Great teams aren’t born; they’re made. Here’s how: Everyone recognizes a good team when they see one but knowing what it is that makes a team good – and how to build and foster such a team – is the million-dollar question. The return to work after the pandemic has meant a veritable reinvention of the wheel when it comes to things like employee productivity, teamwork, and company culture. And business leaders around the world in every sector are witnessing a shift from the previous focus on individual all-stars to teams that are agile, purpose-driven, and high-performing, but the quest to actually put this into practice is keeping many leaders up at night.
Even Google, one of the biggest companies in the world, found itself stumped on how to manufacture the perfect team. Ten years ago, the tech giant launched Project Aristotle, an ambitious initiative that sought to look at why some teams faltered while others excelled, using its own vast employee bank as the guinea pigs. But despite pouring millions of dollars into the effort and reviewing decades of research, it could find no correlation with the type of people on a given team and that team’s propensity toward successful output.
What this team of psychologists, sociologists, and statisticians did find, however, was that successful teams are those that have group norms, which loosely translates as company culture on a small scale. For a team to succeed, its members must subscribe to the rules – written or unwritten – for their commitment, behavior, and teamwork. Many leaders have come to realize that the standard practice of “employee performance optimization” as it is widely applied in the business world is only one piece of the puzzle. Supporting and defining the group norms of a team and preparing and encouraging employees to switch to a team mindset, are the key.
“For a team to succeed, its members have to subscribe to the rules – written or unwritten – for their commitment, behavior, and teamwork.”
Many teams end up destined for failure because individuals are not prepared for the change to be a team member over the previous model of prioritizing their solo performance, often in direct competition with their colleagues. Building a successful team of individuals committed to that team requires leaders to take the time to invest in each employee to understand how he or she ticks – what their strengths are, where they can improve, how they view themselves, and how they relate to their coworkers. This means taking stock of workers’ level of emotional intelligence and giving it proper weight over the person’s perceived intellectual capacity.
Hitting the High Notes
Leaders have a responsibility to help individuals understand their unique abilities and strengths, so that a potential team can fully harmonize and turn out results.
Valerie Patrick, author of the book When Bad Teams Happen To Good People, which was published in July 2021, tells Forbes magazine that the dynamics of a high-performing team are like that of an a cappella group. “Performance is best when each part seeks excellence individually and knows their role in the greater team,” she says. “In a cappella singing, each part needs to understand their position in a given chord for the group to create good sound.”
So how do you make a team sing?
The first step, as mentioned above, is learning what motivates people and how this translates into productivity. The key to understanding a particular team’s dynamic or its potential is gaining insight into its motivation, action, and productivity. These elements are known as engagement drivers, and they are the best tool a leader can implement when looking to shape a team’s performance.
“The key to understanding a particular team’s dynamic or its potential is gaining insight into its motivation, action, and productivity.”
One of the primary motivations for people to function well on a team is the level of trust in the company’s management and leaders’ vision and capabilities.
Deloitte found that 62% of employees who plan to stay at their company reported high levels of trust in corporate leadership versus only 27% of those who plan to leave. Twenty-six percent of those who plan to leave cited a lack of trust in the company’s leadership as one of their deciding factors.
Another major motivator for engaging employees is making sure that they feel the work is meaningful. It is impossible to be engaged at work if you feel that the work you’re doing is not engaging, and when people are engaged and interested, they are more dedicated to their work on a team. In its survey, Deloitte revealed that almost half (42%) of respondents who were looking for new jobs felt that their current employer doesn’t make good use of their skills and abilities. Leaders must seek to create teams and design workloads that take into account each individual’s strengths and instill a sense of purpose into each team that employees can take on as their own.
“It is impossible to be engaged at work if you feel that the work you’re doing is not engaging, and when people are engaged and interested, they are more dedicated to their work on a team.”
Research has consistently shown that employees who feel that their purpose is fulfilled by their work are more likely to be committed, driven, and successful at work. While it might seem that purpose as a concept is too individualized for management to contend with, finding and defining a corporate purpose from the top down is one of the few ways that leaders can help shape – and therefore fulfil – purpose for their employees.
A successful corporate purpose considers the company’s role and its contribution to society and provides meaningful ways for employees to reflect on the company’s efforts in this regard and their impact. Companies can also take control by seeking to improve the overall health of the organization and its culture by bolstering inclusiveness and the employee experience and by making changes to the work itself.
Team members also find engagement through their relationships with coworkers. Even if the individuals are vastly different in terms of personality, experience, or working habits, how people relate to one another, and to their respective or shared purpose, is crucial for a team to be getting things done. Leaders need to facilitate situations in which employees can get to know each other outside of the task at hand, and a company’s culture plays a huge part in this.
Teamwork means collaboration, and for people to be committed to working together – as opposed to working alone or with another team – there must be strong identifying characterizations to a given team that make it unique. Just like company culture on a broader scale, a successful team identity helps employees feel bonded and that they are a part of something important. With each person feeling seen and heard, the team can focus on achieving results instead of treading water among individual egos.
Taking the Next Step
Leaders have a unique opportunity at this point in history. The workplace as we knew it no longer exists, and many companies are going back to the drawing board to re-conceptualize what are the best ways to work. A large part of this is recognizing the collaborative success of high-performing teams, which offer more security for the company – success not being contingent on one individual who may choose to leave – and more chances for growth for employees, as well as deeper relationships with their peers.
By taking the time to get to know each individual employee, creating more opportunities for meaningful work, and redefining corporate purpose and company culture on both a large and small scale, leaders can transform their teams into high-performing teams for whom the sky’s the limit.
About the Authors:
Bill Brewer is Global Human Resources Practice Leader for Stanton Chase and a Director of the Los Angeles office.
Bernardita Mena is Stanton Chase’s Global Head Assessment and a Managing Director of the office in Santiago.
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