10 traits of highly effective teams

High-performing teams, lauded for their ability to achieve results, are something of a management obsession. But a group of individuals doesn't magically coalesce into a team. They need leadership. Here's how to build your own highly effective team.

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The importance of teams

If science fiction is to be believed, humans in the future have learned to build highly effective teams. You can’t go into outer space – and survive – if your team is dysfunctional. The crews of the Enterprise(every iteration) on Star Trek, the Rocinante in the The Expanse, and the Serenity in Firefly have one thing in common: Their crews work together so well, they can accomplish anything.

It’s why we love them. It’s why they survive. It’s how they accomplish the impossible. Even when terrible things happen, when individuals make egregious mistakes, these teams rally, repair, and persist.

Teams matter just as much in the now. The research team at Slack recently asked over 4,000 knowledge workers worldwide what they most value in the workplace. Their top three: Efficiency, autonomy and being a part of the team. “The organizations that best promote these traits will and enable high performers to thrive,” says Christina Janzer at Slack.

What do the Sci-Fi team leaders know about team building that we don’t? We couldn’t call Captains Kirk, Picard, Reynolds, or Drummer because they are fictional characters. So we called some present-day real-life humans who have made a study of team building.

These are their top ten traits of high-performing teams.

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To boldly go

One thing about space ships: Everyone knows the mission. Explore new worlds? Save the universe from a destructive life form? Outrun a post-apocalyptic police state? Everyone knows why they are on the ship, where the ship is going, and for what purpose.

According to Janzer, this is an essential element of an effective team. “High-performing teams are those that are aligned with the values of their peers, leaders and their organization’s mission at large. They also have clear goals and deep trust in one another.”

Often, though, experts tell us, managers assume the team knows the mission better than they actually do.

Measure productivity all you want, tweak the workspace, take weekend forays into the woods for team building. But if you never talk about what you are doing and why, your team won’t get on board to go to the ends of the universe with you.

"If you have an amazing team but lack of clarity on its mission, it is very hard for anyone to take ownership,” agrees Mark Mader, President and CEO of Smartsheet. “If we don’t understand why we are doing a thing, it all rings hollow.”

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Achieve sentience

Everyone worries about the day the machines will achieve sentience. What you should worry about instead is the day your team achieves it.

“One of the traits of very high-performing teams,” explains Didier Elzinga, CEO of Culture Ampan employee feedback platform that provides companies solutions to big problems, “Is that the team is self-aware. The team members actively think of themselves as a team.”

You have seen it in science fiction. The crews of Serenity and Enterprise know they are a team. The individuals identify as crewmembers and constantly consider how their actions affect the rest of the crew. They don’t need their leader to be perfect. They need him to fulfil his role as team captain.

Does everyone like and respect Captain Kirk? Probably not. But if he does his job, they can focus on engineering or science. Does everyone trust Jayne Cobb on Serenity? Not completely. But they all — even Cobb — know their survival depends on him fulfilling his role. When the team is bigger than any individual, it all works.

“This is relatively new,” says Elzinga. “People thinking of themselves in this way.”

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These are the voyages…

A key element of a team, according to Elzinga, is that there is a sense among its members that they are, “going on a journey together.” Not only in the “To boldly go where no man has gone before” sense but also in the Bruce Tuckman theory of group dynamics sense.

“The team knows it is in the process of ‘forming, norming, storming, performing',” says Elzing, quoting from the well-known Tuckman theory. “It has taken on the job of its own introspection. It accepts responsibility for becoming a better team.” And part of this process is that the group carefully considers how they treat each other, how they welcome new members, and how they grow and work together.

Put simply, “They root for each other. They have each other’s backs,” says Adrian Gostick author of The Carrot Principle and an expert in corporate culture, teamwork, and engagement. “They believe that they are working on this together.”

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Captain is a mentor

The team leader is a central role on every team. And when he or she sees the team as a faceless group, failing to connect to each of its members, the team is unlikely to form into an amazing crew capable of seeking out new life, vanquishing evil, or even just keep on flying.

“We are not talking about being everyone’s friend,” says Gostick. “I don’t mean you should act like Michael Scott, in the The Office. “I am talking about being a coach or mentor to each person on the team.” 

This doesn’t mean you have to be the keeper of all knowledge, either. There might be people on your team who know a great deal about subjects you couldn’t pass a basic test on. Information is easy to get in the age of Google and YouTube. Your team members can find the information they need.

“Your team needs you to guide them through prioritizing or negotiating the complexities of the corporate world,” says Gostick. “They need you to help them grow and develop.”

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Crewmembers grow and evolve

Another measure of a high-performing team, according to Elzinga, is that it is constantly developing the skills of the people on it.

“A sign of a truly successful team is that it is able to keep and grow the people on the team.” In fact, he says, a great team produces leaders that can move to other parts of the company and help other teams become effective as well. And to grow leaders, you have to motivate and empower them.

