.

Researchers have studied these teams and their ability to build swift trust for years so thankfully there are lots of lessons that organisations can take from these different domains. For example, studies show that trust within flight teams hinges on predictability. Crew members want to be able to predict what someone will do under certain circumstances.4.5 Without any knowledge of a teammate, flight crews build trust based on stereotypical knowledge of how they expect their teammates to behave, not on the basis of observed behaviour, but from what they know of the group, team, or organisation that person represents.

TOP TIP FOR LEADERS: Create a common language with personality profiling

Personality profiling is a great way to create a common language and group-level knowledge around certain personality types. When used across the organisation, it enables temporary teams, with members who are relatively unfamiliar with each other, to gauge quickly how someone behaves or likes to be communicated with.

Disruptor 2: Globalisation

To adapt to an age of globalisation, multinational organisations have become reliant on global teams. In theory, multicultural, diverse, global teams have the potential to be high performing because they can draw upon people with different experiences, insights and perspectives.6 But, in reality, many global teams do not take advantage of that potential. Almost 1 in 4 of global teams are failing to reap the benefits of cultural diversity.7

Communication breakdowns are repeatedly the reason behind this. Teamwork often suffers because people don’t understand others’ local customs, language and social norms. Teams who can’t communicate experience loss of information, conflict and a lack of team identity. All of this creates social distance between team members.8.9 Therefore, subgroups emerge naturally because people are most comfortable communicating with, and are generally more open towards, people like them. In global teams, subgroups tend to be divided by national cultures and a shared native language.10.11

Whether this is intentional or not, it reinforces language and cultural divides among team members and can create an ‘us versus them’ dynamic, which harms trust. If global teams can’t communicate effectively and combine knowledge between subgroups, they won’t be able to unlock the innovation and creativity they were brought together to achieve.12

TOP TIP FOR LEADERS: Use cultural interpreters

Find someone who can advise you on cultural dos and don’ts. The best cultural interpreters are expatriates or people slightly disconnected from the culture they are in. That’s because they’ll have spent time observing and trying to fit into that culture. Use their advice to improve communication within the team and prevent subgroups from emerging.

Disruptor 3: Technology

Advances in technology have triggered what’s being called a ‘spatial revolution’ with flexible and virtual working becoming the new norm. In the UK, for example, working from home has increased by a fifth over the past decade.13 There are many business advantages to an increasingly virtual workplace: it saves space, reduces the travel budget, offers flexibility and increases talent pool diversity. But, research suggests that this increasingly virtual world is coming at a cost to team processes and performance. And, despite the vast majority of team members encountering challenges in their virtual environment, only 16% have had any virtual team specific training to help them perform effectively.14

One of the biggest challenges of virtual teams is the way team members use different digital tools and channels in different ways. This ‘variety of practice’ negatively impacts on trust, the timely completion of projects, team coordination and effective communication.15 Maybe surprisingly, variety of practice has been shown to negatively affect performance far more than any other aspect such as geographical distribution or working across time zones.

TOP TIP FOR LEADERS: Get your team using online channels in the same way

Spend some time as a team discussing how different online channels and tools are going to be used. Reach agreement on the best way to store information, track progress on projects, communicate different messages and share learning.

To read more about these disruptors that are shaking up teams and what you can do about them, download a copy of our white paper, High performing teams in a disruptive age, available here


1 Hau, T., & Walters, A. (2018). What gives teams the edge? Lane4 white paper

2 Walters, A., Hau, T., & Mahony, D. (2018). High performing teams in a disruptive age. Lane4 white paper, retrieved from: insight/infographic/high-performingteams-in-a-disruptive-age-whatschanged-and-what-hasnt/

3 Valentine, M., & Edmondson, A. (2014). Team scaffolds: How mesolevel structures support role-based coordination in temporary groups (Working Paper No. 12–062). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School.

4 Katerinakis, T.A. (2012). Communication in Flights under Crisis: A Conversation Analysis Approach of Pilot - ATC Discourse. Masters Thesis. Drexel University: Philadelphia.

5 Zijlstra, F. R., Waller, M. J., & Phillips, S. I. (2012). Setting the tone: Early interaction patterns in swift-starting teams as a predictor of effectiveness. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 21, 749-777.

6 Kirkman, B. L., Shapiro, D. L., Lu, S., & McGurrin, D. P. (2016). Culture and teams. Current Opinion in Psychology, 8, 137-142. 34.

7 McDowell, T., Argawal, D., Miller, D., Okamoto, T., & Page, T. (2016). Organisational Design: The rise of teams. Article, retrieved from: https:// focus/human-capital-trends/2016/ organizational-modelsnetwork-of-teams. html

8 Au, Y., & Marks, A. (2012). “Virtual teams are literally and metaphorically invisible” Forging identity in culturally diverse virtual teams. Employee relations, 34(3), 271-287.

9 Liu, L. A., Adair, W. L., Tjosvold, D., & Poliakova, E. (2018). Understanding intercultural dynamics: Insights from competition and cooperation in complex contexts. Cross Cultural & Strategic Management, 25(1), 2-31.

10 Charles, M. (2007). Language matters in global communication: Article based on ORA lecture, October 2006. The Journal of Business Communication (1973), 44(3), 260-282.

11 Cohen, L., & Kassis-Henderson, J. (2017). Revisiting culture and language in global management teams: Toward a multilingual turn. International Journal of Cross Cultural Management, 17(1), 7-22. Katerinakis, T.A. (2012). Communication in Flights under Crisis: A Conversation Analysis Approach of Pilot - ATC Discourse. Masters Thesis. Drexel University: Philadelphia.

12 Gratton, L., Voigt, A., & Erickson, T. J. (2007). Bridging faultlines in diverse teams. MIT Sloan management review, 48(4), 22.

13 Trades Union Congress (2016). Home-working up by a fifth over the last decade. TUC analysis article, retrieved from: home-working-fifthover-last-decadetuc-analysis-reveals

14 RW3 CultureWizard (2016). Trends in Global Virtual Teams: virtual teams survey report. Retrieved from: http://cdn. Report_4-17-2016.pdf

15 Lu, M., Watson-Manheim, M. B., Chudoba, K. M., & Wynn, E. (2006). Virtuality and team performance: Understanding the impact of variety of practices. Journal of Global Information Technology Management, 9, 4-23.

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