Team Productivity

Is There a Science to Building Great Teams (Or Is It Just Random?)

Daniel Threlfall
February 6, 2017
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Have you ever seen a team that seemed absolutely flawless?

I’ve seen teams who worked so well together that anyone watching them would have assumed they were all best friends, or had known each other since childhood.

They're efficient, productive, and driven. They know how to have fun working together, and how to focus and double down on their tasks. They have all the hallmarks of an ideal team.

You're probably wondering why your team can't match them. Instead, they're troubled by communication issues, poor performance, or stubborn indifference. Moreover, you don't know how to create such a high-functioning team.

This leads us to an interesting question: Is there a science to building a great team? Is there a magic formula we can follow to create an excellent team, or is it all just up to chance?

As with most things in life, there’s no “magic formula” for fixing a dysfunctional team. However, there is some sturdy research behind the elements of a high-functioning team.

Researchers have observed certain factors across almost all successful teams. The fact that these teams share particular characteristics is no coincidence. These qualities are inherently part of what makes up a successful team.

That doesn’t mean great teams are created by chance. They aren’t. The best team in the world and your team are much alike. They both have a variety of people, and they sometimes experience conflict. (And conflict isn't isn’t always a bad thing).

The reason successful teams are so excellent is because they know how to deal with problems. They learn what it takes to improve their team.

Great teams aren’t composed of super-talented individuals who are genetically endowed with wonderful teamwork abilities. They’re composed of ordinary people like you and me who have trained themselves to be better team members.

If your team members learn these fundamental qualities, your team as a whole will easily and quickly improve. Let’s take a look at these important team composition factors.

Factor #1: Great teams have balanced members

If someone asked you what kind of people you’d want on your ideal team, what would you say?

The answer seems obvious. You’d want the most talented prodigies you could find, right?

According to a 2014 study published in Psychological Science that surveyed sports teams, that’s a bad idea. If there are too many superstars on a team, they’re more likely to compete with one another than work well together.

“Teams with too much talent appear to divert attention away from coordination as team members peck at each other in their attempts to establish intragroup standing. In many cases, too much talent can be the seed of failure.”

Interestingly, an abundance of talent didn’t affect baseball teams too much, because baseball isn’t very interdependent. In short, for any kind of teamwork, too much talent can hurt. At the same time, you need a certain amount of highly skilled people.

The trick is to create teams full of people whose personality types complement each other.

First, be proactive in preventing the “too much talent” trap. Author Liz Wiseman argues that rookies can be valuable additions to your team. “Because they face significant knowledge or skill gaps,” Wiseman says, “they are alert, move fast, and work smart.”

Wiseman studied rookies in action and found that novices excel at networking and innovation. Whether someone’s fresh out of college or an import from another division, they can be a helpful asset.

Second, make sure you have a good balance of introverts and extroverts. (Ambiverts too.) While most people believe that introverts and extroverts clash in teams, that’s often not the case.

The key to harmony is creating opportunities for introverts. Since the workplace is already optimized for extroverts, leaders need to give their introverted team members more chances to shine.

Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino recommends creating reflective time in meetings, taking a page from Jeff Bezos’s playbook. Amazon’s meetings begin with everyone reading a memo, allowing both introverts and extroverts to shape their thoughts.

The quiet atmosphere also has a tendency to make everyone think before they speak. As Gino says, “The process gives introverted team members the time they need to formulate their thoughts and, for some, build up the courage to share them with the rest of the team. It also encourages the extroverted to listen, reflect, and become more open to the perspectives of their more silent peers.”

Finally, encourage everyone to use their skills and unique abilities. Some of your team members will be head-in-the-clouds creatives while others are down-to-earth pragmatists. Give positive feedback to your team members, both as a group and one-on-one, so they feel empowered to contribute.

Factor #2: Great teams are emotionally intelligent

When a trio of researchers from MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and Union College joined forces to study team composition, they unearthed some unexpected results.

