Of Blindfolds and Teamwork (Otmar Varela Commentary)

Teamwork skills are often cited in the rankings of the most desirable competencies employers seek. Novel team-based structures and more multifunctional activity have substantially increased the amount of collaborative work in organizations.

To complicate matters, employers have expressed concerns about college graduates’ abilities to work in teams as, arguably, schools are falling short in advancing the so-called “soft skills.” Research in business education indicates that employers are more satisfied with MBA graduates’ proficiency in technical skills — such as those in accounting or operations — than with their proficiency in soft managerial skills such as teamwork or leadership.

To discuss teamwork as part of an MBA course, 30 students were blindfolded in an open field. Working together, students were asked to reach a cone located about 30 yards from the group. Although students were able to see the cone prior to starting, communication or planning was not permitted until everybody was completely blinded. Blindfolds came off and an artificial compensation was provided (course bonus points) once the entire group touched the cone.

An appealing aspect of this activity is to witness how teamwork naturally emerges. Without the intervention of the instructor, students strategize together, assign different roles, create a sense of unity by holding hands and exhibit a legitimate concern for others.

As the group advances toward the cone, members make sure others don’t fall or hit objects in the field. Yes, two or three mavericks set off without the group, but the vast majority work in harmony in pursuit of the common goal. With few controversies, and in about 15 minutes, the entire group finally touches the cone.

A debriefing following the activity reveals that students possess an intuitive but not inaccurate understanding of teamwork skills. Participants are mindful of what it implies to work collectively and are able to list the actions that make a team succeed. The lecture that follows provides structure to an otherwise scattered knowledge.

After repeating this exercise several times, I can assert that students master the fundamental knowledge that underlies teamwork skills. So why might employers be disappointed with the ability of students to transfer and apply this knowledge and associated skills?

One possible explanation deals with the notion that teamwork transgresses inherent values. The U.S. is consistently ranked among the most individualistic countries in the world. Initiative, self-reliance and originality are celebrated. Under these circumstances, commonality and collective efforts might not be part of the repertoire of naturally learned behaviors.

Spontaneous collaboration and integration are in opposition to social conventions, making teamwork an exceptional behavior. Yet some organizations challenge this hypothesis by bragging of a social blend or even arguing that a teamwork culture is at the core of their competitive advantage.

In my opinion, a more plausible explanation for dysfunctional teamwork in organizations deals with incentives. A review of the class exercise is instrumental in illustrating some of these. First, in the activity, results are collectively evaluated. With no individual standards, students are responsible for achieving a common goal and are evaluated accordingly.

Second, compensation is team-based. The hypothetical bonus points are equally distributed among team members. Third, cohesiveness is almost enforced. Maybe the uncertainty of being blind leads participants to physically grasp and depend on each other.

Fourth, positions are collectively defined. Although participants take on distinct roles, the typical functional labels that create artificial separations (manufacturing, marketing) do not exist. Fifth, direction is incontrovertible. Nobody doubts what the goal is.

And finally, the task is highly interdependent. It is more difficult to reach the goal individually than it is when working in teams.

Implementing these conditions might imply radical changes in organizations’ structures and management systems. And although some companies are moving in this direction, recreating all conditions is not necessarily what I am advocating here.

If teamwork is a real necessity, a balance between current practices and the incentives above must be explored. Our blindfolded MBA students teach us that, under the right conditions, teamwork will genuinely emerge.

Otmar Varela is an assistant professor of management at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.