How do the best teams work? I’ve collated three extremely different reference points to help answer this question.
Teamwork is the combined actions of a group of people working together effectively to achieve a goal. So, for most managers in the workplace, the focus on building great teams should be front and centre and I dare say, one of their key measures of job success.
I admire leaders who skillfully assemble a collective of individuals, each with their unique traits, and harness their internal communication and their activities to achieve a common objective. It is a dark art that requires constant tweaking in this ever changing business landscape where technology is disrupting traditional jobs, like never before.
From what I can see from reading and researching about high performing teams, a key element is identifying, recruiting and managing people with complementary skills and personalities. It is very tricky, but worth the effort, because a team can achieve so much more than any individual.
Learnings from ants (and observations from my kitchen)
Why on earth am I referring to a study of ants? Well, yesterday I watched in fascination as a “team” of ants carried a biscuit crumb about five times bigger than any one of them across my kitchen bench top. There was no way any one ant could have managed this task alone. Ants, it seems, can organise themselves to work together with specialist roles to form a productive team.
In his Inside Science article, Charles Q. Choi wrote about a study where it was discovered “that in colonies with as few as six ants, division of labor could emerge… As colonies grew in the number of their ants, the activities of the insects grew more specialized and the behaviors seen in the colonies grew more diverse”. Workplaces are most effective when the right people are in the right jobs to achieve common objectives. So when hiring staff, consideration should be given to both the role to be filled and the type of person that will work best with the existing team.
Learnings from Harvard Business Review research
As I looked for research in the area of workplace teamwork, two Harvard Business Review articles stood out to me.
The first by Dave Winsborough and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic (Great Teams Are About Personalities, Not Just Skills) suggests “a useful way to think about teams with the right mix of skills and personalities is to consider the two roles every person plays in a working group: a functional role, based on their formal position and technical skill, and a psychological role, based on the kind of person they are”.
Their research found that psychological team roles are largely a product of people’s personalities and it is worth balancing teams with a range of styles including:
- Results-oriented. Team members who naturally organize work and take charge tend to be socially self-confident, competitive, and energetic.
- Relationship-focused. Team members who naturally focus on relationships, are attuned to others’ feelings, and are good at building cohesion tend to be warm, diplomatic, and approachable.
- Process and rule followers. Team members who pay attention to details, processes, and rules tend to be reliable, organized, and conscientious.
- Innovative and disruptive thinkers. Team members who naturally focus on innovation, anticipate problems, and recognize when the team needs to change tend to be imaginative, curious, and open to new experiences.
The rationale as Winsborough and Chamorro-Premuzic write, “anything of value happens as the result of team effort, where people set aside their selfish interests to achieve something collectively that they could not achieve by themselves. The most successful teams get this mix of personalities right”.
Taking that even further, Alex Pentland found four key traits of great teams (see The Hard Science of Teamwork). From his studies, the data showed that great teams:
- Communicate frequently. In a typical project team a dozen or so communication exchanges per working hour may turn out to be optimum; but more or less than that and team performance can decline.
- Talk and listen in equal measure, equally among members. Lower performing teams have dominant members, teams within teams, and members who talk or listen but don’t do both.
- Engage in frequent informal communication. The best teams spend about half their time communicating outside of formal meetings or as “asides” during team meetings, and increasing opportunities for informal communication tends to increase team performance.
- Explore for ideas and information outside the group. The best teams periodically connect with many different outside sources and bring what they learn back to the team”.
Pentland summarises, “how we communicate turns out to be the most important predictor of team success, and as important as all other factors combined, including intelligence, personality, skill, and content of discussions. The old adage that it’s not what you say, but how you say it, turns out to be mathematically correct”.
Learnings from the New Zealand All Blacks
I recently read the wonderful book Legacy – what the All Blacks can teach us about the business of life, by James Kerr. I highly recommend having a read if you are leading a team and striving for sustained success. The book tells of 15 lessons learned from the All Blacks that can be translated into the business world.
Kerr sums up what many people leading teams face each day. “How to get members of the team who are driven by the quest for individual glory to give themselves wholeheartedly to the group effort”. Having the team “sweep the sheds” after training sessions is one example of the team mindset instilled in the players, senior and junior. The All Blacks track record tells us their team focus works very well.
I hope this blog encourages you to look at your hiring practices and ensure you consider both technical skills and personality traits, because both matter when it comes to putting high performance teams together. If you need help designing job descriptions, training on best practice recruitment processes or assessing the competencies of your team, please get in touch with us at Optimum Consulting Group (www.ogroup.com.au).
Ben Walsh – General Manager, Recruitment