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What sets effective teams apart? The key traits of effective teams

the characteristics of effective teams

If you take the “team” out of teamwork, it's just work. Now who wants that? After all, we rise by lifting others. 

But, what exactly does engineering the perfect team look like? We compiled some of the best examples and tips that will help you understand how effective teams work—and how best to lead them.

From a group to a team

It’s easy to find instances of teamwork, but of course the arena of sport provides the best examples. Teamwork is inherent in sport, and in the same vein: business strategy is not a solo sport, even if you're the CEO.  

John Amaechi, a former NBA player who now works as a psychologist, stresses that sport is a business at the elite level. “What I have learned from sport is that you can be in a group of people without that group of people being a team.”

There is a big difference.  

A team feels different to a group, at least in regard to these two points:  

  1. A team recognizes that friction (conflicts, challenges, …) is important, as without it there is no movement. Thus, they can withstand pressure. In groups people shatter into pieces the moment the pressure of outside challenges gets too much.
  2. Teams also communicate when they don’t need too. “I don’t mean saying hello in a lift, but really knowing each other, the value that a person brings is not in a job description,” explains Amaechi. 

In groups, members want to know about your work and then, if they like you, they might want to go for a drink with you. But, again, only if they like you. 

They don’t believe that knowing you is good for business. And consequently they forget that it takes teamwork to make the dream work!

Amaechi adds that, sadly, most businesses are not teams, but they perhaps call themselves teams.  

From a team to an effective team

A great company is effective and profitable when workers have a team mentality, shared mind-set, and when team spirit is high. Teamwork is its elemental lifeblood! 

Especially today, when collaboration is becoming more multi-dimensional, the ability to build and lead high-performance teams is becoming the hottest leadership competency. So, which team can be called effective? 

Prof. Philip Stiles from Cambridge University defines an effective team as one with a:

  • clear purpose, 
  • complementary skills, 
  • performance goals,
  • mutual accountability 
  • and where there is psychological safety (that is, everyone feels they can speak up safely).  

When building effective teams, don’t expect smooth sailing

Building effective teams is a highly complex process with a lot of subjective, intangible elements, so there is no magic formula for successful teamwork. 

However, there are some major dimensions common to all effective teams, so creating them doesn’t have to mean stumbling around in the dark. 

Number one is psychological safety - the feeling that everyone is free to speak up without fear. The more this can be achieved the better. Psychological safety does not mean a lack of conflict. 

It stands for the possibility for everyone to express opinions that might be in conflict with what the rest of the group thinks. The team is a safe place, so there are no stupid questions. 

A second issue is having the right size of team - normally between 6 and 8 for business teams. This reduces the possibility of people free-riding and allows enough diversity to ensure good inputs from everyone.  

The third aspect would be to have a good conflict resolution mechanism

Don’t expect smooth sailing: every team will have conflicts, and the more diverse it is, the more that different perspectives will be brought to the table, meaning less comfortable collaboration, but smashing results. 

And finally, no matter how devoted a leader is, there are certain types of people that are rarely found in effective teams, and are thus worth avoiding. For example: 

  • rude and impatient workers, 
  • control freaks, 
  • constantly negative people, 
  • critics who are always on the lookout for flaws in other people and flaws in the system, 
  • abusive personality types. 

Instead, look for people with a “can-do attitude”.  

Engage team members who don’t fear challenges and are pragmatic enough to understand what is “good enough”. Sometimes, “done” is better than perfect!

Nowadays teams have grown more diverse, digital, and dynamic, so collaboration has become more complex, not to mention the Covid19 outbreak, which has had a vast impact on the way we work alone and together! 

According to prof. Stiles, of Cambridge University, there are some key identifiable trends in how teamwork is changing:

1. Strong leaders are on the decline

Gone are the days of barking orders. The traditional view of teams as having a clear and strong leader is now changing rapidly and there is much more reliance now on self-managing teams. 

Self-managing teams are more responsive and engage the talents of the team members more than other forms of teamworking.

