5 keys to successful teamwork

It’s a common assumption that teams are more productive than individuals working independently. It’s a fair assumption: we would think that a team is more than the sum of its parts, that each person can benefit from an extra pair of hands, that more can be achieved with more combined effort. The whole “two heads are better than one” idea.

In reality, most teams are actually less effective than we think they are. According to J. Richard Hackman, a professor of social and organizational psychology at Harvard University and a leading expert on teams, research on teams consistently shows that teams underperform their potential, despite all the extra resources they have. He notes that teams typically have problems with coordination and motivation, and they are often in competition with other teams, all of which puts them at a disadvantage right from the start. Ironically, organizations with the best human resource departments sometimes have less effective teams because HR tends to focus on improving individual behavior rather than team behavior.

So what can help enable teams to produce the magic they aspire to? What needs to be in place to improve a team’s chances of success? Here I break it down into five components:

Context. First things first, a team won’t succeed if certain fundamental elements aren’t in place. These include adequate resources to do their work, a clear leader and structure for the group, a climate of trust within the organization, and a system of performance evaluation that measures and rewards individual contributions and team achievements.

Composition. Often teams are formed by pulling in people who are interested, available, and whose roles are relevant to the group objective. But there are far more important variables to consider in building a team if you want the team to succeed:

  • Abilities. A team is not just the sum of its individual members’ abilities, but those abilities can also set limits on the team’s performance. In building a team for a specific purpose, you should consider what abilities are required to achieve success. Working on a strategic plan? Make sure you have people who can think critically and strategically. Need a group to help put together a large mailing? Consider people who are detail-oriented and like repetitive tasks. Matching tasks to abilities can make or break a team.
  • Personalities. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the personalities of individuals can make a huge difference for the performance of a team. Reviews of literature on the subject reveal that higher levels of conscientiousness and openness to experience contribute to higher team performance, as does a minimum level of team member agreeableness. Conscientious individuals are good at backing up others and sensing when support is needed, while those open to experiences communicate better. And no one likes working with disagreeable people – they can make the experience unpleasant for everyone on the team, and that can reduce motivation and engagement.
  • Roles. Teams have different needs that need to be filled appropriately. There is all sorts of research on different team roles, from advisers and controllers to promoters and deviants, and the nature of the work will dictate what roles are required. Teams don’t always need a leader (self-managed teams have dispersed leadership) but they do benefit from effective leaders and positive deviants (those who help the team by challenging the status quo or groupthink). But all of the team’s roles should be filled with the right people, who bring the right skills, experience, and ways of thinking. When assembling a team, think about bringing together people who can contribute not only to the team’s goals but also to its meetings and work flow.
  • Diversity. A diversity in the demographics, experience, and skills of a team can be a real asset, though this depends on a few factors. The overall demographics of an organization can come into play, making minorities in the organization feel less welcome to contribute ideas. Similarly, those who are less experienced may feel intimidated to contribute if outnumbered by others with far more experience and camaraderie. A team leader plays an important role in setting the tone and providing a common goal for the group (see below), which can bring more cohesion and openness to a diverse group. If the group’s diversity is imbalanced or not managed effectively, it can actually lead to lower performance than working separately.
  • Size. Most experts agree that keeping group size small improves effectiveness. The magic number is seven (plus or minus two). If the team is too large, it is cumbersome to coordinate and contribute, and if it is too small, the group objective can be overwhelming or lack the diversity of perspectives needed for new ideas, perspectives, and solutions.
  • Preferences. Not everyone is a team player, and that’s okay. Forcing someone to be on a team they don’t want to be a part of threatens the team’s morale and the individual members’ satisfaction. When putting together a team, managers should consider individual preferences along with abilities, personalities, skills, and roles.

Common purpose. One of the biggest failures of teams is a lack of a clear and common goal. Not knowing what needs to get done – and how to get it done – leads to members becoming disengaged from the team. A good leader will help the team to define clear objectives and the processes for achieving them. When a team knows, understands, and accepts the group’s goals, they take more ownership over them and more responsibility for achieving them. When they collectively believe they can achieve those goals (what we call group efficacy) then they are more likely to succeed in their pursuit of those goals.

Conscience. As more research comes out on the importance of emotional intelligence, it is also being researched at the group level. According to experts Vanessa Druskat and Steven Wolff, building a team’s emotional intelligence means recognizing and regulating emotions at both the individual level and the group level. Effective teams consist of individuals who are aware of and regulate their own feelings and can recognize and appropriately respond to the emotions of others. To realize this, the group should establish norms that allow for positive confrontation (openly identifying another’s emotions in a supportive way) and caring (showing appreciation and respect through support, validation, and compassion). Similarly, a team should collectively recognize the group dynamic and establish norms that enable the team to work with emotions, foster a positive environment, and encourage proactive problem solving. This helps groups avoid growing stale, burning out, or getting negative. Finally, a group should also be aware of how it behaves relative to those outside the group, particularly when its work requires the cooperation or acceptance of others. Having liaisons to important constituencies or setting up mechanisms for input and feedback can help ensure that a team’s work is relevant and adopted by those it will impact. Without emotional intelligence, a group can create a negative experience for individual members, it can underperform or even fail in its objectives, and it can fail in getting its results adopted by others.

Communication. Related to the team’s conscience, communications plays a critical role in the success of teams. In fact, according to research conducted by Sociometric Solutions (now Humanyze), patterns of communications are the most important predictor of a team’s success. The three aspects of communication they identified as affecting team performance most were energy (the number and nature of exchanges between team members), engagement (distribution of energy among team members), and exploration (communication that members engage in outside the team). Effective teams communicate often with positive exchanges, ideally face-to-face, with every member communicating equally to all others, and with frequent communications outside the team as well. This latter aspect reflects the point above about understanding outside perspectives, and also the value of seeking outside inputs for the team’s work. Of course, communication outside the team comes at the expense to communication within the team, so these must be balanced, but successful teams oscillate between exploration of new ideas outside the team and engagement within the team to integrate those ideas.

Teams do have the potential for greatness – greater effectiveness, greater creativity, and greater efficiencies. However, achieving that greatness takes thoughtful effort to define, build, and manage that team. Consider how you put together a team and guide it towards success, and you can be the one who creates a great team experience for your organization.


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