What Makes the Best Teams Tick?

Kurt Nelson PhD & Tim Houlihan

It’s important to begin by acknowledging that teams are different from work groups. We often use “teams” to describe groups of people who work together, like sales teams. However, sales teams are typically work groups formed by the hierarchy of the organization, not the work they’re doing. They may work for the same manager, but they pursue individual and independent goals. That’s not a team.

Teams are highly interdependent. They plan, solve, make decisions and review progress collaboratively because they rely on each other to get the work done. A good example of a team is an account team where individuals depend on each other in different roles to complete the various aspects of the client’s work. This contrasts with employees in work groups who don’t need one another to complete their work.

So, what are the best ways to engage a team? Luckily for us, Google conducted research on 180 of its own teams over several years to determine what factors create a highly successful team.

Google found that maximizing team engagement begins with psychological safety. This is foundational to the individual’s perception of what the consequences are of taking risks within the group. Teams thrive when members are able to freely express themselves and their ideas are not usurped by others on the team. Needless to say, engaged teams don’t participate in yelling matches or name calling. Leaders may need to establish ground rules on how to communicate respectfully with each other and foster a team culture of psychological safety. If you learn one thing from this article, it is that engaged teams need to feel psychologically safe.

The second factor is dependability. On engaged teams, members reliably complete quality work on time. When members hold each other accountable, free riders are shown the door. Although research indicates that small teams rarely suffer from free riders, the best way to eliminate them is through transparency and clearly identified responsibilities.

The third is structure and clarity. It’s important to clearly communicate individual and team expectations, the process for fulfilling these expectations, team member roles and the consequences of success or failure. Initial alignment and regular realignment help individuals focus on the most relevant work. Specific, measurable and attainable goals, both short and long-term, should be clear for the individuals and the group.

Meaning and impact are the fourth and fifth items. Combined, they emphasize the need for a sense of purpose in the work itself and in the results the team delivers. Meaning doesn’t need to be fluffed-up Mother Teresa stuff. Meaning can be found in putting food on the table or maintaining job security. Or it can be found in a cashier at a toy store who reminds customers to buy batteries because he wants to ensure that the toys work for the kids when the customer gets home. Focusing on impact is similar. Psychologically, we all want to know that our effort makes a difference. Firms that are good at connecting the impact of the team’s work to the department, division or corporate objectives will maximize engagement of their teams. No one wants to feel like a cog.

The path to improving engagement with a team is to intentionally work toward integrating these foundational steps. Nearly everyone who earns a paycheck has been named a part of a team, but are they engaged? If you’re a leader, what are you doing to help your team be more engaged? We hope Google’s research can help.

Why do people do what they do? Kurt Nelson and Tim Houlihan explore answers to that question with an eclectic mix of guests in their podcast, “Behavioral Grooves.” They describe it as a “monthly meetup of like-minded behavioral science nerds.” Check out the podcast that inspired this article at https://behavioralgrooves.podbean.com.