Teams exist in all manner of forms and contexts, from those that take part in social or performance sport, the specific focus of this article, to teams operating within the professional world and teams based in the community. Indeed, no matter what our individual circumstances, we are all members of, and contributors in, a variety of teams.
Common sense would dictate that highly cohesive teams are likely to be highly successful teams. This is traditional sporting wisdom, and it certainly seems logical to expect that a highly cohesive team would be likely to achieve more than a team rife with discontent, conflict and disruption. However, it is altogether unreasonable to assume that all successful teams are also highly cohesive in nature, there is and will always be glaring exceptions to this rule.
Therefore, the key questions are: Just what is the nature and magnitude of the relationship, if any, between team cohesion and performance? And furthermore, what are the implications for athletes, supporters, coaches, administrators and everyone else involved in the sporting community? This paper seeks to address these concerns.
Explaining Cohesion and Performance
Cohesion, in the context of teams, is all about the joining together of individuals to form a united and cooperative whole. Cohesion is an overall measure of group togetherness, and is based on three key factors: interpersonal attraction, defined as the tendency of one person to evaluate another person in a consistently positive manner; individual commitment, towards the collective and its objectives/goals; and feelings of personal satisfaction and pride, based upon the perceived achievements and/or opportunities derived from membership. If all three of these factors are found to be abundant within the majority of team members, said team can therefore be considered relatively cohesive.
Performance can be defined as a measure of the effectiveness and efficiency of a given team, and its individual members, in pursuing predetermined objectives and goals. Criticisms are often made that performance tends be measured chiefly by results, with little concern for the internal processes of teams and other less tangible, but potentially important, outcomes. This point notwithstanding, the link between performance and results is both logical and practical when we consider that the reason we form teams in the first place is because we wish to achieve certain objectives and goals. To take a negotiated position on the matter, while team process is indeed of interest, and one could well argue that analysis of performance should involve greater attention to internal team processes, it is the end results that should, and inevitably do, prove the final and overriding measure of success or failure.
The Nature of the Cohesion-Performance Effect
Whilst there is a kernel of quality literature regarding the cohesion-performance relationship in the sport and leisure context, the subject has been researched most extensively within the fields of management, leadership and psychology. Many credible studies exist in academia, with distinct and conflicting narratives emerging on the subject.
On one hand, there are some expert authorities that believe there is insufficient evidence to suggest that team cohesiveness and achievement tend to be positively related. Many more theorists however, conclude that cohesion amongst team members does tend to promote productivity, which can be directly related to positive performance outcomes. On top of all of this, there is also a select body of work that promotes a mixed and inconclusive stance towards the relation of team cohesion and performance. In the final analysis however, whilst evidence exists to suggest that high levels of team cohesion can occasionally detract from performance quality and productivity, and that highly cohesive groups are often more enjoyable to be part of; but potentially less productive, the overwhelming weight of research and personal experience indicates that, in general, a positive correlation exists between cohesion and performance.
The Magnitude of the Cohesion–Performance Effect
If one is to accept that there is indeed a cohesion-performance effect, the actual magnitude of this correlation requires a little more delving. It should be noted that proponents typically emphasize that its potency is dependent upon a raft of unstable factors, the most consistent and salient of these are given as: the degree of interaction between team members, the size of the team and the ‘reality’ of the team. Each of these warrants some discussion in its own right.
Firstly, one should consider the frequency of interaction between team members, which is held by many as the most important factor. The fact is, barring inevitable squabbles and disputes, the more often individual team members interact with each other, the more cohesive that team will tend to become. This is important because cohesiveness enhances performance most of all during endeavors where suboptimal results arise from inadequate coordination and cooperation between team members. Because of this, the cohesion-performance effect is often at its most evident within the context of team sport, wherein each individual typically has their own unique part to play, and the interdependence and coordination of these efforts is essential in achieving quality outcomes.
The second factor, team size, has been shown to have a major affect upon the magnitude of several other team phenomena, so it is therefore logical that it would have influence over the cohesion-performance effect. Studies have shown that, in larger teams, cohesiveness typically suffers. This makes sense, in that members of larger teams may find it more difficult or intimidating to socialize with each other, or indeed, simply do not have the time or opportunity to forge bonds with everyone. Typically then, one should expect the magnitude of the cohesion-performance effect to be greater in smaller teams and lower in larger teams.
Finally, the ‘reality’ of the team is said to have a notable affect the magnitude of the cohesion-performance effect. The term ‘reality’ refers to the purpose, manner and context under which a team has been brought together. The implication is that ‘real’ teams have both a history and a weight of interaction that makes their cohesion-performance effect tend to be of a greater magnitude than teams that are artificially formed, including experimental or evaluative groupings, or short-run, such as teams brought together for a single match or tournament.
Implications for those Involved in the Sport Community
Certainly, high levels of cohesion in a team can do wonders for ‘on the field’ results. It must be stressed however, that all the cohesion in the world cannot be relied upon to compensate for lack of technique, ability, knowledge, fitness, motivation or insufficient resources. Certainly, cohesion should be promoted amongst teammates, which is not difficult to achieve if individual athletes are given the time and opportunity to socialize with their peers off the field and build bonds of mutual trust and respect during training.
For teams that are severely lacking in cohesion, the inevitable disappointments and failures that come with sporting involvement can begin a downward spiral into utter despair. The reality of sport is that nobody can win all the time. The occasional loosing streak plagues even the best of teams, and when times get tough, cohesion is quite literally the glue that holds a team together. Remember, while winning can sometimes bolster the reserves, loosing will always drain them.
In conclusion, research on the cohesion–performance effect typically conceptualizes cohesion as the sum of three key factors: interpersonal attraction, individual commitment and personal pride in group membership. Performance is typically considered to be exhibited only in terms of ‘on the field’ outcomes. Research leads to several outlooks on the issue, with the majority of academics supporting the existence of a positive correlation between cohesion and performance, the magnitude of which is said reliant on several unstable elements: the level of interaction between group members, the size of the group and the ‘reality’ of the group. Those involved in the sporting community should facilitate team-cohesion wherever possible, as it can have a significant effect on performance outcomes, and can be valuable source of solace and resolve for team members during prolonged periods of poor performance and/or instability.
Arron Stewart Is 26 years old, lives in Hamilton, New Zealand, and attends the University of Waikato as a graduate student in Sport & Leisure with an additional focus on Sociology and Human Resource Management. A website has been established featuring more information and selected articles of his work: http://www.geoci/arron_stew_79