What Makes a Team Successful


In his book, Smarter Faster Better”, Charles Duhigg poses a question: Imagine you have been invited to join one of two teams.

“Team A is composed of eight men and two women, all of whom are exceptionally smart and successful. When you watch a video of them working together, you see articulate professionals who take turns speaking and are polite and courteous. At some point, when a question arises, one person — clearly an expert on the topic — speaks at length while everyone else listens. No one interrupts. When another person veers off topic, a colleague gently reminds him of the agenda and steers the conversation back on track. The team is effective. The meeting ends exactly when scheduled.

Team B is different. It’s evenly divided among men and women, some of whom are successful executives, while others are middle managers with little in the way of professional achievements. On a video, you see teammates jumping in and out of a discussion haphazardly. Some ramble at length; others are curt. They interrupt one another so much, it’s sometimes hard to follow the conversation. When a team member abruptly changes topic or loses sight of their point, the rest of the group follows him off the agenda. At the end of the meeting, the meeting doesn’t actually end: Everyone sits around and gossips.”

Which group would you rather join?

Does a team of extremely smart and successful people work better together? Or is there a collective intelligence that emerges within a team that is distinct from the smarts of any single member. “Some might hypothesize that the good teams were successful because their members were smarter — that group intelligence might be nothing more than the intelligence of the individuals making up the team.”

However, as Duhigg reveals throughout his chapter on Teams, this is not in fact true. Research reveals that individual intelligence does not correlate with team performance. In fact, when trying to improve team work among staff, it is more important to consider how teams work, more than who is on the team.

So what does he mean by how teams work? According to Duhigg some of the most successful teams display five key norms:

  • Teams need to believe that their work is important.
  • Teams need to feel their work is personally meaningful.
  • Teams need clear goals and defines roles.
  • Team members need to know they can depend on one another.
  • Teams need psychological safety.

To provide this psychological safety, your team needs to feel like they can voice their opinions and ideas without fear of repercussions. They need to feel like their voice is valued. Here are a few ways Duhigg suggest for building greater psychological safety that you may be able to implement within your own team.

“Leaders should not interrupt teammates during conversation, because that will establish and interrupting norm. They should demonstrate they are listening by summarizing what people say after they said it. They should admit what they don’t know. They shouldn’t end a meeting until all team members have spoken at least once. They should encourage people who are upset to express their frustrations and encourage teammates to respond in nonjudgmental ways. They should call out intergroup conflicts and resolve them though open discussions.”

Emily Harbourne was a previous editor for Campus Rec Magazine.

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