The Key Traits of High-Performing Teams

Group of multicultural employees

Unless you’re a pure freelancer or super genius, chances are you work in teams. At some point in your career, you will most likely be a team leader. The benefits of working in teams are well documented: teams tend to be more productive, better at problem solving, and more innovative. Yet, for all the benefits of group work, the old saying, “There’s no ‘I’ in team” is only half-right. Yes, group goals are important, but so are the needs of every team member.

What Makes a Perfect Team?

A recent article in The New York Times Magazine documents how Google set out to build the perfect team. As one of the most data-intensive organizations in the world, it studied practically every performance variable—incentives, compensation, autonomy, etc.—to obtain “employee performance optimization.” Google had its data scientists cull through all of its performance data and look at various team configurations (for example, grouping high-performers or mixing employees with different personality traits and skill levels). No patterns emerged. That is, until, a group of psychologists identified two specific characteristics of high-performing teams:

  1. Conversational turn-taking: Everyone on the team gets a chance to talk
  2. High “average social sensitivity”: Members of the team can intuit how others feel based on their tone of voice, expressions, and other verbal and nonverbal cues

Together, these two team traits fall under the concept of psychological safety, which Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’ In other words, each individual team member feels he or she has a voice and can express it without reservation or fear of being embarrassed, rejected, or punished by the team. Each team member is willing to be vulnerable. This is crucial to the success of teams, as they depend on both trust and mutual respect.

Why Is Psychological Safety Important?

This concept has two key implications for organizations.

First, recognize that there is an “I” in team, after all. Google’s experience shows that people have to be comfortable being themselves at work. Many professionals have “work selves” and “home selves,” which means they leave a lot of who they are behind when they arrive at the office each day. Some organizations consciously or unconsciously encourage employees to bring only their “work selves” to the office. Yet Google has shown that the most effective organizations encourage their employees to bring their full selves to work—all of their talents, ambitions, vulnerabilities, and challenges. You might call this “The Return on Trust.”

Second, this says a lot about the growing importance of diversity and inclusion. Many managers think of diversity and inclusion in legal or compliance terms. But these concepts go much deeper. As Google has shown, involving a wide range of people in a project (diversity) and ensuring that everyone feels they have a say (inclusion) can ultimately improve productivity and profits. These efforts raise the emotional intelligence and sensitivity of an organization, which has a significant return on its investment. You might call this “The Return on Mutual Respect.”

In reality, there’s a balance between the needs of the team and the individual. We work in teams because that’s the best way to get work done. Yet, to get the best work out of a team, we must understand that psychological safety matters for each individual team member.

So think about the teams you lead. Listen and observe. Take stock of who has a voice and who doesn’t. Be mindful of your body language and observe the non-verbal cues of your teammates. If you want to lead a high-performing team, you need to seek a Return on Trust and a Return on Mutual Respect. Instead of saying, “There’s no ‘I’ in team,” honor each “I” on the team and create a shared belief that it’s OK to be vulnerable.

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