Much of the discussion around leadership emphasizes the relationship between leader and employee. And yes, this is central to motivating and energizing others to follow you in support of common goals. However, it can be easy to overlook the fact that to achieve common goals, leaders also need to get their employees to work together effectively.

Two different studies of this topic come to different but complementary conclusions. The first is an analysis done by Google to determine the characteristics of an effective team. They analyzed the composition of teams at Google and comprehensively documented the aspects of both the team and individuals within the team, such as amount of interaction among teammates outside the office, gender balance, and educational backgrounds of team members. They then correlated these findings against team success. They found that high-performing teams had the following features:

  • Psychological Safety – people feel comfortable takings risks and being honest and vulnerable with their teammates
  • Dependability – team members are accountable, getting things done on time and to agreed standards
  • Structure & Clarity – there are clear roles & responsibilities, goals, and plans for accomplishing the work
  • Meaning – the work has importance to members of the team
  • Impact – individuals think that their work matters and effects change

The Google study found that by far the most important characteristic of a high-performing team is the first aspect, psychological safety. Leaders need to create an environment where everyone has a voice and is heard, and teammates show empathy for each other. This in turn means that people feel free to share things that might be difficult, either because of the topic or because of the feelings evoked.

A separate study found that patterns of communication are the most important predictor of team success, more important than other factors – individual intelligence, personality, and skill, and substance of discussions – combined. These patterns are so consistent and meaningful that the researchers were able to predict a team’s success without ever meeting the team members or knowing what they talked about. Specifically, productive patterns demonstrate both energy and engagement. Energy captures the number and nature of exchanges, where face-to-face interactions are more valuable than phone or video conference, and email and text interactions are the least valuable (not surprisingly). Engagement measures how many team members are a part of the conversation. The more people having interactions, the higher the engagement. When only a few team members participate, engagement is lower.

These two studies might seem to come to disparate conclusions, but they are inherently related:

  • If a team creates an environment of psychological safety, team members feel more confident in sharing their perspectives.
  • If team members believe their work has meaning and impact, they are more likely to have enthusiasm and engage in conversation around their work.

So how can you apply this to your own workplace to support effective teamwork?

  • Create a culture of respect and safety. This is as simple as having ground rules for meetings, such as Don’t Interrupt and Listen To Others. Invite quieter members to contribute. Remember that creating rules with your team, rather than imposing them, enables team empowerment and buy-in.
  • Communicate to your team the organization mission, vision, values, and goals. Explain how their work ties to and supports this bigger picture. Provide regular updates on accomplishments across the team and their impact outside of the team in meeting organizational objectives.
  • Give your team structure and set expectations – this is Management 101. Make sure team objectives are clearly defined with success criteria and due dates, and clarify roles and responsibilities. Individuals should understand what the team is trying to accomplish as well as their personal accountability.

The responsibility of a leader goes beyond your own relationships with others. Enable your teams to be their most productive by creating environments that support their success.

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