What Makes Teams Work?

Last week I wrotebusiness culture teamwork about the traits of individual team members and how sometimes superstars do not make good teammates and can negatively impact performance. Shortly after that, there was a detailed piece in The New York Times about a research project that Google did on effective teams. It was really fascinating because they were searching for the perfect mix, the right recipe for an effective team. After all, why not find out the secret sauce within their 51,000 member workforce? What they found was not what they expected and I want to point out two key findings in particular.

The first characteristic they found in successful teams was that they had group norms. These are operating principles for the group’s behavior. Mostly spoken, but sometimes not, the key is that the whole group knows what they are. This provides a level of “psychological safety” that all humans need in order to contribute and think about and articulate what they want. Without this, team members will withhold ideas and feelings, sometimes leaving the best ideas and/or cautions out of the discussion. The group norms provide a level of safety or equality for all group members. The best ideas come from these groups.

Having facilitated meetings for many years, I can attest to the fact that when norms or operating principles are established upfront, things go much smoother and progress can occur. I’ve also presented to groups where there were no “rules” and any value or take away is minimized because of the lack of norms. Some call it the group culture, formed on people’s values, but it’s really just more behaviors that are “ok” and those that are not. Some examples are, “Be responsible for what gets heard,” and “Every person’s contribution if valid and valuable.” These are just two that I’ve used for years, (provided by Dwight Frindt at 2130 Partners). They set the framework for productive, safe conversations.

The second characteristic they found of successful teams was that all participants had conversational equality by taking turns and they had “emotional sensitivity” to others points-of-view. Again, creating safety. The researchers kept going back to the individuals trying to find the “DNA” needed for extraordinary teammates and could find no statistical relevance of any individual characteristic. Regardless of whose idea it was, or what their rank was, it was important to create the space for everyone to talk. Groups bond when they know one another and know it’s safe to share anything and everything. The best groups I’ve facilitated were those that shared personally as well as professionally. We always had group norms or operating principles and now that I have a name for it, we always had psychological safety.

Next time you are leading a meeting or putting together a team, take a few minutes to agree on norms, my belief is your outcome will be much better!