Project Management Institute

Improving project team performance through team learning

Chantal Savelsbergh, Open University of the Netherlands

Peter Storm, Open University of the Netherlands / Kennis & Co, The Hague


This proposal represents a follow-up on a previous investigation titled “Coping With Stress in Organizational Roles Through Team Learning.” This preceding, descriptive, study showed that role stress, team learning and team performance are significantly related to each other. The current follow-up study is aimed at testing our assumption that the positive effects of team learning can be enhanced by time-limited interventions within a project team. Hence, this study has the characteristics of action research. The problem we are dealing with is centered on the following questions: (1) Is it possible to increase the level of team learning within a project team with the aid of time-limited interventions? (2) How do different conditions influence the effectiveness of our interventions? and (3) Will the increased level of team learning lead to increased team performance?

Our investigation will involve 12 project teams in different project industries in the Netherlands: Building and construction, infrastructure development, and IT. We will use time-limited interventions aimed at influencing (a) leadership style of the team leader, and (b) learning behaviors of the team. These interventions will be supplemented by premeasurement and postmeasurement of the central variables: role stress, leadership style, team learning, and team performance. The research results will be partly of a quantitative nature and partly of a qualitative nature.

Key words: Team learning, team interventions, project team performance, team role stress, leadership style


This paper describes a follow-up (Phase II) on a previous investigation titled Coping With Stress in Organizational Roles Through Team Learning. The results of Phase I of our investigation showed that:

  1. Role stress, particularly role overload, is negatively related to project team performance.
  2. Team-learning behaviors reduce role stress and increase project team performance.
  3. Leadership style of the project team leader influences the level of team-learning behaviors.
  4. Team membership stability is positively related to the level of team-learning behaviors.
Schematic Overview of Research Findings Phase I “Coping with Stress in Organizational Roles through Team Learning”

Figure 1. Schematic Overview of Research Findings Phase I “Coping with Stress in Organizational Roles through Team Learning”

These findings indicate that it might be possible, in practice, to improve project team performance through:

  • well-coordinated changes in the ways in which project teams are led,
  • managing the level of team role stress,
  • and the level to which project teams are used to apply routines of team learning, and
  • while taking into account certain conditions, such as team membership stability, under which the teams have to operate.

Research Questions and Aims

It is our research aim, to explore more deeply, the role of the leader in promoting team learning. In addition, we aim to explore the effects of interventions that trigger the leader and the team to engage in team learning.

We will focus on how to promote the level of team learning directly and indirectly through specific interventions. On the one hand, we will examine interventions that focus on the project team leader, adapting his leadership style towards promoting team learning. On the other hand, we will examine interventions that focus on the project team itself, strengthening their learning routines.

The central research questions of our proposal are:

  1. Which interventions prompt project team leaders to adapt their leadership style towards a style that promotes team learning directly and indirectly?
  2. Which interventions can be applied in practice to prompt project teams to strengthen their team learning routines, and in so doing increase team performance?
  3. How can we deal with those available conditions, such as team membership instability, which potentially reduce or limit the effectiveness of our interventions?

The practical aims of this investigation are:

  • To show that learning behaviors within project teams can be enhanced through specific and time limited interventions within these teams.
  • To develop, test, and disseminate an intervention program which can be used in practice by project team leaders and which is aimed at improving team performance through team learning.

Theoretical Foundation

Following Kahn, Wolfe, Quinn, Snoeck, and Rosenthal (1964), we define role stress as a composite construct consisting of role conflict and role ambiguity and, following later studies, of role overload. Role conflict refers to “the simultaneous occurrence of two (or more) sets of pressures such that compliance with one would make more difficult compliance with the other” (Kahn et al., 1964, p. 19). Role ambiguity occurs when a person does not have access to sufficient information to perform his or her role adequately. Role overload occurs when a person does not have sufficient time or resources to comply with expectations even when there is no role conflict or ambiguity.

A role is distinguished from a task in the sense that role behaviors can include expectations not necessarily defined in the task or tasks at hand.

In our previous investigation, we specifically tested our assumption that role stress at the team level can be distinguished from role stress at the individual level.

Team learning is defined here as an ongoing process of reflection and action based on shared understanding and grounded on experience. For group learning to occur, group members need to engage in learning oriented-activities such as reflective conversation, experimentation, feedback seeking, and discussions of errors or unexpected outcomes. Through such behavior, learning is enacted at the group level (Edmondson, 1999).

Frequent engagement in learning-oriented activities benefits the group by increasing its aggregated capacity to produce superior results. For example, productive discussion of errors helps group members uncover sources of inefficiency; feedback helps them understand customers and coordinate their tasks more effectively; and experimentation provides the group with the grounds to design new solutions, implement new features, and correct errors and mistakes; and moreover asking questions and testing assumptions may help to clarify role ambiguity and help team members deal with role conflict.

