Keeping Workplace Teams Fresh, Relevant — and Productive

Article main image
Jul 25, 2014

At the heart of successful organizations are people who work well together.

But, what are the circumstances that lead people to want to team up again and again?

Research by Stanford University sociologist Daniel McFarland suggests the reasons people continue to collaborate with others in their professional networks are quite different from the motives that led them to begin those relationships in the first place.

“Tie inertia” keeps people in relationships

Professional partnerships often begin because two or more employees work in the same place, see one another often, and have a lot in common. It’s easy to relate to someone who shares your background and values, although some people choose to associate with others in hopes of boosting their status or paycheck.

But they often stay in these relationships due to “tie inertia,” which is a tendency to stay with what is known out of a sense of familiarity and commitment.

This sense of obligation is strengthened if the people have invested a great deal of time and other resources in the team. McFarland says that people initiate relationships due to “opportunity and preference selection” but stay in them out of a sense of “obligation and complementary experience.”

At the beginning of a partnership, being the same is terrific, but that only lasts so long. If you are too similar, there’s too much overlap in capability, knowledge, and contacts, which can hamper creativity and breed turf issues. It also can render collaboration unnecessary, since partners can do essentially the same things.

Inertia CAN have consequences

When a team is working well, this continuity is a good thing; however, the inertia can have consequences.

“People tend to stick to the ties they have formed, for better or worse,” McFarland writes. “By implication this means that some individuals are locked out of fruitful new partnerships, while others become less open to collaborations with other potential partners.”

That explains why teammates who realize they are too similar often end their relationship unless they can find or develop new points of complementarity. The teams that survive for the long-term are those with a degree of similarity so they can communicate, but a degree of difference so they can plumb the relationship for additional value and skills one of the team may not yet possess.

These findings about the importance of shared positive experiences and complementarity can help businesses maximize the productivity of their workforce and minimize turnover, especially since more established teams tend to be more productive.

To foster staff longevity, organizations can arrange for team members to temporarily switch roles with one another. Allowing colleagues to explore new sides of one another can keep partnerships fresh, and rotating leadership roles are prescribed to help employees develop new skills and experiences.

How Google helps energize employees

For example, Google encourages employees to take temporary assignments in different areas. Employees can acquire new skills and find out whether they like a new job (or are good at it) before committing. Most staffers return to their original jobs with new knowledge and experiences to share with their workmates, fostering new energy into their collaborations, creativity within their original groups and job enrichment for themselves.

How have your organizations been successful in keeping teams productive, creative and energetic?

The post originally appeared in a somewhat different form on

Get articles like this
in your inbox
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting articles about talent acquisition emailed weekly!