21st Century Teams: The Road Ahead

Despite an increase in nationalistic and protectionist rhetoric around the world, the growth and speed of global business continues. Driven by the need for more people than ever to work virtually across multiple teams and cultures, organizations must develop and support a new generation of tech-savvy people through a networked, collaborative approach to leadership and teamwork. The impact on organizational culture, structure, and operations is profound, and many companies continue to struggle with the transformation from the 20th-century world of hierarchy and hero leaders to the dynamic demands of 21st-century team leadership.

Fortunately, in the nearly twenty years since the turn of the 21st century, a few key signposts are now illuminating the path for teams and the organizations that increasingly depend upon them for success. Focusing on interrelatedness across teams, emphasizing adaptability, and developing resilience via strong relationships are the critical factors enabling teams to deliver both business results and the increased focus on well-being demanded by a new generation of employees.

The Signposts

Interrelatedness Ahead. Today, many organizations must coordinate complex systems to achieve their goals. It is increasingly critical to ensure alignment between the purpose and meaning that people find in their work and the team’s purpose, as well as aligning the purpose of teams who must work together to accomplish collective goals. This interrelatedness of purpose is driving the need for a greater degree of collective leadership. Successful businesses are reshaping their organizations around “networks of teams”, and they are transforming mindsets from leadership belonging to a single person or specific role, to leadership as a collaborative process that is shared across networks of people.

The question for organizational leaders is changing from, “Who are our team leaders?” to “What conditions do we need for leadership to flourish in a network of teams?”

Adaptability Required. Today’s teams are responsible for increasingly complex tasks, which requires them to plan, decide, remember, make decisions, solve problems, and generally think as an integrated unit within and across teams. This increase in task complexity requires an unprecedented level of adaptability – along with the cognitive and emotional competencies – to navigate 21st-century team environments.

Many recent studies on team leadership describe the need for a new generation of teams that can work locally and virtually across both time zones and cultural boundaries. The leaders of these teams must motivate, communicate, and collaborate through a combination of shared leadership practices and digital technologies. This new generation of leaders must see shared team leadership and collaboration as essential and put their energies into building highly-effective teams that balance performance with employee well-being. The challenge for organizational leaders is that 20th-century team development models and programs are insufficient to develop the levels of collective leadership required to meet an increasingly complex future.

The question leaders must answer is, “How do we employ technology and new approaches to team development in a manner that delivers sustained adaptability within teams and teams of teams?”

Yield to Relationships. The highly-dynamic and uncertain nature of teamwork in a global, and often virtual, environment requires tremendous resiliency. Strong, trusting relationships are the heart of highly-resilient teams. Most team leadership models that emerged in the mid-to-late 20th century reflect a static view of the nature of teams, emphasizing team leader traits and team processes in input-process-output systems. A better understanding of the fluid and complex nature of teamwork in flatter, networked organizations is leading to a greater emphasis on team relationships within and across teams. Developing resilient teams requires team leaders to understand what motivates each team member and to develop the team relationship management skills that foster trust, energy and engagement.

The question for company leaders to consider is, “How do we put in place reliable measures of team relationship strength that tell us we are on the path to building resilient teams?”

The Road Ahead

As we move toward the end of the second decade of the 21st century, it is teams that will, to a large extent, determine whether an organization ends up as an historical footnote, languishes in mediocrity, or is on the road to enduring greatness. The challenge for leaders is to recognize what must change within their organization to enable a new generation of teams to create, innovate, and thrive. Many organizations still struggle with the transformation from 20th-century hero-led hierarchies, to a more networked, shared approach to leading and competing. By focusing on interrelatedness, adaptability, and resilience leaders place their teams on the road to excellence and position their organizations for success.

Selected Sources and References

Costa, P. L., Passos, A. M., & Bakker, A. B. (2016). The work engagement grid: Predicting engagement from two core dimensions. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 31, 774-789. doi:10.1108/JMP-11-2014-0336

Guchait, P. (2016). The mediating effect of team engagement between team cognitions and team outcomes in service-management teams. Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Research, 40, 139-161. doi:10.1177/1096348013495698

Hurley, J. S. (2017). The One Habit: The Ultimate Guide to Building Engaged, Highly-Effective Teams. Scottsdale, AZ: Xmetryx Press.

Deloitte Human Capital Trends

Center for Creative Leadership: Future Trends in Leadership Development

Kristin L. Cullen-Lester, Cynthia K. Maupin, Dorothy R. Carter, Incorporating social networks into leadership development: A conceptual model and evaluation of research and practice, The Leadership Quarterly, Volume 28, Issue 1, 2017, Pages 130-152. doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2016.10.005.

Salas, E., Rico, R., Passmore, J. The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of the Psychology of Team Working and Collaborative Processes (Wiley-Blackwell Handbooks in Organizational Psychology). Wiley.


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About the Author

Dr. Jeb Hurley is a leading expert on team dynamics and building high-performance hybrid / remote teams. He guides leaders in understanding and influencing human behavior and creating trust and psychological safety. Jeb’s innovative, behavioral science-based approach to leadership development improves team performance and people’s wellbeing faster and at a lower cost. Learn more about Jeb’s work at Brainware Partners.