It's never been more important to understand what makes world-class teams tick. The pace of work continues to accelerate as does its scope and complexity. More business is done globally, with more complex products and services to manufacture and customize, with fiercer competition, and with the composition of work teams continually evolving. The result is that leaders don't have time to experiment to get it right. They need to move up the learning curve fast and foster world-class teams, right now.  

In November, Microsoft announced a project it calls The Art of Teamwork, in partnership with design firm Ideo. The company studied dozens of teams from diverse industries along with the latest research on what makes teams successful in today's workplace, and asked questions like, "What is the right team composition?" "What's the best way to inspire a team to rise to a particularly tricky challenge?" and "What to do when a team encounters interpersonal tensions?"

This joint study revealed five core traits of the most successful teams:

1. Clear team purpose

A clear team purpose creates shared meaning, which keeps teams focused, aligned, and performing at a peak level. It's an aspiration, not a metric, one that's reflective of the impact the team hopes to make on the world. It's a guiding light that keeps discussions and efforts properly oriented.

On one of my favorite leadership teams I worked on, we collectively developed the purpose statement of "To make every project better and every employee feel empowered." Key to that was it was a collective effort (not a corporate mandate) built from the ground up. It informed how the leadership team acted and made decisions. If our input or actions weren't going to improve a project or leave an employee feeling empowered, we didn't engage in them.

2. Collective identity

Everyone wants to feel like they belong somewhere, and the best teams have forged a great sense of belonging for each member. Such an identity is a reflection of three things: the team's values, agreements, and rituals.

The common values are collectively agreed on and are brought to life through everyday behaviors.

Agreements center on "how we do things around here" and should be mutually upheld.

And rituals, the repeated behaviors and activities that reinforce the agreements, will help to build cohesion. For example, I put one ritual in place before team meetings I called P:60. We'd go around the table and every member would share, for 60 seconds, something going on in their life outside of work. It created a great sense of cohesion.  

3. Awareness and inclusion

Awareness involves self-awareness (which helps people mediate how they show up in working with others), co-awareness (which is being alert to how your interactions affect others), and situational awareness (which requires adjusting to a variety of scenarios in an empathetic, emotionally intelligent manner).

Inclusiveness involves an eagerness to incorporate a breadth of backgrounds and perspectives into a team's daily functioning. It's about respecting differences, not resolving them. Aware and inclusive teams are much more equipped to navigate interpersonal dynamics.  

4. Trust and vulnerability

This is all about emotional and psychological safety. Such safety allows team members to feel comfortable bringing their whole, genuine selves to work, to openly share their ideas, and to take more risks. Trust, of course, develops over time, and opens up team members to being vulnerable without fear of being put down or seen as weak. When you feel OK to be vulnerable, you open yourself up to forge deeper connections with teammates who will reciprocate that vulnerability.

The combination of trust and vulnerability means fear of judgment is gone and that team members can participate with full energy, maximum focus, and minimal fear.  

5. Constructive tension

Great teams aren't without conflict. In fact, they embrace it. Constructive tension is the result of teams harnessing their differences rather than hiding them or letting them divide a team. It pushes a team's thinking and expands their point of view. It means respectfully disagreeing with teammates versus relentlessly pushing forward your own agenda. It means commending the opposing point of view, not condemning it.

It should be noted that without the other traits as detailed above in place, constructive tension can quickly devolve into destructive tension that tears a team apart.

So now you can take your team from good to great (or from less than good to great). It's a great time to get started.

Published on: Jan 15, 2020
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