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Top Three Characteristics of Effective Teams
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Results, satisfaction, and learning. Every successful team can demonstrate these three outcomes for themselves and the organizations they serve, so much so that we can use them as a basis for a definition of an effective team.

But first we have to know "what makes a team." The literature on teamwork generally defines a team as a group of people working together to achieve a common purpose (not just a group of people working together). I add to this that an effective team is one that performs quality work meeting the standards and expectations of the organization in which the team exists, contributes to the personal well-being and development of the members, and provides a team experience that builds the capacity of the team members to work and learn together in the future.

But the real question is: how do they do it?

Obviously, effective teams organize themselves in many different ways. Nevertheless, they do have three common secrets of their success. First, they believe in each other; second, they understand how power works in and around the team; third, they are mutually committed to a set of values or a shared purpose. These are, literally, the three secrets of their success. Out of these three success factors, a number of behaviors emerge that ensure results, satisfaction and learning.

These secrets (or criteria) of team success emerged from my 1998 study of 72 individuals in 23 mixed-gender, ethnically diverse teams in faith-based non-profit work settings. Since the results were published in my book Becoming Colleagues (Jossey-Bass, 2000), they have been verified by my work with a wide variety of teams in non-profit organizations of all kinds.

Believing in Each Other

This is not just touchy-feely stuff. In fact, it's very concrete. The most important way that team members demonstrate their belief in each other is in the unequivocal ability of each team member to say, "I believe in the strengths of every other member of this team." Because of this certainty, team members are confident in each other's strengths, and they tell each other so. This does not mean, however, that they are all alike. On the contrary, they can readily point to differences in personal style, ways of thinking and skills as essential to their team success.

The belief in each other's strengths is so universally important for effective teams that I almost always find it lacking in teams that have run aground. Another way to say this is: if a team is in trouble, I can bet that somewhere, someone in the team doesn't think someone else in the team is up to the job. It's as simple as that. The hard part is finding where the problem is and fixing it - or changing the team.

When team members have this level of belief in each other, they demonstrate a lot of other good behavior. They:

  • Trust one another; yet at the same time know that trust can be broken by misunderstanding, missed signals, or behavior that other team members (especially team members from other ethnic background or other gender) do not understand;
  • Achieve and maintaining parity among all members in the team. Another way of saying this is that everyone in the team "counts" for everyone else;
  • Know and readily cite the benefits for each member of the team in being a part of the team;
  • Continue, without external prompting, some kind of activity that builds the team;
  • Talk to each other a lot;
  • Include affirmation as a normal part of the cycle of sharing ideas, taking action, and giving each other feedback (what I call the idea -- action -- feedback cycle).
  • State and honor contracts and boundaries that team members (and often outsiders as well) understand and honor;
  • Avoid decisions that one or more members cannot support; yet at the same time, remain relatively free to make individual decision when necessary because each team member is trusted by others on the team.
  • Maintain accountability to each other. Even when they disagree with each other in private team members typically support each other publicly; however, there are exceptions to this rule. Some teams agree to speak their individual minds publicly even when they disagree with each other. The accountability comes in that team members understand and honor what they mutually decide constitutes accountability.

The outcome of team members' belief in each other is that effective teams are consistently able to get the work done and put the team first. Unlike less effective (or newer) teams who often have to take time out from their work to build team skills, effective teams become more and more skilled at working together in the course of doing their work. We can readily see how this would happen by the foregoing list of behaviors. Any team that can do all these things without being prompted, at the same time that they are achieving their goals, is bound to get better and better all the time.

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