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In business, we seem to think that slamming together a group of people and calling them a team makes it so. This could not be further from the truth. Let's explore how to build a team that works.
Do you remember being part of a team that just clicked? Maybe it was in school or as a member of a sports team, theater production or the jazz band -- or maybe it was even at a job where you were part of a crackerjack team.
No matter the circumstances of being on a team that just clicked, it's likely that you experienced the following: the work flowed easily and smoothly; there was communication among team members, even when there were no words. When one teammate came up with a good idea, there was usually someone else on the team who seemed to grasp it immediately and push the good idea to the next level.
Groups like this are thrilling and exhilarating, and it is a pleasure to participate in them.
Then there are the other teams. These are the groups that -- despite having the title "team" -- never function as one. No one gels; the work is always a slog. Ideas are squashed and efforts thwarted. It's almost like the team is turned against itself.
What makes the difference? Why are some teams awesome and others awful?
How to build a team: Factor No. 1
Everybody knows that a team has to have a common goal. If not, you have chaos, with every person out for him- or herself. But not just any goal will do -- teams need an inspiring common goal. An inspiring goal connects the task at hand with the ultimate outcome -- the big picture.
Most of us have heard a variation on the old saw about the three people laying bricks. A passerby asked the first bricklayer what he was doing, and the bricklayer replied with a tired and bored tone, "I am building a wall." As the passerby came upon the second bricklayer, he asked the question again. "I am building a building," the second bricklayer said. The passerby approached the third bricklayer, and the question was posed one more time: "What are you doing?" The third bricklayer looked up with bright eyes and energy and declared, "I am building a hospital!"
People need to be connected not only to the task, but also to a purpose.
So, do we now know how to build a team that performs at a high level and is a pleasure to be part of? No. A common goal, no matter how inspiring, is not enough.
Teammates must have a goal for which they are mutually accountable.
How to build a team: Factor No. 2
A great team is interdependent. I like to tell executives that they need to design teams in a way that no one person can claim success without all team members claiming success.
Designing work to be interdependent is not always as easy as it sounds. Most businesses are not structured to enable interdependence. We have individual goals and metrics. Companies get the behavior they reward. If you want teams to work together, you need to start measuring and rewarding that behavior.
But measures and rewards aren't enough. If you reward team behavior but do not work first to build trust and dependability across the team, you can actually bring about an adverse effect: tension between those team members who feel they are working harder than others in the group. It will take work to build work structures where each person feels like he or she is an indispensable part of the team and is viewed that way by the rest of the team.
When done effectively, interdependence will draw the team together and keep members from turning the work into an internal competition.
How to build a team: Factor No. 3
Are a common goal and interdependence enough to make that great team you remember from your past?
Not quite. What if the team is all pulling toward the same goal and believes every member plays a critical part in getting the team to the finish line, but every time someone makes a mistake, one or more teammates berate and belittle that person. There are also people on this team who will occasionally blow up when someone makes a suggestion, or ostracize a person when he or she takes a risk that doesn't pan out.
Having a common goal and interdependence is not enough to make a great team. Great teams need psychological safety. Amy Edmondson, the scientist who coined the term, defined psychological safety in her 1999 paper as a "shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking." Team members have confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.
The need for psychological safety was corroborated by the Project Aristotle study done by Google in 2016, in which 180 teams were studied to find patterns common to great teams. What the study found was that a lot of things we think matter, such as the ratio of introverts to extroverts or putting the best people together, actually do not matter. The most important factor in predicting the effectiveness of a team was psychological safety.
The research on how to build a strong team is voluminous and the advice varied. My advice is to not get lost in the weeds of team management. Put these three elements together -- psychological safety, an inspiring common goal and interdependence -- and you have the ingredients for creating a great team.
About the author
Joseph Flahiff has more than two decades of experience executing, coaching, consulting and training in traditional and agile delivery across large-scale complex enterprise IT organizations, as well as smaller boutique agencies. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or text Joseph at (206) 276-1386.
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