Team Unity: IU Southeast’s John Ross reveals secrets of successful teams in new book

9th May 2022

Team Unity: A Leader’s Guide to Unlocking Extraordinary Potential is the title of a new book by John Ross, assistant professor of management. Ross teaches leadership and entrepreneurship at IU Southeast. Before arriving in New Albany, he taught history to seventh graders in Mesa, Arizona, produced musical events in New York and Washington, DC, and worked as project lead for one of the world’s leading manufacturers in Fort Worth, Texas. He has been researching and working with teams for more than a decade. His research in extraordinary teams and unity has since expanded into hope, knowledge acquisition and retention. He holds a BA in organizational studies from Arizona State University, an MBA in finance from Drexel University and a PhD in management from New Mexico State University. Ross spoke with Academic Information Officer, Steven Krolak.

When and how did the idea for this book come to you?

The idea for the book hit me more than ten years ago while employed at a major manufacturing facility in the south. Teamwork was common, but extraordinary teamwork was not. All the books I was reading about teamwork said that these extraordinary teams were random. Then a leader came in and produced amazing, incredible results. The company moved him to a new area where he produced similar results. I later discovered that he also had a history of success with similar amazing results at his previous company. That’s when it hit me: If he could replicate results, then it’s not random. Thus, my research of extraordinary teams and unity began.

Was there a gap in knowledge that you sought to fill with this book?

Yes, previously these types of teams were seen as outliers, super-performing random teams that got lucky. Not so. Also, the building blocks of great teams is often depicted as an overcomplicated mess of a process that really is quite simple. The foundation of team performance is described in one word, unity. This firm foundation can be explained and rebuilt by other teams. While every team may not reach extraordinary team status, every team can greatly improve their team performance by being more unifed. In the book I make the case for the importance of unity and outline the four key components of as focus, direction, trust and conflict.

How has your research evolved over time?

The research started as just identifying the characteristics of an extraordinary team. Naturally, upon learning about extraordinary teams, I learned about all sorts of other teams with various levels of performance. Next, I was interested in the behavioral differences between team members in an extraordinary team and other performing teams. This is where my focus turned to unity. The difference between the highest and lowest performing teams is how united they are. This led me to then look at how I could replicate results in other teams—and even other contexts. Unity not only improves the workplace but can improve relationships and home life as well. That was an extremely satisfying discovery. Most recently I’ve begun investigating the neural links that occur when team members unite.

What were some of the most surprising things to emerge from your research?

I was most surprised at how disunified most teams are. Most team members work quite independently from each other and frequently allow distractions to get in the way of performance. I was also surprised to see how much a team could improve just by talking about the importance of unity and describing its components. One clergy member in Florida commented “One of the most important parts about the formula is identifying where the issue is. Once you see where the faults are in team unity, the solution becomes a lot clearer.” Also, something intriguing was how disunified most executive teams were. You would think they would be some of the most unified. Many executive teams are not. Many executive teams still harbor the inter-competitive spirit that helped them rise to an executive level, but at the executive level it is imperative that the group comes together and pursues goals and strategies as a united front.

One of the intriguing aspects of the book concerns scales by which unity can be measured. How does this work, and why is it important?

Unity is a team performance theory. Many managers and leaders would love to improve their team performance, but often find themselves bombarded with daily tasks and stresses that distract them from what they should be doing, leading. Setting aside the time to analyze the situation, then knowing what to do and when to do it can be tough. The Unity Formula is a simple, proven measurement that can be used quickly by team members and leaders to determine current levels of unity and signal where the most efficient use of efforts would be best applied to increase unity. The formula not only works, but it has been applied to teams across the country in a wide variety of industries including healthcare, education, sports, retail, manufacturing, and hospitality.

To what extent did teaching help you road-test the material?

A huge push to writing this book was teaching a graduate-level teams class. I looked and looked for textbooks but was unsatisfied with all of them. They were all management books with a teams twist. My research was much deeper and more applicable to the team performance. I wrote the rough draft in May of 2020 and used it in my class that summer, with tremendous success. Some of the comments from students in the class were, “This makes total sense,” and, ” I’ve never thought about it this way before, but you’re right,” and, most importantly for an author, “Where can I buy this book?” The content of the published book is very close to the version I used in my first class.

What has been the most satisfying aspect of writing the book?

When I hear that people who use Team Unity as a tool have seen tremendous improvement in the performance of their own teams. I also love hearing about it, when my students teach it to their bosses or when they lead a team that outperforms other teams by using the principles in Team Unity. In a world that’s looking for improved culture and teamwork in the workplace, students who take my class are equipped with the most innovative teamwork research in over a decade, which gives them a competitive advantage in the workplace. We spend half of our waking hours working. I feel that if I can make those hours more productive and also more rewarding on a human level, then this would be my way to make the world a better place.

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