What It Means to Be an Effective Team

Posted by Sarah Howes

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October 2, 2019 at 1:30 PM

effective teamBeing part of a high-performing, effective team feels incredible. When I’m a part of one, I’m engaged, I’m having fun, and I’m completely immersed in the team’s discussions and goals. Even when our work gets challenging, I remain calm and comfortable, knowing that I have everyone’s back, and they have mine. It’s a powerful feeling.

In my role at Commonwealth, I’ve built a team of hard workers who put our clients (our affiliated advisors and internal colleagues) first and are passionate about what they do. I care a lot about their goals and make their success a priority, and we treat each other with kindness and respect. Sounds like I’ve got it figured out!

Although we’re certainly on the right track, I’ve discovered there are things my team could be doing to raise the bar even higher. Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to learn and put into practice the key concepts that make teams truly effective. So, I’m taking a break from my usual posts about marketing strategies to share these concepts and how they can help you improve the effectiveness of your team, your partnerships, and your firm as a whole.

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The Science Behind Effective Teams

Our unconscious brains are deeply obsessed with psychological safety. In fact, according to Google’s Project Aristotle, it’s the most important factor in creating high-performing teams, as well as successful one-on-one relationships. When we work with others, we tend to worry about what people think of us—especially those with authority. To protect ourselves, we may talk less and focus on managing our status rather than on contributing freely to the conversation. Teams that build an environment of psychological safety, however, make it easy for members to create together and share ideas without worrying so much about what others may think.

How do we know when we’re in a psychologically safe environment? There are several indicators, called belonging cues, that tell us it’s okay to let our guard down. According to The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle, some of these include:

  • Eye contact
  • Good energy
  • Taking turns speaking
  • Close proximity to one another
  • Attentive listening

Psychological safety is hard to build and easy to destroy. You must signal again and again through belonging cues that you want others to feel free to contribute and be themselves. This applies in your personal life, too. For example, how often do you tell your parents, kids, or significant other how much you love them? Pretty often, right? But if you didn’t hear them say it to you for weeks or months, that would have a negative effect on your relationship. The same concept applies to your relationships with coworkers and clients.

Psychological Safety—in Theory and Practice

In the world of business today, there is an expectation that employees will feel comfortable in meeting environments, even if they don’t know the others in the group and don’t receive any belonging cues. But this expectation simply isn’t realistic—not many people can walk into a room full of strangers and feel totally at ease speaking their mind. Instead, most of us would be focused on trying to figure out where we stand within this group of people. Who is in charge? Who will lead the conversation? Is it okay to contradict that person’s ideas?

While this thought process is only natural, it’s also inherently inefficient and creates subtle competition. When we’re thinking about status, we spend our energy navigating our uncertainty about one another rather than focusing on the task at hand. This can be detrimental to the solutions the team eventually comes up with. What is the cost to the business when employees hold back on sharing a game-changing idea simply because they don’t feel comfortable speaking up? The best situation—for employees and employers—is when everyone feels free to contribute to the collective success of the group, guiding the team to the most innovative or effective solution.

To illustrate this concept, let’s look at an experiment:

The marshmallow challenge. In this widely tested experiment, small groups are asked to build a structure in 18 minutes using 20 dry spaghetti noodles, 1 yard of tape, 1 yard of string, and 1 jumbo marshmallow. The group with the tallest standing structure at the end of the time allotted wins the challenge. Tom Wujec—speaker, author, technology pioneer, and design thinker—performed this experiment with the goal of learning how different groups of people collaborate and why they work the way they do. Some of the test subjects included CEOs, recent business school graduates, lawyers, engineers, and kindergartners.

It may seem surprising at first, but it turns out the kindergartners were among the best at consistently creating tall structures. This is largely because the kids were not focused on being in charge. They worked shoulder to shoulder to collaborate on different prototypes, talking with each other and focusing on the task. Recent business school graduates performed among the worst of all the groups because they did a lot of talking at each other and positioning for power and spent less time trying different options. (Fortunately, while the kindergartners outperformed many professional groups, including CEOs, they did not best the engineers!)

My takeaway from the marshmallow study is that when you’re on a truly effective team, you know it because you are able to work shoulder to shoulder and energetically together, just like the kindergartners did.

How to Build the Dream Team

There are several ways to foster psychological safety to create effective teams and positive work environments. Try working these practices into your team meetings and project discussions to begin to create an environment where all can thrive and contribute:

  • Encourage everyone in the group to talk, and allow time for equal contribution if possible.
  • Stress the importance of eye contact and energetic communication during conversations.
  • Allow team members time to connect with each other outside of structured meetings.
  • Ensure that team members don’t interrupt each other.
  • Encourage everyone to ask questions and listen to each other’s opinions.
  • Open up to your team, and try not to act like you have it all figured out.
  • Overdo saying thank you to reinforce your relationship.
  • When you have new team members, provide thorough orientation on how the team works to help them get comfortable.
  • Embrace fun! Laughter is a big sign of safety and connection.

It’s Not All About Business

For some teams, creating a work environment like the one described above means making significant changes. But the benefits you’ll receive once you do—more great ideas coming to light, improved employee retention, and greater personal fulfillment, to name a few—will make all the work you put in well worth it.

And as I hinted at earlier, this new approach to teamwork doesn’t just apply to teams at your firm, but also to your individual relationships with clients, family members, friends, neighbors . . . the list goes on! By taking it upon yourself to show the people in your life that you care about and respect them and expect to be treated the same way, you will open up doors for better partnerships, more successful relationships, and a more enjoyable experience for all.

What more could the teams at your firm be doing to prioritize psychological safety? Do you find your employees are more successful working in this kind of environment? Please share your thoughts below!

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