Team Productivity

3 Important Lessons We Can Learn From The World's Best Work Teams

Daniel Threlfall
February 20, 2017
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Is there such a thing as a perfect work team?

No, but some teams come extraordinarily close.

While most teams fall victim to dead-end arguments or useless conflicts, there are teams that shine and sparkle. You look at Google’s super-efficient teams and wonder, “Why can’t my team be the next Google? What makes them so perfect?”

There’s something about these “perfect” teams that your team seems to lack, but what is that something?

That’s a question that almost every company has attempted to uncover. Some companies (like Google) have used extensive research to decipher much of the formula for creating and maintaining successful teams.

It turns out that there is, unfortunately, no “holy grail” to create a perfect work team. However, there is a vital mix of principles that are at work in nearly every “perfect” team out there.

Your teams can learn these beneficial qualities to drastically improve their performance and productivity. By studying these amazing teams, you can take away important lessons you can share with your members to create a more harmonious and synergistic team.

Here are a few of those important lessons we can all learn from the world's leading work teams.

Lesson #1: Perfect work teams care.

Imagine you’re placed in a team along with three of your best friends. You’ve all known each other for years and have countless memories.

Now imagine you’re placed in a team with three coworkers you barely know. You might have bumped into one person at the water cooler, but besides that, you’ve had no interaction with your teammates.

Which team do you care more about? It’s obviously the first team. But it shouldn’t be—you should care about both.

It might be a bit of a stretch to compare a team of old friends with a team of strangers, but you need to have true compassion for your teammates, regardless of your relationship to them.

When you’re emotionally invested in the well-being of your teammates, both parties benefit. Everyone performs better when they’re concerned about helping their fellow members.

The simple idea that caring enhances performance is the basis of a study conducted by Jia Hu and Robert Liden for the Academy of Management Journal.

Hu and Liden described prosocial individuals as “givers who are primarily concerned about contributing to benefits to others, rather than calculating personal returns, and are more likely to achieve success in the long run.”

This emphasizes one of the biggest obstacles to pro-social teams: calculating personal returns. When we think about only what’s in it for us, we’re not thinking as emotionally as we could. We’re thinking more like a machine.

However, if we prioritize helping others instead of ourselves, we’ll automatically see an improvement in our performance and the performance of those around us.

Lesson #2: Perfect teams spend time together (Pixar).

This seems like a logical outgrowth from the first lesson, and it’s just as important.

Take an ordinary bank call center distraught with productivity problems. For MIT’s Alex Pentland, the answer is to have everyone take their coffee break at the same time. By socializing, the employees would be able to better relax.

This idea goes against traditional workplace theory, yet it worked. The call center employees performed better than ever because they got to step away from work for a moment and build genuine human connections.

Pentland’s solution for mass socialization helped shift the workers’ mindsets where even small talk can provide a welcome distraction from a hectic workday.

John Donne famously wrote, “No man is an island.” And that rings true today. Group socialization is a vital quality of a successful team. It’s important that everyone feels welcome and no one feels alone or isolated.

When Steve Jobs was designing Pixar’s headquarters, he chose to place the only bathrooms in the main atrium right in the middle of the campus. As a result, employees ran into each other and came up with new and exciting ideas.

As a team manager, I face many tasks each day that I can’t do by myself. If I didn’t have the help and support of others, I’d be lost. Like the Pixar employees, I often find myself coming up with ideas when I’m talking to coworkers.

Just as everyone needs a break to unwind from the stressors of work life, everyone should have time to talk to others. Even a single conversation can have the power to cheer someone up after something taxing happens.

However, mental relief isn’t the most important benefit of spending time with your coworkers. When you spend more time with your team members, you start to care about them more. Suddenly their success becomes yours, and their failure also becomes yours. You’ll likely find yourself with the genuine desire to help them, and that creates a better team for everyone.

Lesson #3: Perfect teams are emotionally intelligent (Google).

Google’s teams have long been heralded for their remarkable performance and efficiency. That’s because the company has been studying its teams for years.

In 2012, researchers at Google asked themselves, “How can we build the perfect team?” They embarked on a new journey called Project Aristotle to answer this question.

At first, they struggled to find any good answers. They studied what team members liked, how long teams stuck together, and how similar team members were.

While Google researchers were scratching their collective heads, there was another group finding success. In 2014, researchers from Carnegie Mellon, MIT, and Union College published a study on theory of mind in group settings.

The "theory of mind" is the idea that a person can reasonably guess how others are feeling and what their mental states might be.

The study found that high emotional intelligence and cognitive ability contributed positively to group performance. Furthermore, groups where everyone spoke up were more likely to be more emotionally intelligent.

So what does this all mean? For one, it’s telling that speaking was positively correlated with theory of mind and emotional intelligence. When a team member’s voice is heard, he or she feels better and more comfortable about being in the group.

In addition, teams with better emotional intelligence have a greater likelihood of succeeding. This is another quality that works hand-in-hand with caring for those within your team.

Everyone in the group needs to feel, as Charles Duhigg wrote for The New York Times, “psychologically safe.” In summarizing Project Aristotle’s finding, Duhigg pointed out that “no one wants to put on a 'work face' when they get to the office.” Instead, workers “must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency.”

Ironically, what makes a team perfect has almost nothing to do with work. Rather, it’s about emotional security.

The knowledge that team members perform their best when they’re psychologically safe should transform the way we look at team composition and the role of emotional intelligence in the workplace. These are conversations everyone needs to be having.

You can build your own "perfect" team.

Armed with knowledge taken from teams like Google and Pixar, you can step in and make a difference for your own team.

If your team members can learn to care about one another, spend more time with them, and work to increase emotional intelligence, they’ll be able to feel a renewed sense of appreciation and motivation for one another. This in turn boosts their team camaraderie and, ultimately, their productivity at work.

So while no perfect teams really exist, having an amazing team is well within reach. Forget about work for a while, and tune in to your coworker’s emotions. When someone cares more about others than themselves, that’s truly something special.

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