When I was a kid, music, art, and academics came before sports. I'm not saying this was a terrible way to grow up but it did put me at a disadvantage in junior high when I wanted to join the softball team. Of course I didn't like softball all that much but my friends played. Not surprisingly, the coach didn't see me bringing any skills to the field. I guess it seemed too hard to try and teach someone at the advanced age of 13 so I was assigned to the bench and taught how to keep score. I was on the team, but not really. What I really wanted then, and still do to this day, is to be on the team.

I think a lot of people feel that way at work. In fact, how much we know and like our assigned teams has a lot to do with how much we like our jobs. Great teams make each member feel needed and important. They have the corner on the market of understanding the challenges we face at work and make us laugh when that is really all you can do on a bad day.

I've been on great teams and some not so great. Anyone who's been on a great team can tell you that it's a feeling that you carry with you for the rest of your career and, in a lot of ways, something that you continue to look for in the faces of every assigned group you ever come in contact with in the future. Being on a great team is something like being bumped up to first class. It's even better than you imagined--especially on a long flight--and it's really tough to go back to coach afterwards.

I've always thought it was some magic, unknowable chemistry that happened among the team members that made it great. I didn't believe great teams could be manufactured--they just happened and if you were a part of one, you just won the work lottery.

Apparently, Google wasn't so sure, so they supported an internal study called Project Aristotle. After a couple of years of really innovative, groundbreaking research, they proved what we already knew--and had experienced on bad teams--and revealed some pretty fascinating things about the ones that do work.

What doesn't work is having rigid, pre-defined roles. Add a couple of domineering personalities and a sense of internal competition and you have the complete ingredient list for a team that will be stuck, slow to produce, and unlikely to come up with anything truly innovative.

Instead, high-functioning, productive teams have two traits in common. First, each member of the team talks roughly the same amount of time. Each time someone pipes up, their voice is welcomed and considered. Second, the individual team members have a higher than average ability to read non-verbal communication cues and the willingness to modify their behavior is more inclusive and supportive.

While Google was generous in revealing the results of their research, the company stopped short of explaining exactly how they intended to integrate these findings into management decisions and team assignments.

Yet, there are a couple of things we can take away as accelerants to get newly formed teams (or those struggling to gel) on a faster track to productivity.

  1. Leaders set expectations that every team formed to tackle a business need treat all members of that team as equal stakeholders in the outcome. That doesn't mean that there aren't various organizational levels or different skills and abilities each member has to offer. Experience and contributions naturally will vary. However, treating everyone as equally invested and giving each person the opportunity and support to contribute their very best is important.
  2. Encourage teams to resolve issues internally before escalating problems. Once the expectation of the team functioning as equal stakeholders is set, team members have a way to self-correct if the group slips into counterproductive patterns of letting a handful of voices dominate while neglecting to pull in those more reluctant to speak up. Outside influences should be invited to arbitrate only after the group makes a sincere attempt at fixing the problem themselves.
  3. Offer training in emotional intelligence for all team members. There are courses specifically focused on increasing emotional intelligence but there are related books, articles, videos, and podcasts on listening, collaboration, and providing constructive feedback that can all be helpful. This thought-piece from Justin Bariso on increasing emotional intelligence includes practical advice that can be implemented right away.
  4. Leaders who establish the project teams should get specific about the desired outcome but stop short of micromanaging how the team gets from here to task completion.
  5. High-functioning teams should be rewarded with additional opportunities to work together. Even after finishing a tough, potentially high pressure assignment, teams will be bonded together over the shared experience. After a short break (if needed), most teams appreciate the opportunity to work together on something else to keep the party going.

If you're leading or participating on a team that just isn't working well, consider taking a look at how the team was created. This post includes some common mistakes organizations make when staffing teams.

With increased awareness about the power and potential of strong teams, we can foster strong bonds. The benefit is happier, more engaged employees that produce more creative, innovative results--a worthwhile investment if there ever was one.