Much of the responsibility for growing the members of a team falls to the leader. “The leader has to spend time getting to know what drives each of the people on the team,” explains Gostick. “People are not all motivated by the same things. Someone might be more motivated by working in the field. Someone else by working autonomously.”

It also means giving team members agency and power – a voice. “When was the last time you opened up the discussion to the entire team?” Gostick asks. “Are you allowing that sort of debate?”

“You can bring on great people,” warns Smartsheet’s Mader. “But if you don't give them decision making power, they won't stay.”

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Go down with the ship

How many times have you seen a Sci-Fi captain or crew members sacrifice themselves to save the crew – or all of civilization? There is a good reason this is a common story.  Humans want to be part of something that is larger than themselves. And to do complicated things like go to space or build massive technical solutions, we have to believe that the success of the group comes before our individual pay raise or weekend off.

“The very reason team stuff is so important right now,” explains Elzinga. “Is that the type of work we do these days is so complicated that it can't be done by a single person. Companies are too big for people to feel part of them. So, when we look at organizations, teams are a fundamental unit.”

A team has to work well, though, before this self-sacrifice magic happens. But when it does, it can get your company through anything.

Mader saw it happen, a few years back, on his own team. Bad things had happened. Getting through it was going to be difficult. But the team rose to the occasion.  “The team persevered and maintained calm,” he says. “Everyone had the opportunity to point fingers. No one did. It is in those moments that you get a sense of the true north of the team.”

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Praise to fuel the mission

Rewards are glue that, when used well, create team cohesion. And doling out praise usually falls to the team leader.

But for praise to work its cohesive properties on a team, you have to more than gather quantifiable data and give high-achievers raises and bonuses.

“In highly effective teams,” says Gostick. “The people on the team feel praised about once a week for something specific.” And not just those who have jobs that are easy to quantify. Everyone.

Fist bumps, cakes, Starbucks cards are all good, especially if delivered in front of the entire team. But the best kind of recognition underscores the mission.

Gostick pulls an example from manufacturing where a floor manager witnessed an employee pulling parts out of the freezer. He asks why. The assembler explains that when the weather is hot, the parts don’t fit together well. He cools them to prevent assembly defects. The manager pulled the entire team together, told this small story and asked, “What’s our goal?” They answer, “No defects!” The manager has offered praise, in front of the team, while emphasizing the mission.

“Talking about what matters most,” says Gostick. “And do it publicly. This can be verbal. It can be a gift. What it is is less important than the idea it promotes.”

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Everyone speaks

Great Sci-Fi teams do not have team members who are powerless, voiceless cogs in the machine. Everyone – whether they are the ship’s doctor, mechanic, pilot, or captain – has a voice. When the captain doesn’t poll his crew for ideas, he makes mistakes – and fails to create a team.

“A client of mine was going through a major system overhaul,” says Gostick. It was complex. Too complex. And it wasn’t clear how – or if – they were going to accomplish it. “The CEO stood up and admitted this. ‘I don't have the idea that will get us through this,’ he told his team. “If you have ideas, bring them to me. Together we are Albert Einstein. Alone I am one man.”

This takes courage. And patience. There will be bad ideas. It will take time to hear them all. But however the problem turns out, your team members will feel heard – and necessary. You are more likely to succeed and, meanwhile, you are building a highly effective team.

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Debate is productive

A good team can make decisions without getting bogged down in argument, run-on meetings, awkward silences, or the need to settle things with a vote. That doesn’t mean, though, that you can identify an effective team because it emotes quiet harmony.

“You can feel its energy,” says Gostick of an effective, working team. “When you are in the room with them, there is a palpable feeling of interaction. It may not be completely harmonious. There might be debate and challenge. People feel safe throwing out a crazy ideas. Everyone feels comfortable reaching out to the other members.”

“With a high-functioning team,” he explains. “The group starts moving together during discussions and debates. Most of the time, the direction toward the solution becomes clear from the debate.”

But, often, a team is capable of this because it has a good leader who directs this discussion, heads off problems, asks the right questions, and guides the group toward a conclusion.

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Everyone has a voice

A team that tends to lose women, people of color, or anyone who does not fit the demographic of other team members is not a highly effective team.  A great team creates a supportive environment for all of its members.

“To feel that we belong,” explains Culture Amp’s Elzinga. “We have to be allowed to be ourselves. People leave when they don't feel they are part of anything.”

It is often very small things that make a difference between inclusive and exclusive. And, often, those things are often controlled by the team leader.

An employee survey Elzinga did for a client found that some teams in the client’s company were inclusive, and others were not. He interviewed the team leads and discovered the differences were often very small actions by the team’s leader.  “One team lead, for example, said, ‘I make it a point at every meeting that everyone has an opportunity to speak.’”

Some people are reticent, have had their ideas stolen and so are shy, or are overshadowed by more outspoken team members. They may need to be encouraged. It is up to the team leader to moderate and make sure everyone gets a voice.

“That is exactly right,” agrees Gostick. “If I am an employee in the sort of environment where I am asked for my opinion, I know that I may or may not get my way. But I do have a voice.”