Looking back on my corporate career, there are teams I was on that stood out. I felt like I was part of something special, achieving something that could only be achieved by a unit rowing harmoniously in the same direction. It’s hard to say exactly what made such teams so special.
Some really smart people at Google studied 180 teams as part of “Project Aristotle,” named after the philosopher’s quote “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. It was a quest to find what discerns the very best, most successful teams.
Their work yielded an initial big surprise. The study’s hypothesis was that the best teams were made up of the best collection of individuals, presumably with a set of discerning traits.
No distinct pattern could be identified for individual traits that drove overall team performance. Instead, they discovered it wasn’t about who was on the team, but how that team worked together; more specifically, what the group norms of that team were.
So, what group norms drive superior team performance? Exactly what I felt when I was on great teams. The Googlers boiled it down to five questions, to which the most accomplished teams can answer an emphatic “Yes!”
1. Can we, as a team, take a risk without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
This is about psychological safety. Members of the most successful teams aren’t afraid to take risks in front of one another. They know when they admit mistakes, ask questions, or share new ideas, they won’t be punished. They see the team leader modeling acceptance of everyone.
This resonates with me because on the best teams I’ve been on, I vividly recall feeling like I belonged, was valued, and could bring my whole self to the table. It was authentic. And awesome.
2. Can we count on each other to deliver high-quality results on time?
Mutual accountability is one of the greatest forces on earth. Knowing you can depend on your teammates to do their part allows you to focus on doing yours. With accountability in place, you don’t want to let your teammates down, of course. But beyond that, you’re driven to bring that 10 percent extra effort to further ingratiate yourself to others.
In fact, social psychology research from the University of Michigan shows having a greater sense of interdependence is more meaningful for people than the pursuit of individual goals. That feeling is further exacerbated when you’re working on a winning team doing winning work.
3. Are our goals and roles clear?
Teams need a certain amount of structure and clarity. Period. Each member needs to understand “their role on the assembly line” and that of their co-workers. The team leader can ensure this by having group discussions about roles. In this way, no one individual can be dismissed because other people don’t understand how or what he/she contributes.
As for goals, in Make It Matter, I introduced 3C goals as a way to drive interdependency. That is, the team leader should set goals that are common (so everyone’s working toward the same end), compelling (so the goals create energy on their own and draw people to them), and cooperative (lofty enough that the only way the goals can be accomplished is by the team working together).
4. Are we working on something that is personally meaningful to each of us?
We find meaning in things that make emotional connections and are remembered, and thus matter. When we’re emotionally connected to our work, when it matters to us, we derive meaning from it. In fact, we hunger for such meaning.
Research from human resources development author Linda Holbeche shows that 70 percent of us are on a greater search for meaning at work than we even are in life itself. Leaders of great teams find out what’s meaningful to each person and tailor the work assigned and how it’s framed accordingly.
5. Do we fundamentally believe the work we’re doing matters?
This is about impact. Does everyone feel they’re contributing to an organizational goal that matters? Leaders of the most successful teams make sure every team member understands how their work fits with the mission of that team. The most successful teams I’ve been on had leaders that took the time and effort to connect the dots between each team member’s work and the goals of the organization.
The common denominator across all these questions can be summed up by one question. It’s not “Who’s on that team?” or “What did the team produce?” but “How does that team make me feel?” The answer to that is what you’ll always remember.
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