2. The life of teams is getting shorter

With the introduction of Agile working and leadership in many organisations, teams are going through more rapid cycles, which means that teams have to create, perform and disband quicker than ever

For this to work, individuals must be highly skilled in forming teams and producing results quickly. The benefit of this system is that people are highly accountable.

3. Handle the “team of teams”

We see the increase in the need for coordination between different teams - in other words, making sure that all the separate teams’ work joins up together

Coordination between different teams is a vital issue in most organisations, and many have introduced the idea of a "team of teams" - a separate team consisting of members from all other teams - to coordinate this process.

4. Remote working: trust more, micromanage less

Coronavirus forced many teams to close the doors of their offices and work from home. This style of working has changed the way leaders interact with team members and this has both positive and negative aspects. 

The positive aspects are that leaders now have to trust their team members more and not micromanage. They also have to give more empathy and compassion to team members, since many people are struggling with the new work conditions.  

The negative side is that the day-to-day contact with leaders that team members really desire, and which can be very motivating, has almost gone. Leaders can try to address this with frequent online communication, but it is often the small, incidental meetings face to face that people miss most.

Read more about Best remote work tips – How to make remote working work for you.

Timeless mantra: show respect for one’s work

No matter whether we’re talking about the coronavirus lock-down or just the “normal days”, a team is basically one giant support system, built on collaboration and respect.

Respect breeds a healthy work environment; it promotes teamwork and increases productivity. The best teams run on respect. It charges teams that stick together, and innovate.  Sometimes, this is easier said than done.

Tips on how to act respectfully

Here are some immediate takeaways, crafted to illustrate what showing respect to your colleagues looks like in everyday praxis:

  • arrive to meetings on time,
  • prepare for the meetings,
  • listen to others’ ideas, even if you disagree with them,
  • never insult, use name-calling, or belittle people or their ideas,
  • be aware of your body language and tone of voice – people can read beyond your words! 

Productive and effective teams do simple things

There are some myths connected to teams, too. One of the most common is that building the best teams means combining the best, smartest, and most-hardworking individuals. 

For example, you cannot miss with a brilliant MBA student, genius PhD holder, diligent economist, and capable communication expert, right? Well, this theory has proved to be wrong many times.  

Perhaps the most famous study on the topic is one of Google’s initiatives - Project Aristotle. 

They gathered several of their best and brightest to help the organization codify the secrets to team effectiveness. After studying 180 Google teams, they outlined the following five characteristics of enhanced teams:

  • Dependability (things are done on time),
  • structure and clarity (clear goals, well-defined roles),
  • meaning (The work has personal significance to each member),
  • impact (The group believes their work is purposeful and positively impacts the greater good) and
  • psychological Safety.

The most effective team also track time on their projects and use productivity tools like My Hours.

Boosting your team-spirit from A-Z

Basically, super-teams do super-simple things. They trust each other, talk to each other, and support each other. They are passionate, they are connected – they move as a single group. 

There is no “I did”, there is only “we did”. There is no blaming, no finger pointing. If someone forgets to complete a task, they are covered.  

Make sure that you plan work as a group – don’t forget to write it down. The more inclusive the plan is, the more committed the team members are. Never lose the big picture, either. Vision is empowering. 

However, cut the way to achieve it into smaller tasks that are manageable and trackable

And finally, super-teams have fun, too! In fact, crafting a working environment where people come to work with smiles on their faces is one of the biggest management challenges. 

Productive teams take time to be together, to celebrate birthdays, or in these times to order virtual pizzas. It matters! 

After all, it is not only the professional part of life that takes place in the workplace. 1/3 adults have met at least one of their closest friends at work!  

Leaders of super teams do simple things as well

Especially today, when collaboration is becoming more multi-dimensional, the ability to build and lead high performing teams is becoming the hottest leadership competency. 

A successful team does not need a boss, but a leader. Here are some traits of such a leader:

1. Know everyone that works for you

Our personal and work lives are more intimately connected than we think. If you run a smaller team, you have to know everyone by name for start! This is a must because it shows that you care. 

