Why Teams Fail, According To MBAs

Students at the University of Virginia-Darden. Courtesy photo

From the time MBA students step on campus to when they leave and well beyond into the workforce, teamwork is a prominent way of work. Gauging how students will work within teams and interact with classmates is a big piece to the admissions process for business schools. And according to research published yesterday (May 21), current MBA students and MBA graduates are not confident in the potential of the teams they’ve been a part of. Only 29% of respondents to the survey conducted by the Association of MBAs (AMBA) believe their teams have had the “right make-up for success” at least three-quarters of the time. Fewer than 1% said they believe teams they’ve been on have had the right make-up for success 100% of the time.

The main reason? Poor leadership, the research shows. More than half of respondents (58%) listed “poor leadership” as a top-three issue of teams failing. Of that 58%, two-thirds said it was the top cause. Respondents said micro-management or disengaged leaders led to more than half of why poor leadership played a role in teams failing. More than two-thirds (34%) listed “communication issues between team members” as the top cause for failure on teams.

“Insufficient support from other team members” was the third most-cited cause of team failure, with nearly 30% of respondents listing it as a top cause.

Graph from AMBA “Game Changers” report

Interestingly, the majority of MBAs think they are not the problem. Of the respondents, more than eight of 10 (82%) said they felt their role in a team was “always or often” understood by their teammates. But only 20% said it had “always” been made clear to them how “team members’ contributions complement one another.”

Graphic from the AMBA Game Changer report


AMBA also partnered with The GC Index, which breaks down team roles into five different ways people like to contribute to teams, including The Game Changer, The Strategist, The Implementer, The Polisher, and The Play Maker. Of the respondents, 27% believed themselves to be The Implementer, which is defined as the team member who “builds the future by making great ideas happen, moving into action and getting things done.” The next most commonly identified type of team member for MBAs was The Game Changer, at 22%, which is defined as the person bringing original ideas to the team. Following closely was 21% of respondents saying they are The Strategists, which “set a direction for others to follow.”

“This research shows that student and graduate MBAs see themselves as having different styles of leadership,” AMBA Research and Insight Manager Will Dawes said in a prepared statement. “This indicates that Business Schools enroll future leaders onto MBAs who may have varying approaches as leaders, or that MBA programs influence students to think about themselves in different ways. The study also shines a light on key issues which are seen to affect team performance in the workplace, namely having a combination of skills and clarity around how these skills complement each other.”


According to some of the world’s most prolific tech and innovation leaders, positive, diverse, and productive teams as well as clear communication are two of the most important pieces to the future of work and productivity of teams. Research from the University of Michigan has shown that having positive teams has a significant impact on the productivity of teams in financial services and health care.

“The key to achieving long-term success is to transform individual action into collective power,” John Mervyn-Smith, the chief psychologist for The GC Index said in a prepared statement. “In order to do this effectively, you need to not only understand how you can best contribute and make an impact but also how other team members make their impact — only then will you be able to place them in the right roles and right environments. The teams and organizations that get this right and communicate openly about how everyone in the team makes an impact are the ones that are winning when it comes to transformation.”

While the MBA population is a diverse one in terms of team roles, Mervyn-Smith says that MBAs can — and should — be successful in playing different roles.

“The data suggests that, in terms of GC Index proclivities, the MBA population, comprising both students and graduates, is a diverse group,” Mervyn-Smith says within the full report. “It varies very little from what would be expected in a large random population; in other words, 20% for each proclivity. Given this, the findings also suggest that individuals with an MBA can be successful in different ways, reinforcing the view that people should play to their GC Index strengths. There is a suggestion that the Playmaker role is more evident in CEOs. Therefore ambitious MBA students, depending upon their aspirations, may see the benefits of developing their Playmaker skills.”


Mervyn-Smith says business can take a page from the playbook of team sports.

“We can learn from the world of sport when it comes to putting together effective leadership teams,” he said in the prepared release. “Like a rugby team working together to set up the perfect position for a try, every team member has an important role to play and contribution to make in order to achieve the objective. A player scoring is made possible other player’s planning, agility, coordination and cooperation to navigate defense and get the ball lined up for a try.”

The survey was conducted from September of last year to this past January and included 31% of respondents that are current students at AMBA-accredited schools. The rest of respondents have graduated from AMBA-accredited schools. While the only AMBA-accredited school in the U.S. is the Hult International Business School, many of the world’s prominent business schools outside of the U.S. are accredited, including London Business School, the University of Oxford Said Business School, and INSEAD.

Almost half of the respondents (44%) were CEOs, managing directors, board members, or senior managers. Nearly two-thirds (64%) had “budgetary responsibilities” within their organizations.


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