One of their experiments was to show team members a series of faces, but only the eyes were visible. Subjects were then asked what kind of emotion the person was experiencing.

The test is called "Reading the Mind in the Eyes" and it gauges emotional intelligence.

The researchers found that members from the successful teams scored much higher on the test than members from unsuccessful teams. This ability even transferred to virtual teamwork. Some members were able to hypothesize their coworkers’ emotions without ever looking at their eyes.

“What makes teams smart must be not just the ability to read facial expressions,” the researchers reported, “but a more general ability, known as ‘Theory of Mind,’ to consider and keep track of what other people feel, know and believe.”

On the other hand, the unsuccessful teams showed poorer scores on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test and lower overall emotional intelligence.

The results make perfect sense, but unfortunately, emotional intelligence isn’t a quality that’s often prioritized in the workplace. Teams wonder why they’re not successful, but they completely ignore how they think about others.

Successful teams don’t just prioritize emotional intelligence. Instead, they make it a social norm.

In the Harvard Business Review article “Building the Emotional Intelligence of Groups,” Vanessa Urch Druskat and Steven B. Wolff point out that:

“To be most effective, the team needs to create emotionally intelligent norms—the attitudes and behaviors that eventually become habits—that support behaviors for building trust, group identity, and group efficacy.”

By normalizing emotional intelligence, successful teams think critically about their interpersonal skills. They don’t ask, “How can I do better?” Instead, they ask, “How can I best contribute to my team and help my team members?”

Cultivating emotional intelligence is the first step toward a more harmonious team. When a team member considers how others feel, he or she opens the door to better communication and collaboration.

As author Daniel Goleman puts it, “Emotional intelligence in individuals and organizations is emerging as a missing ingredient in the recipe for competitiveness.”

Factor #3: Great teams build a team culture

When Google launched Project Aristotle to uncover why some teams performed better than others, they weren’t expecting to find that the answer isn’t about work whatsoever.

Instead, Google’s highest performing teams felt “psychologically safe.” They trusted their team members and felt comfortable enough to share some of their most personal struggles.

This doesn’t exactly gel with the high-stakes Wall Street-esque company culture that’s been so pervasive. Shouldn’t the workplace be super competitive?

The research says no. A cutthroat culture is associated with job-related stress, which causes employees to perform poorly, increases absenteeism rates, and deteriorates loyalty. Employees in high-pressure workplaces also seek medical care more often.

Instead, companies that create a positive atmosphere and focus on their workers’ well-being see much better performance, lower absenteeism rates, and strong loyalty.

Former Director of Executive Development at Google Rich Fernandez focused on creating the “happiest, healthiest, and most productive workforce on the planet.” And it paid off. Promoting personal well-being was a huge factor in Fernandez’s teams’ success.

Teams perform best when each member is at his or her optimal physical, mental, and emotional states. Leaders need to promote initiatives that prioritize health in the workplace.

A competitive, no-holds-barred culture isn’t the ideal culture after all. A 2012 study from the Australian School of Business came to a groundbreaking conclusion:

“The single greatest influence on profitability and productivity within an organisation…is the ability of leaders to spend more time and effort developing and recognising their people, welcoming feedback, including criticism, and fostering co-operation among staff.”

Great teams have each other’s back. The leader works to ensure his or her members are at their best and creates an atmosphere of care. Everyone works together to achieve a common goal, and no one is left out in the cold.

The secret ingredient to a great team

Building a great team is more of an art than a science. There are no hard-and-fast rules for creating a super-team, but once you know what to look for, team creation becomes much easier.

In almost every great team, there’s one underlying thread: compassion. The best teams are empathetic, not cutthroat.

In many ways, the true elements of a great team runs counter to what culture has taught us. A great team has a variety of personalities and work styles, a high degree of emotional intelligence, and a people-centric work culture.

This can all be summed up in the Golden Rule (Luke 6:31): “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Aim for your team to be a beacon of welcoming light in a harsh, fast-paced world. Focus on improving and caring for your team members, and you’ll naturally build a legendary team.

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