The instrument that we developed in Phase I allows us to diagnose the relative levels of team learning and to feed these back to the team.

Schematic Feedback on Team Learning Behaviors to the Teams

Figure 2. Schematic Feedback on Team Learning Behaviors to the Teams

Fleishman, Mumford, Zaccaro, Levin, Korotkin, and Hein (1991) noted person-focused and task-focused as the most common classification system in literature on individual and team leadership behavior. This dichotomy is still valid (Burke, Stagl, Klein, Goodwin, Salas, & Halpin, 2006). Person-focused leadership behaviors facilitate team interaction and/or development. Task-focused leadership behaviors consist of behaviors that work to ensure that members have a clear sense of direction and purpose, that guide the team action toward goal attainment. Consideration as a person-focused and initiating structure as a task-focused leadership behavior have proven to be among the most robust leadership concepts (Burke et al., 2006). Findings from previous studies confirm that person-focused leadership behavior relates to team learning. Burke et al. (2006) demonstrated that person-focused leadership behavior explains nearly 30% of variance in team learning outcome. Edmondson (1996, 1999) showed that team leaders giving guidance, encouragement, and support to the team members, by coaching and considerate leadership, influence psychological safety in teams, which in turn promotes team learning behaviors. Research by Schippers, Den Hartog, Koopman, and Wienk (2003) showed that inspirational, charismatic, and intellectual stimulation aspects of transformational leadership stimulate reflexivity in teams by engendering a shared vision.

A multitude of conditions fostering or obstructing learning within organizations have been mentioned in the literature. In this investigation, we will focus on conditions which have been specifically related to team learning. Edmondson and Nembhard (2009) investigated product development teams and concluded that the following conditions have significant effects on team learning: complexity of the project (as indicated, for instance, in the number of different disciplines involved); stability of team membership (as expressed, for instance, by the average number of changes in team composition over a given period of time); and organizational structures that inhibit the free flow of knowledge (as expressed, for instance, by the division of authority among the stakeholders of the project).

Ayas and Zeniuk (2001) investigated the emergence of learning communities in project-based organizations. They concluded that psychological safety (as indicated, for instance, by the openness and directness with which issues and problems are being addressed) (see also Chang & Lee, 2001) within the team and the presence of a supportive learning infrastructure (as indicated, for instance, by the availability of a “lessons learned” database) are crucial conditions for team learning.

Both Ayas and Zeniuk (2001) and Chang and Lee (2001) concluded that sense of purpose (as indicated, for instance, by the presence and content of performance appraisals) influence the level of team learning.

Finally, we will include role stress as potential inhibitor of team learning, based on the results of our preceding investigation among 38 project teams.

With regard to the design of our interventions, we will follow the approach developed by Argyris (1991). Based on his extensive research, Argyris concluded that learning in organizations is obstructed by defensive reasoning. While observing that defensive reasoning is a widespread phenomenon, Argyris also believed that “people can break out of the vicious cycle of defensive reasoning … People can be taught how to recognize the reasoning they use when they design and implement their actions … They can discover that the kind of reasoning necessary to reduce and overcome organizational defenses is the same kind of tough reasoning that underlies the effective use of ideas in strategy, finance and other management disciplines” (Argyris, 1991, p. 106). To implement this “hard reasoning,” Argyris proposes several conditions for successful interventions:

  • Use real-life cases instead of theoretical or normative arguments.
  • Use hard data and help people to apply these data in their analysis.
  • Practice the kind of behavior that is characteristic of double loop learning (rather than single loop learning).
  • Stimulate people to search for concrete feedback on the effects of their new behavior and reasoning.

Research Approach, Setting and Design

Approach and Setting

We aim to explore our research questions in a multi-case investigation involving 12 project teams in one or more project industries, such as building and construction, infrastructure development, and IT.


The research will be carried out through the following steps:

  1. Design the interventions needed to influence team leadership style and team learning. Develop a detailed schedule for the application of these interventions within the participating teams. Develop method for direct observation.
  2. Gather commitment from the teams, their team leaders, and the management of their organizations to apply.
  3. Pre-measure the existing levels of stress, leadership style, team learning behaviors, and team performance. For these measurements, we will apply the instruments used in our preceding investigation.
  4. Execute the interventions according to schedule. Collect direct observations on leadership style and team learning behavior.
  5. Post-measure the existing levels of stress, leadership style, team learning behaviors, and team performance immediately after finishing the schedule.
  6. Repeat post measurement after 2–4 months.
  7. Analyze data from measurements and direct observations.
Schematic Overview of the Seven Research Steps

Figure 3. Schematic Overview of the Seven Research Steps

This six-step framework is based on the following assumptions:

  1. Commitment and understanding on the part of the team leader (project manager) is essential to create initial conditions that stimulate learning behaviors and to maintain the behavioral patterns implemented during the training.
  2. Learning is an abstract concept. People may easily agree that joint learning is important for them to perform their collective task without agreeing on the “what” and “how” of joint learning. Hence, we apply a specific description of learning behaviors that can easily be related to the concrete experiences of the team.
  3. Feedback is an essential ingredient to support learning. Hence, we perform both a pre-test and a post-test and feed the results back to the team. The way in which this test is administered can easily be adopted by the team for future use.
  4. Learning encompasses quite a few different behaviors. It is rather difficult for an individual to learn several behaviors simultaneously. Probably this is even more difficult for a group of people. Hence, we select those behaviors to be trained that are lacking most within the team. In addition, we split the training in two parts.
  5. Concrete and work related learning is more stimulating to most people than classroom training. Hence, we will use only concrete cases and experiences of the team itself. These cases and experiences will be brought in by the team leader mostly.
  6. Role overload (too much work) is a common phenomenon within project teams. Project managers and project teams can be expected to be hesitant about going into a training to “learn to learn.”
    Hence, the framework is aimed at a very short throughput time requiring a minimum of time to be invested by the team.
  7. To adopt the framework to the real conditions of the team we will design and apply minor variations. For instance, coaching the project manager in addition to training the team could be a necessary variation in certain circumstances.

Data Collection

Collection of data is based on the following methods:

  • Questionnaires (pre-measurement and post-measurement): role stress, leadership style, team learning behaviors, team performance.
  • Interviews: project characteristics, demographic data, team performance, evaluation of practical applicability of the interventions.
  • Direct observation (by investigators and by team leader): team-learning behaviors.


A high degree of co-operation from the project teams to be investigated is needed. This necessitates commitment from the stakeholders—owners and (sub) contractors—involved in the projects. It also requires an extensive time investment on the part of the researchers for each team. We expect that a minimum total of 40 hours per team will be required for the following steps:

  1. Preparation and team leader briefing,
  2. Premeasurement,
  3. First intervention,
  4. Second intervention,
  5. Postmeasurement, and
  6. Evaluation.

These are estimations. Exact time requirements may vary depending on the nature of the project and size of the team. Throughput time for the six-step program is approximately three months.

Previous experience has shown that it takes a considerable amount of time to gain full commitment from the teams and their sponsors. Consequently, we will have to spread our efforts over a period of 12 months. This means that we plan to execute the research in batches of three to five teams.

Current Status and Nature of Findings to be Presented at the 2010 PMI Conference

As of November 2009, we will have executed the full intervention cycle, as described in the six steps mentioned previously, in five teams. As of April 2010, we expect to have completed the full cycle in an additional number of four teams. This will allow us to present the results of nine case studies at the 2010 PMI Research Conference. These results will include both quantitative and qualitative comparisons among the teams. In our report, we will address the following questions:

  • Which learning conditions have we observed among the teams at the start of our investigation?
  • How do these conditions affect the learning behaviors of the teams?
  • How do team leaders deal with these conditions?
  • Which interventions have we used to support the team leaders and their teams in order to strengthen team-learning behaviors?
  • What were the effects of these interventions as perceived by the investigators and as evaluated by the team leaders?


Argyris, C. (1991). Teaching smart people how to learn. Harvard Business Review, May-June, 99–109.

Ayas, K., & Zeniuk, N. (2001). Project-based learning: Building communities of reflective practitioners, Management Learning, 32(1), 61–76.

Burke, C. S, Stagl, K. C. Klein, C., Goodwin, G. F., Salas, E., & Halpin, S. M. (2006). What type of leadership behaviors are functional in teams? A meta-analysis. Leadership Quarterly, 17(3), 288–307.

Edmondson, A. (1996). Learning from mistakes is easier said than done: Group and organizational influences on the detection and correction of human error. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 32(1), 5–32.

Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350–383.

Edmondson, A., & Nembhard, I. (2009). Product development and learning in project teams: The challenges are the benefits. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 26(2), 123–138.

Fleishman, E. A., Mumford, M. D., Zaccaro, S. J., Levin, K. Y., Korotkin, A. L., & Hein, M. B. (1991). Toxonomic efforts in the description of leader behavior. A synthesis and functional interpretation. Leadership Quarterly, 2(4), 245–287.

Chang, H-T, & Lee, A.(2001). The relationship between psychological safety, organisation context support and team learning behaviour in Taiwan. Global Journal of Engineering Education, 5(2), 185–192.

Kahn, R., Wolfe, D., Quinn, R., Snoeck, J., & Rosenthal, R. (1964). Organizational stress: Studies in conflict and ambiguity. New York: John Wiley.

Schippers, M. C., Den Hartog, D. N., Koopman, P. L., & Wienk, J. A. (2003). Diversity and team outcomes: The moderating effects of outcome interdependence and group longevity and the mediating effect of reflexivity. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 24(6), 779–802.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2010 Project Management Institute



Related Content