How To Build The Perfect Team

Insight & Opinion

Creating the perfect team

Andrea Pybus, HR Director from Team Consulting, shares her insight and expertise on what makes the perfect team…

Before approaching this question, we must first define what exactly makes a team. Innumerable possible definitions all seem to share three common elements: group, purpose, and interdependence. A team, therefore, is a group of individuals working together to achieve their common goal.

Forming a team is simple – we select and bring people together often based on technical competence. However, curating a productive, high-functioning and effective team is less so. How can we, collectively and as individuals, promote the success of a team? ‘Teamwork’, though crucial when effective, is too expansive a topic; instead we’ll examine key areas that can tangibly impact a team’s success – the lifecycle of a team, culture and group norms, and the role of self-awareness.

What is the lifecycle of a team?

It can take some time for a team to develop, a process which formed the focus of Bruce Tuckman’s research which started in the 1960s. Tuckman’s article ‘Developmental Sequence in Small Groups’ 1965, expanded following further research in 1977, concluded that teams typically go through 5 key stages as they form and develop: forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning.

His team development model (pictured) identifies the interactions that occur within teams at each stage, as well as the types of feelings and behaviours associated with each. For example, Tuckman identified that, when first brought together, there is generally a period of getting acquainted with fellow members within a team. People are often hesitant to initiate activities and take on responsibility at this stage, looking instead to the team leader for direction.

The fourth stage, performing, is that which we aspire to or strive for, in seeking to achieve the ‘perfect’ team. It’s at this stage that we see team members taking greater responsibility for tasks and relationships, thus achieving effective and satisfying results. Each team member uses their initiative to assess external forces and progress easily through milestones, thus requiring less leadership. However, many teams never reach this stage, and may move backwards and forwards through the various stages over time.

Sounding anxious and hesitant, feeling out other team members, getting acquainted, learning roles and responsibilites, understanding team goals, looking to team leader for direction.

Effectiveness reduces, disagreements about role and goals, struggling to establish place in group, forming cliques. Team leader required to facilitate conversations and judging level of communication can be tricky.

Beginning to work more effectively, respecting each other’s opinions and differences, agreeing on team rules, trusting and helping each other, making progess on the project, not relying on team leader as much.

The team is performing at a high level, making decisions and solving problems quickly and effectively, working independently. Light touch management.

Team members have bonded and are now likely to move in different directions as the project comes to an end. Feelings may be of sadness and uncertainty about what next. Focused, purposeful and conclusive. Celebration for team’s successes and lessons learned.

Project Aristotle – why do some teams succeed where others don’t?

Tuckman’s model acknowledges that some teams progress to succeed,
while others struggle. In 2012, Google kicked off Project Aristotle(1), which saw statisticians, organisational psychologists, sociologists and researchers analyse hundreds of teams over three years trying to find the recipe for building the perfect team.

“They looked at social interaction, gender, hobbies, education, personality, team boundaries, performance, reward structures and more, all with the aim of establishing the key identifying features of a successful team.”

The research and analysis remit of the project was massive. They looked at social interaction, gender, hobbies, education, personality, team boundaries, performance, reward structures and more, all with the aim of establishing the key identifying features of a successful team.

The conclusion, however, after three years of extensive research, was that the composition of a team made no difference to its effectiveness; there were no strong patterns in the results and team effectiveness seemed to be a lottery.

It wasn’t until a researcher happened across research into ‘group norms’ – behavioural standards and unwritten rules that govern how we function when we gather – that the data was revisited and the significance of such ‘unwritten rules’ or ‘team culture’ was discovered. This research found that though norms can vary hugely, their influence is profound, a revelation which led to the project’s final conclusion. After looking at hundreds of interactions across hundreds of teams, they concluded that influencing team norms was key to improving performance. But which norms?

Research on Group IQ, published in Science in 2010, had pointed to the importance of group norms, identifying two behaviours that collectively intelligent teams generally displayed:

1) Equality in distribution of conversational turn taking (members speak roughly the same proportion of time)

2) Above average social sensitivity (intuiting how others feel based on tone of voice, expressions and other non-verbal cues)

These two traits are broadly recognised as contributory to a feeling of psychological safety and, in reviewing the data, were also found present in the higher-performing teams examined during Project Aristotle. Rather than the lottery initially suggested by the results, there was a strong correlation between perceived psychological safety within a team and high team performance. Google concluded that clear goals and objectives alongside a culture of dependability were important factors, but that, above all else, psychological safety was critical to make a team work.

The results aren’t revolutionary; in the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs. These behaviours create psychological safety, allowing people to feel as though they can contribute and show empathy, which helps develop better relationships within a team.

Both the Google research and Tuckman model focus on these relationships between individuals; finding strategies to increase human connections can promote perceived psychological safety and thus move a team through the development cycle towards high performance.

So, what can we do at an individual level to influence team performance?

The significance of self-awareness in team performance

Consciousness of our own characteristics and feelings, and ability to increase our self-awareness, though seemingly intangible, help us to collaborate more effectively in team settings. Such self-awareness prompts us to consider the character and feelings of others, thus potentially pre-empt frustrations or conflict arising (or at least help us to consider effective approaches to resolving these quickly).

