February 2016

Building a Great Team

by Ed Ruggero

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" in the last two decades. According to an article in The New York Times, further studies show that "groups tend to innovate faster, see mistakes more quickly and find better solutions to problems."

Companies are interested in what makes a great team, and researchers at Google turned their attention and their considerable skill at recognizing patterns and mining data to this question. In the Times article, "What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the perfect Team," we're told—perhaps not surprisingly—that norms of group behavior have a profound influence not just on what a team can accomplish, but on how engaged and happy members are on that team. On highly effective teams, two characteristics stand out above all others:

These characteristics, sometimes referred to as "psychological safety," are defined by Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson as a "sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up."

I shared these findings with N, a business leader in a financial services firm who also happens to have degrees in psychology and organizational behavior. In thinking about teams she's most enjoyed leading or being a part of, she identified two additional characteristics that stood out immediately. Group members

Each team member held herself accountable for the quality of her own segment of the workload, and was personally invested in the overall success of the team.

N told me, "They didn't stop at, ‘Well, I did my portion and can be satisfied with that even if the team doesn't succeed.' Each member is willing to step beyond his or her own role to help another part of the team. They all understood exactly how what they were doing contributed to overall success." That last part—getting everyone to see the big picture—took time and effort, N said.

In discussing how these norms come about, the Times article says that they might be traditions or unwritten rules. Since nature abhors a vacuum, any group will develop its own norms over time. I am much more a fan of making expectations and norms explicit. I also believe it is the leader's responsibility to establish those norms, although not by fiat. This is where a personal leadership philosophy can have a great benefit for a team.

In a personal leadership philosophy, the leader makes clear his or her expectations and what the team can expect in return. Sharing a leadership philosophy is all about sparking a conversation about team dynamics. The best leaders use a personal leadership philosophy not as the final word, but as the beginning of a lively discussion about how the team wants to operate. Participation and buy-in are critically important and not always easy to achieve, but they can be the important first steps toward a high-functioning team.

For more on the personal leadership philosophy and to see samples, visit the Academy Leadership site.

A written leadership philosophy is one of the take-aways from The Gettysburg Leadership Experience.

Ed Ruggero is the creator and facilitator of The Gettysburg Leadership Experience, in which participants visit the site of the Civil War battle to learn how to better lead modern organizations.