The 5 dynamics of an effective team

Natasha Merrington / September 2018

What kind of teammate are you? What kind of team are you on? And what makes a good team tick?

Those might seem like simple questions, but they’re harder to answer than you might think. And with businesses becoming more and more global and cross-functional, the issues they raise are increasingly important. Not only is the nature of teamwork changing, effective teams may be the most vital ingredient for successful transformation and innovation.

Part of my job is to help clients and agencies think about the role teamwork plays and how to improve. Another part is to help teams inside Google work on their effectiveness, and it’s in that part, in trying to improve our effectiveness, that we uncovered a strange situation. Almost everyone agreed that team effectiveness was important, but no one had put together data to analyze what exactly makes a team effective.

Defining the question, then finding answers

At Google, our researchers in People Operations quickly got to work on the question: What sets apart our most effective teams from the others?

Right off the bat, the researchers needed to define what “effective” means in this context. The team began by asking three different groups of Googlers – executives, team leads and team members – for their definitions of the word. First up, the executives said effectiveness was all about results. Then the team leads defined effectiveness in relation to ownership, vision and goals. Finally, the team members told us that team culture was the defining attribute.

Those three distinct, equally valid perspectives on effectiveness helped the researchers frame their method. Having prepared more than 250 inputs looking at team dynamics and composition, they used their preparatory research to define three outputs, then applied their survey at scale. The researchers interviewed more than 200 teams across all areas of the business, from Engineering to Product Management, Sales and everything in between. They drew on other data sources, too, in what became a major undertaking, involving more than 35 statistical models and the coding of over 170,000 words.

The five dynamics of effective teams

We had imagined that building an effective team would be like solving a puzzle – that the best teams would be those where outstanding individuals were put to work together. We even thought that there might be an opportunity to create a new algorithm that could predict how to assemble perfect teams.

Instead, the researchers found something incredibly surprising. At Google, who is on a team matters much less than how team members interact, structure their work and view their contributions. And across all types of teams, from Sales to Engineering, from San Francisco to Singapore, five dynamics consistently differentiated top-performing teams from those at the bottom.

  1. Psychological safety: This was the single most important dynamic in an effective team. Psychological safety is about risk-taking and being comfortable with vulnerability. People who don’t feel psychologically safe worry that taking risks will mean they’re seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative or disruptive. Psychological safety means feeling confident about admitting mistakes, asking questions, or offering new ideas.
  2. Dependability: On dependable teams, members reliably complete quality work on time. They don’t avoid their responsibilities and they take them seriously, helping to keep the team on track. As simple as it sounds, this turned out to be vital for effectiveness in teams.
  3. Structure and Clarity: This means that a team has clear roles, goals and plans. Individuals understand what’s expected of them, what they and their team is aiming for and how they are all going to get there. Google often uses Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) to help set and communicate specific, challenging and attainable short- and long-term goals, at an individual and at a group level.
  4. Meaning: For individuals on a team, finding a sense of purpose in their work or its output is vitally important for team effectiveness. That meaning is personal, so it varies from person to person, but might include financial security, their ability to support their family, their commitment to the success of the team, or their individual self-expression.
  5. Impact: Do you fundamentally believe that the work you do makes a difference? This subjective judgment marks out the most effective teams and can be based on seeing how one’s work contributes to an organization’s goals and what it has helped to change.

Take a moment to think about what could have been on the list, but didn’t make it. “Consensus-driven decision making” didn’t make the cut. Neither did “workload” or being co-located. Perhaps most remarkably, the number of top performers on a team and the general intelligence of a team emerged as a poor indicator of a team’s effectiveness. We found both attributes in some of the very best teams, but we also found them in the some of the weakest.

Psychological safety: what matters most

Of the five dynamics, one stands out ahead of the others. Our researchers found that the best teams created a climate of openness where team members admit to their errors and discuss them more often. In other words, they exhibited high levels of psychological safety, a concept originated by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson.

Psychologically safe teams accelerate learning and innovation by acknowledging mistakes and exploring new ideas. And not only are they more adaptable, they can also impact the bottom line. Our research revealed that sales teams with high ratings for psychological safety actually brought in more revenue, exceeding their sales targets by 17%. Teams with low psychological safety fell short by up to 19%.

So how can leaders create psychological safety in your teams and organizations? Edmondson gives us three recommendations:

  1. Frame the work as a learning problem as opposed to an execution problem: Be clear that there are areas that still require explanation and that everybody's input matters. Admit that the future is not certain and you need to have everybody's brains and voices in the game.
  2. Acknowledge your own fallibility: Tell team members that you need and respect their input. As a wider attitude, this can be expressed in many ways, but even simple statements can really encourage peers and subordinates to speak up, such as "I may miss something — I need to hear from you.”
  3. Model curiosity by asking a lot of questions: This creates a need for the team to develop a voice. It gives your team the responsibility to generate answers, which engaging in a discussion and taking ownership of the process.

How we interact with each other as a team is more important than the people on that team. But would you recognize whether your team had strong or weak psychological safety? How could you tell? Have a go at the short questionnaire below for an idea of how you measure up. And if you want to know more, pick up a copy of Teaching by Amy C. Edmondson or Humble Leadership by Edgar Schein for the expert take on psychological safety.

Quiz: How psychologically safe is your team?

Ask yourself the following questions to identify strengths and weaknesses in the way your team works together.

  • Do you struggle to have tough conversations?
  • Do you feel judged and that the team members lack respect for one another?
  • Do you fear asking for or delivering constructive feedback?
  • Are you or others hesitant about expressing divergent ideas or asking “silly” questions?
  • Do you feel that you can't make mistakes or take risks?
  • Are team discussions dominated by a few strong voices that marginalize other people’s perspectives?
  • Are the members of your team competitive with one another?
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