Developed by Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham in 1955, the Johari Window is a model that can help to visualise a self discovery process, it is split into four quadrants: the open area, blind area, hidden area and unknown area; through communication and cooperation, the balance between the four areas
can change.

• The open area denotes everything you know about yourself and are willing to share with others. We increase our open area by asking for feedback and disclosing information to others, so the more we share, the more open the connections we can have. This is where the main value of the open area lies; it aids the development of interpersonal relationships by building rapport and trust in relationships.

• The blind area encompasses characteristics that we do not know about ourselves, but that others within the team are aware of. With the help of feedback from others, we can become aware of some of our positive and negative traits as perceived by others, and overcome some of the personal issues that may be inhibiting us or the dynamic of the team. When feedback is given honestly it reduces the size of our blind area – for example, interrupting people before they have finished making their point, which can cause frustration. Sometimes we don’t realise these aspects of our character until they are pointed out.

• The third quadrant, the hidden area, contains aspects of ourselves we may be aware of, but don’t want others to know. This could include vulnerabilities, such as an aversion to public speaking.

• The final, the unknown area is unknown to both ourselves and anyone else. By working with others, it is possible for us to discover aspects of our character that we may never have appreciated before, qualities such as:
– an ability that is under-estimatedor untried
– a natural ability or aptitude that we don’t realise we possess
– a fear or aversion that we don’t know we have
– conditioned behaviour or attitudes

Soliciting feedback and disclosing information to others is eased, and more likely to be reciprocated, if it is a part of ‘group norms’. Returning to the findings of Tuckman and Google, a psychologically safe team environment makes this process of disclosure easier, and should aid our journey to high team performance.

Personality and the role it plays in team performance and development

Reflection on our own character can enhance self-awareness and help
us better understand and relate to other members of a team. Generally defined as ‘what makes you “you”’, personality encompasses all the traits, characteristics and quirks that set us apart from everyone else.

Research suggests that diversity of personality can make teams more effective, with more varied ideas and perspectives, stimulating innovation and aiding problem solving. It’s clear that personality is therefore an important consideration in the pursuit of the perfect team.

How do we measure personality?

Centuries of research, dating back to Hippocrates, have looked for reliable ways to conceptualize, assess and measure personality.

From all this research, the most prevalent personality framework is the “Big Five,” or the five-factor model, which describes 5 dimensions of personality or traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (often recalled by the acronyms OCEAN or CANOE).

Experts have developed psychometric and personality profiling tools, such as the Facet 5 used at Team, support the exploration of how similar or different our personality traits are from those of others. This aids our understanding of our own personality – how we like to approach our work and working with others.

There are many tools, however the typical exploration process starts
with a self-assessment questionnaire containing carefully prepared questions which explore attitudes, opinions and preferences that cover the OCEAN factors. Each of the five personality traits represents a range between two extremes and the tool attempts to measure the amount of each factor present in our personality.

Our responses to questions relating to each trait are then combined and converted to produce a score on a scale of 1-10. This score is then compared to a Norm Group (of others who have responded to the questionnaire). The score is then plotted on a range or scale. It is the degree of deviation from the norm that starts to gauge how our ‘measure’ of a trait compares with that of others and what that means for interaction and working in teams.

The diagram below presents each trait as a scale with descriptions associated with the extremes relative to the ‘norm’. Applying an individual’s scores to the OCEAN traits then allows us to generate a profile of likely behaviours.

Insight through comparisons

When it comes to the results of such assessments, it is important to stress that there are no good or bad outcomes; all high and low scores present both risks and opportunities in a team setting.

For example, a low score on Extroversion may manifest as a more reserved, private personality, perhaps less obvious display of enthusiasm. The risks associated with this score could be appearing distant from colleagues or difficult to engage, and may be interpreted as a lack of interest or involvement. Conversely, the potential associated strengths could be a willingness to listen as much as talk, understanding before offering opinion, and a tendency to not to talk over others or override their decisions.

The insights from such tools are a great input to the process of increasing self-awareness and allow us to consider what strengths our personality can contribute to a team and what aspects of our personality could present challenges for us or for those working with us. This insight offers greater opportunity to consider how we develop and adapt our behaviour when working in different team environments, with the many unique personalities we will come across, and how the team leader can assemble and organise a team to play to strengths.

Recognition that creating this environment is not solely the responsibility of the team leader and that investing in self-reflection, seeking constructive feedback and thoughtfulness about our impact on others will all contribute to reaching the aspirational ‘Performing’ stage in a team’s development and the achievement of the team’s goals. If we feel we can share some of this insight with our team leader or other team members, increasing the open area as the Johari model referred to it, this may help to accelerate the development of psychological safety, encouraging others to be equally open. We know that when working in a team where we feel safe expressing our opinions, believe there is equality of opportunity to contribute and we are sensitive and supportive to one another’s needs, we are more likely to perform at our best. And let’s face it, it will be more fun for all!