Leaders are inclined to seek fast solutions, sometimes even before they have a good sense of the situation. Take time to invest behind-the-scenes of someone’s life. 

Ask questions, listen, try to walk in someone else’s shoes. This approach will help you lead without being perceived as pushy or authoritative. 

Express interest in employees’ well-being, especially now, during the pandemic. Envision a career path for each team member, only you as a team leader can see the big picture and an individual’s path at the same simultaneously. 

2. Define goals and then get out of the way

A recent study published in The Harvard Business Review  found that ‘‘the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent or more’’ over the last two decades. 

Also, research shows that at many companies more than three-quarters of an employee’s day is spent communicating with colleagues. Boosting team spirit is good, but it is equally true that too much teamwork exhausts employees and saps productivity. 

So, avoid teamwork overload. After all, your team members were not hired to be micro-managed. Give them the space to do their job!

3. Manage team meetings wisely

For a start, team meetings are expensive. An hour-long meeting of 10 people with an average salary of $80,000 costs $560. Let’s say this meeting is weekly. 

This one meeting is costing your organization more than $29,000 a year. Time is money – correct? 

So, make sure that you plan meetings carefully and create a supportive, open-dialogue environment, so you can get the best out of your people. 

If the meeting is not really necessary, use apps like Slack. You can also use project time tracking tool My Hours to track how much time you spend on meetings.

4. Always celebrate success and don’t ignore failures

By doing this you can spark a sense of joy and belonging, which strengthens your “business family”. When someone does a good job, celebrate it. Throw a party, pour a glass of champagne, or just give a loud applause. 

Keep in mind that praising somebody in public is extra cool. Also, when someone does a bad job, try to carve out the lesson. 

What have you learned from this failure? How can your team avoid repeating it in the future? 

However, when mistakes happen, do not criticize in front of others. Face to face is the choice in that case. 

Don’ts of modern effective teamwork

Building and holding teams together, especially in such critical periods as these, is an important process, and often is the reason for both the success and failure of any organization. 

In order to get the human side of management right, there are some bad habits, which are wise to avoid:

1. Not being there

Being unavailable is a new-age luxury, but when it comes to team spirit, not being there is far from ok. Even more so in remote teams, where opportunities to interact face-to-face are poorer and fewer. 

As the manager and a team member you should be there, but of course, not 24/7. It is the organization’s responsibility to establish some rules. 

What are our working hours, and what are the ways to interact? Such questions should be answered on the organizational level, not case by case.

2. Making too many rules

The fear of many managers dealing with remote teams that things are happening beyond their control makes sense. Without the possibility to see, hear and “feel” what people are doing, we can all get a bit nervous. 

Micromanaging is a tempting solution, but is counter-productive. 

Employees value autonomy more and more, so being kept under the thumb is perceived as pressure, and not help. Empower people instead of managing them.

3. Giving Unclear Expectations

The opposite of making too many rules, is not being clear on what the goals are at all. With teams working abroad in different time zones, it can become very messy if the expectations, deadlines, and common goals are not crystal clear.

As leader, make sure everyone really understands the goals. Communication is the key! 

4. Use the remarkable power of camaraderie

Camaraderie is the essence of what binds team together. Office Vibe published a short booklet with 11 reasons why relationships with colleagues matter. Here are some of those reasons:

  • 50% of employees with a best friend at work reported that they feel a strong connection with their company.
  • 70% of employees say friends at work is the most crucial element to a happy working life.
  • 43% of employees that have a best friend at work are more likely to have received praise in the last seven days. 

That said, it is clear that there is a direct link between office friendships and engagement & productivity.  

We do not need superheroes, we need superhumans

Covid gave us time to push the pause button. For sure, times are challenging and many teams are falling apart. 

What we feel on collective level is a huge need, almost a hunger for empathic, trustful and energetic leadership. It is leaders who have to bring the sense of hope (back).  

We need the human side, as enduring success takes a team. Building a team takes investment in each other, not systems or processes.  

Wishing you patience and joy on your journey to building a successful team. Respect!

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