Honestly speaking, I’ve not always been a fan of teamwork. Back in the early days of my career I saw it leading to arguments, a slower pace of work, and unfair workload balancing. However, over the years I began to realise that while an ineffective team makes things worse, being part of an effective team can be a highly productive and enjoyable experience. In my company now, we consider effective teamwork as critical to everything we do.
So the fact that teamwork is important in order to have a strong organisational culture – and by extension a strong company – is something I now very much believe in. Most organisations require people to work together – and effective teams can make a company work better, smarter and more efficiently. If done right, teamwork can actually enhance working relationships, foster better problem solving, generate creativity and new ideas, and benefit from multiple sets of knowledge, skills and experiences.
But of course good teams generally don’t happen by accident, and there is a lot that managers and leaders can do to make sure that their organisation takes full advantage of its people and creates the most effective teams.
From what I have seen, studied and experienced – these are some key factors I would like to share:
The first step is to familiarize yourself with the challenges ahead. While there are many benefits to teamwork, there are also some common pitfalls that are important to keep in mind so that they can be mitigated or avoided altogether.
Teams by their very definition involve groups of people, and as with anything where more than one person is involved, there is the potential for conflict. In this context, interpersonal relationships are the corner stones of any team and we know that people will bring with them different personalities and attitudes, for better or worse.
Sometimes these personalities will clash, other times they will have trouble with communication; perhaps because of language or cultural barriers, or simply because of different perspectives and competing goals.
Many different personalities, while necessary to achieve tasks, can also mean that there isn’t a strong team identity leading to difficulty in making decisions, inability to resolve conflict and a general lack of participation and creativity. Often, we also see in teams that some people just aren’t pulling their weight and are only too happy to let others do the majority of the heavy lifting.
So, how does one go about leading effective teams? Can we take some concrete actions to make sure that our teams achieve their potential and reach their goals?
Here are a few things to bear in mind:
- Creating the team: When creating your team, consider the different skills required to achieve your goals. You will need different personalities and experiences to make sure that the team is well balanced and cohesive.
- Setting objectives: Once your team has been created, you need to make sure that you have clear objectives of what it is you are trying to achieve, and these objectives need to be communicated to everyone involved, making sure your team is onboard and doesn’t have any doubts about what the goals are.
- Clarifying roles: You need to have clearly defined roles for the individual members of the team. This will help you reduce potential for conflict and also avoid duplication of work. And of course, you need a good balance of people who will bring the right skills and personalities to the project
- Showing leadership: As you are managing your team, effective leadership will be key. That means that the team is communicated to on a regular basis and that the members are continuously motivated and inspired
- Effective management: You will need to be well organised, with a set plan in place. You will need to monitor the progress of the plan, delegate effectively, and deal with any conflict that arises swiftly and resolutely. You will also need to make sure you have the necessary resources at hand to optimise the work your team does
- Evaluation and feedback: To keep your team motivated and on the right track, make sure you evaluate their progress; give them feedback to reinforce positive behaviours and quickly stop negative ones if they appear
- Psychological safety:
All of the common-sense steps outlined above need to be underpinned by something more. In 2015 Google did a large internal study to find out what made a given Google team effective. And to the surprise of some researches, the most important dynamic of an effective team was psychological safety.
The construct of team psychological safety was first defined by Harvard Professor Amy C. Edmondson as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking”. A team that has psychological safety will consist of members that feel they can take risks without having to feel insecure and embarrassed. In short, they can be vulnerable in front of each other.
Based on its extensive research data, Google simply found that teams work best when their members feel like they can take risks, can count on each other, have clear goals and believe their work matters (Associated Press, 2015). This might feel easy and self-evident, but ask yourself, how often in your career have you avoided asking a question if you felt it might embarrass you in front of your peers?
According to Professor Edmondson (whose excellent Ted Talk I can highly recommend and you can listen to here ), while it is perfectly natural to avoid doing things that you believe will negatively affect how others view your competence, this avoidance becomes detrimental when it comes to team work. And that data is unambiguous: Google found that individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives (re: Work, 2015).
The importance of psychological safety therefore makes for a pretty compelling argument, and something to consider seriously when planning or managing teams, or reflecting on the role of teamwork in your organisational culture.