What separates a team that does exceptional work from one that's only mediocre?

If your first instinct is to say great team members, you're not alone. Here's a lifehacker post arguing that great teams are made up of individuals with high EQ, as well as a good mix of introverts and extroverts. Or take this business professor as another example. He believes that "60 to 70 percent of a team's success lies in the design stage. It's critical to get the right people together."

Google had the same knee jerk reaction. Assembling great teams, the company assumed, must be all about assembling great people. But being data-obsessed, Google actually tested the idea.

The results of this work, which took the form of interviews with more than 200 Googlers, recently appeared on the company's re:Work blog. Like many of us, the search behemoth assumed there was some secret recipe for the perfect team. "Take one Rhodes Scholar, two extroverts, one engineer who rocks at AngularJS, and a PhD. Voila. Dream team assembled, right?" jokes the post. But the data revealed something very different.

"We were dead wrong. Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions. So much for that magical algorithm," confesses the post. Team dynamics, in other words, trumps team composition.

So what ways of working, internal understandings, or interpersonal dynamics set exceptional teams apart from mediocre ones? The post boils down Google's findings into these five essential traits of highly effective teams:

  1. Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
  2. Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?
  3. Structure and clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?
  4. Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
  5. Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we're doing matters?

It also turns out that psychological safety is by far the most important. Google calls it "the underpinning of the other four." If you can't risk failure and embarrassment with your co-workers, the research found, you'll struggle to take risks, admit mistakes, or accept help -- all key behaviors for highly functional teams.

Putting these insights to use

All of which is fascinating, but is it actionable? Can these insights actually improve teams in need of a tune-up? Google's experience suggests they can. Over the past year the company has used this research to assess the functioning of more than 300 teams across the organization and suggest tweaks to increase their effectiveness, such as "kicking off every team meeting by sharing a risk taken in the previous week." Measures of psychological safety went up ten percent. Structure and clarity ratings increased six percent.

The bottom line for the average business leader is that this research shouldn't just be interesting lunchtime reading. If you take these five principles seriously, think carefully about how your team is performing in each key area, and take concrete action to improve, you may be able turn a less than stellar team into an all-star one without switching out any team members at all.

How well is your team performing when it comes to these five key traits?