We may idealize the charismatic leader or creative genius, but at the end of the day, almost every decision of consequence is made by a team. Teams are how work gets done. And yet, it is not uncommon for teams to exhibit some type of dysfunction that ultimately interferes with their work. What is the secret to fixing broken teams? How do you take your team from mediocre to high-performing?
The late J. Richard Hackman, a pioneer in the field of organizational behavior, studied teams for over 40 years. In his research, he discovered that more important than the personalities or behavioral styles of individual team members, teams that thrive have five enabling elements in common: clear team boundaries, a compelling direction, an enabling structure, strong support, and competent coaching.
A high-performing team is a “real” team. Many a so-called “team” is nothing more than a co-acting group with a constant cycling of people coming in and out of the team. A “real” team has a clear boundary. This means that each member of the team is aware that they are functioning as a unit. And part of achieving this is making sure each team member has a clear idea of their role within the team. Of course, this also means the team has a defined collective task where the outcome is dependent on each member.
Effective teams have a compelling direction. Good leaders will provide the destination, but will leave the means for getting there to the team. Teams cannot be inspired if they don’t know what they’re working toward and don’t have explicit goals. The purpose should be clear, challenging and consequential. At the same time, individuals will not be motivated if they have no autonomy in deciding how to accomplish the goal. Leaving teams room to be involved in “the how” supplies essential motivation and an important sense of meaning for team members.
Good teams have a well-thought out structure. Does the team’s composition, tasks, and core norms of conduct enable or impede teamwork? Teams should have heterogeneous composition, including members with a balance of skills. Diversity in knowledge, views, and perspectives, as well as in age, gender, and race, can help teams be better at problem-solving and can help teams avoid groupthink. Teams should also be right-sized. Six has been found to be the ideal team size, but anywhere between five to nine team members is the sweet spot for creating a maximally effective team. Teams that are any larger will not be as effective. Team tasks should have variety and meaning -- often this can be accomplished by pushing aside the assembly-line mentality and making sure the team owns the entire production of a product from start to finish. A good work design also means explicitly defining norms of conduct. Although secondary norms will evolve as the team works together, it is important to establish what team members must always do and those things they must not do, right out of the gate.
Thriving teams have strong support. This means teams have access to pertinent information. One could gather the most capable team in the world, but without resources, the team cannot function. A team also needs education and training. This should be aligned with what the team is asked to do. Again, the most competent team can fail if they are asked to do something for which they don’t have the know-how. Another aspect of support is team-based incentives. Leaders should provide rewards. Rewards boost team morale. However, leaders should avoid creating individually-focused rewards that do not motivate people to work together well as a team. Rewards should be team-focused to reinforce the “us” not “me” message.
Finally, good teams need coaches. A competent coach can help team members get over rough spots and take advantage of emerging opportunities. Team leaders commonly underestimate coaching’s importance, making it last in priority, but studies have shown that coaching interventions are extremely effective for producing high-performing teams. Coaching should be focused on helping the team correct their performance strategy. Often, leaders mistakenly believe that coaching is only about relational team-building or is about identifying a team’s problems and telling them how to fix them. In contrast, a good coach helps team members reflect on their performance, guides them to find the right solutions, and fosters better teamwork on a task.
Although teams can have a complicated set of challenges, there are factors that can lead to success. Managers can increase the value and performance of their teams if they understand those enabling factors and focus on getting them right.