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A recent study published in the Harvard Business Review (1) suggests that working in teams is becoming the new normal; it found that the time spent in collaborative activities at work has increased by 50% over the past 20 years. In many organisations, it added, employees spend more than three-quarters of their time communicating with colleagues.

It is more important than ever that teams work successfully together; a poorly performing team will drag down the performance of the entire organisation.

There is plenty of research available on the skills and characteristics that make a good manager. But relatively few people in an organisation are managers; it is team members that make up the vast majority of the workforce. So what makes a good team – or even better, a high-performing team?

Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith, authors of The Wisdom of Teams, have spent many years studying team performance and dynamics. They argue that high performing teams have the same basic characteristics of all teams, but are set apart by a few key qualities, including:

  • A stronger sense of purpose
  • Relatively more ambitious performance goals, compared with other teams
  • Mutual accountability – the understanding that they are stronger together
  • A complementary skills set.

This all makes sense, but sometimes it’s better to take one step away from the textbooks and look at how teams work in practice. That’s why a recent study by Google into its own teams is so fascinating.

Over the past couple of years, the ‘People Operations’ team (their phrase for HR) at Google have carried out an extensive and very interesting piece of research in an attempt to answer a deceptively simple question: What makes a Google team effective?

Google began by looking at what academic research had to say about the characteristics of high-performing teams, and then set about a comprehensive study of the character traits and skills of its team members. It looked at more than 250 attributes of over 180 teams, in the hope of finding at least a few common characteristics among members of the best-performing. What they found surprised them; who is on a team matters less than how the members of a team interact, structure their work and view their contributions.

The study found that there are five key dynamics that set successful teams at Google apart from the rest. They are:

  • Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
  • Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high-quality work on time?
  • Structure and clarity: Are goals, roles and execution plans on our team clear?
  • The meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
  • The impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?

The project found that there is no magic formula for a successful team structure. Some of their best teams were highly structured and organised, while others were free-flowing and informal. Some engaged in more heated debates than others.

But whatever the group dynamic, these five team traits reappeared again and again. Google concluded that if you can answer ‘yes’ to each of these five questions, you are most likely part of a high-performing team.

Many of Google’s findings echo the more academic studies of team performance. The emphasis on ‘psychological safety’, for example, is discussed at the world’s top business schools as an important part of excellent teamwork – the best teams tend to have a high emotional IQ, are sensitive to non-verbal communication (ie, they recognise when someone might have something to say but isn’t speaking up), and are not dominated by one or two individuals. In fact, Google’s study suggested that psychological safety was the most important characteristic of a high performing team.

Another interesting research study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology used wireless sensors to monitor how individual team members communicated with each other. More than 2,500 people in 21 organisations took part and the study found five defining characteristics of successful teams:

  • Everyone in the team talks and listens about the same amount as others
  • Whenever a conversation becomes ‘energetic’, team members face each other
  • Members of the team talk to everyone in the group – there are no cliques
  • Conversations continue outside of team meetings
  • Members occasionally explore outside of the team and bring information back to the group.

What these studies have in common is that they strongly suggest that emotional connection drives the best-performing teams.

But the ultimate question is, how to achieve this in practice? I’m going to go back for a moment to Katzenbach and Smith’s research into teams, which uncovered two important points that are close to my heart. First, they say that team achievement requires discipline; and second, that forming a team takes time.

Teams tend to have a life cycle – they must move from a group of individuals to collaborative team that care about each other and drive each other to better things. That doesn’t happen on its own and it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes knowledge and insight about the task in hand and a constant focus on the team’s development.

Everyone wants high-performing teams, of course, but relatively few organisations manage to achieve it. Often the problem is a lack of clear vision, and too much focus on short-term results. The best teams have a long-term aim, an aspiration, rather than a series of short-term targets. It’s difficult to be inspired by a target.

Ultimately, this comes down to behaviour. Working with feedback is an essential element of this, in my view – people need to know how they are perceived by others, their strengths and what they could do better. If a business had only ‘high performing teams’ it would have a ‘high performing culture’. This leads to significant sustained bottom line benefits.

Behavioural change is the most difficult change of all. But it can be done. Begin the conversation today.



How do we do it?

At Space2BE we have been supporting teams from various stages of performance to ‘high performance’ for many years. We draw on every aspect of our people expertise to do this well. As building a HPT takes time, we work on a long-term project basis. In special circumstances we will run taster sessions if a client is new to this approach. If you’d like to find out more contact Karen or Rachel at