A team is a group organised either formally or informally to accomplish a common purpose. There are six major types of teams: informal, traditional, problem-solving, leadership, self-directed, and virtual. But what makes an effective, well-functioning team?
What are the behaviours of effective teams?
The first element needed to drive effective team behaviours is establishing psychological safety: Psychological safety is the state where ‘people are comfortable being themselves’. In contrast, team psychological safety describes a team climate characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect (Edmondson, 1999).
In 2015, Google’s Aristotle project found that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to teamwork and underpinned the other elements of successful teams (What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team). The benefits of group psychological safety include improved creative problem-solving capacity and project outcomes through learning (Carmeli et al. 2014).
Aside from this, team effectiveness is enabled by structural features such as a well-designed team task, appropriate team composition, and a context that ensures the availability of information, resources, and rewards (The Design of Work Teams, Hackman, 1987). Effectiveness is underpinned by a set of attitudes and behaviours that influence outcomes:
Purpose and goals
If team members have different understandings of their collective purpose, friction, confusion, and a waste of resources and effort are inevitable, and it will be harder to get the team back on track (Bannister et al., 2014).
IDEO says that “employees who work in companies with a purpose that is inspiring, useful, and clear are 11% more likely to feel challenged at work as opposed to overwhelmed or bored.”
Goals serve four primary functions: providing guidance and direction, facilitating planning, motivating and inspiring a team, and helping evaluate and control performance. Often, these are dictated by the project methodology used.
However, even a small project can benefit from achievable goals. The SMART criteria set a clear framework for setting goals:
- Specific (simple, sensible, significant)
- Measurable (meaningful, motivating)
- Achievable (agreed, attainable)
- Relevant (reasonable, realistic and resourced, results-based)
- Time-bound (time/cost limited, time-sensitive)
A successful team understands, accepts and commits to goals aligned with the organisation’s purpose. The more autonomy a team has, the more committed to those goals they are likely to be. In fact, the combination of group-centric individual goals and team goals will lead to more cooperation and increased team performance (Crown and Rosse, 1995)
Effective teams engage people that add to the culture rather than “fit it”. Evidence shows that diversity is a positive business decision; for example, London companies with diverse management are more likely to introduce new product innovations than those with homogeneous “top teams” (Nathan & Lee, 2013). However, engaging people with different backgrounds to bring new information is not the only benefit.
In fact, heterogeneous teams are more intelligent, as they are more likely to constantly reexamine facts and remain objective (Why Diverse Teams are Smarter). Also, “simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort.” (Phillips, 2014).
Reflection is essential in a learning cycle because it allows individuals to reinforce experiences and access perceptions from the rest of the group. It also helps alter deep-seated thoughts, attitudes and behaviours (Silfverberg, Försvarshögskolan).
As mentioned above, a psychologically safe team will be more willing to engage honestly and reflectively. In their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, the Heath brothers say this honesty is essential in productive teams as people will “only persevere if they perceive falling down as learning rather than failing”.
Researchers suggest three nudges to trigger employees’ seeking systems: encourage them to play to their strengths, create opportunities to experiment, and help them personalise the purpose of the work. Examples include employees defining their job titles or spending time with users in the field. But it can’t be one and done — instilling a sense of purpose does not work when it is a ‘one-off’; it must be nurtured (How Humble Leadership Really Works, HBR).
Feedback is the return of information about the result of a process or activity to encourage more active behaviour in the future.
As an extreme example, hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, led by Ray Dalio, operates with a culture of radical transparency. This means all feedback is open, and anyone can critique anyone else – the essential element being that it is all done openly. All meetings and actions can be ranked and commented upon.
A gentler, more effective approach could be radical candour, as coined by Kim Scott. Radical candour results from a combination of caring personally and challenging directly. Scott recommends a quadrant to teach teams the concept:
“The vertical axis is caring personally, and the horizontal axis is challenging directly; you want your feedback to fall in the upper right-hand quadrant. That’s where radical candour lies.”
The acronym HHIPP helps people remember how to deliver feedback: “Radical candour is humble, it’s helpful, it’s immediate, it’s in person — in private if it’s criticism and in public, if it’s praise — and it doesn’t personalise.”
Finally, a traditional top-down leadership model isn’t right for all teams. Leaders can find balance by embodying transactional (effective in crises and emergencies) and transformational (showing vulnerability, listening, and connecting emotionally) leadership styles.
Summary of effective team behaviours
In simple terms, being an effective team is about getting a few key things right. It’s like a recipe where each ingredient matters: knowing and agreeing on your goals, bringing different perspectives and people together, making sure everyone feels safe to speak their mind, taking time to think about what’s working and what’s not, setting clear and achievable goals, being positive and supportive, giving helpful feedback, and balancing different ways of leading.
When a team blends all these together, they’re more likely to do well, develop new ideas, and enjoy working together. It’s about mixing these elements in just the right way to make the team not just great to work with but truly effective.