Bendersky is an expert in workplace conflict, status, justice and inclusion in teams and organizations. Her research resonates in constructive and concrete ways, both in academe and business. As founder of Morpho Leadership Development, Bendersky regularly consults with private and public sector organizations, including several fire departments, on matters related to diversity, conflict management and team performance, among other essential organizational issues. She lends this expertise to a UCLA Anderson course titled Optimizing Team Performance.
Q: What is the goal of your class?
I hope that students get very practical and actionable tools for leading, managing and participating in teams. Teams are very commonly used in a lot of workplace contexts and they often fail to live up to their potential. There are a number of concrete frameworks we use to analyze teams to really understand their strengths and their potential weaknesses. I give students tools for assessing and intervening with teams that are not optimally functional, with a big focus on efficiency and effectiveness in terms of managing and optimizing team dynamics. Then we take that general content and those general frameworks, and we apply them to specific types of teams with different kinds of objectives.
One lesson I hope students will learn is to design teams intentionally; to put together teams that have the best potential performance because they are selecting people strategically. The second is to have some real tools to launch teams to engage in periodic process checks and to analyze and intervene, to align teams when they are going off the rails, or realign them. The third is to be informed consumers of different types of teams that are more or less appropriate to different types of tasks or situations that they may confront at work.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about some of the research you bring in to inform the course?
The frameworks are based on leading-edge academic research on what makes teams work or not work. A lot of it comes out of studies of military teams, for instance, and also many different types of task teams.
We have robust and valid evidence of what really matters in teams, and a number of the things that really matter are not necessarily obvious features of teams that people tend to think about if they aren’t familiar with the research.
We spend a lot of time in the course looking at who is on the team and how you get the right people and the right mix of skills, knowledge and abilities. Different processes can be implemented to achieve specific team-oriented goals, but a lot happens organically — what we call emergent states — that really influence how a team reacts to and responds to challenges, the extent to which they are really able to leverage and mobilize their resources. Those are the things that are most strongly associated with resilience and adaptability. We spend a lot of time deeply understanding the aspects of teams that have been empirically demonstrated to have the highest impact on performance.
Q: What do you require of the students in the class?
The materials are a mix of foundational reading or overview reading, a lot of cases and a lot of experiential exercises. I do have at least one guest speaker every time I teach it. Typically, it is a member of the fire service talking about emergency response teams, although that sometimes gets changed up.
The assignments are two team case write-ups, followed by surveys of team member contributions to the group case. Peer input about each person’s contribution to their team task is a component of the grade, given it is a team class. I want to impose accountability for the extent to which people participate in and contribute positively to their teams. Then they have an individual final take-home exam.
Q: Is it fair to say some people are team players and some people are almost innately bad on teams?
Sure. It’s a nature and nurture thing. What you are talking about are individual trait differences in affinity for teamwork, team collaboration. Some characteristics might be called “pro-social” or “pro-self.” People certainly have an innate orientation and preference, and you might find you have a more natural fit with tasks that are conducted individually or tasks that are conducted in groups. Of course, that doesn’t damn us to excelling in only one context or another: it just means one may be a little bit more difficult or require us to develop different kinds of skills, or to draw on different kinds of resources in order to be able to excel.
Q: We all have our strengths and weaknesses, but is there a particular weakness regarding teams and team participation that you see most often?
I think it is with conflict management and associated surfacing and integrating dissenting points of view. A lot of the potential value of teams comes from differences of opinion. And yet, many people are uncomfortable expressing their different points of view, and many people are uncomfortable managing the dynamics that result when they actually do share their opinions, particularly when those differences are conveyed as conflicts, opposition, dissent. It gets hard, and that is where a lot of the value comes from. I think a very common mistake on teams is to defer to harmony and harmonious relationships — or, I should say, to prioritize harmonious relationships over real, deep, candid discussions of different points of view.
Q: This class is different than a leadership course.
This is not a leadership course. This course will help people lead teams better and be better team leaders, but it is not a course exclusively for people who self-identify during their MBA experience with statements like “I am a team leader” or “I aspire to be a team leader.” This is a course that is helpful to anybody who expects to engage in a substantial amount of their work interdependently with other people in a team. These skills will enable them to do that more effectively, whatever their role is.
Q: Are there any preconceived notions about teams that you need to dispel?
I think the biggest one is that people generally think teams are more effective and easier than they actually are. There is a lot of hype around teams, but the reality is, they frequently fail to live up to their potential. Actually, doing them right and doing them well is hard.