Last Friday I facilitated a team building workshop with a small team in London. Usually I help individuals find more fulfilment at work – which occasionally involves them quitting a job or a team. Friday’s task was different: help strengthen a current team.

I loved it. I learned a lot. Including the realization that I’d like to do more of this kind of work. (Which might influence the rankings in my geeky project decision spreadsheet.) So wanted to share a few of these lessons with you.

To prepare for the workshop, I pulled in learnings from three places:

  • Google’s Project Aristotle – the tech giant’s internal study on its most effective teams.
  • My deep knowledge in career fulfilment from the past 3 years building career change programs at Escape.
  • Personal experience being a part of effective (and ineffective) growing teams.

If you’re building a team, leading a team, or simply part of an existing team that could operate more effectively – here are the first 3 questions to ask yourself, your team or your leader.

1. Are we really a team?

It’s easy to assume that any group of people working together under the banner of an organization or under a specfic manager is a team. But they might not be.

In Google’s Project Aristotle, they identified two types groups: “teams” and “work groups.” The key distinction? Interdependency.

Teams are interdependent groups of people that need each other to get the work done. They plan, solve problems, make decisions, and review progress in service of a specific project or mission.

Work groups, on the other hand, periodically come together to share status updates and trade information, but they don’t heavily depend on each other.

There’s nothing wrong with being a work group. Coming together to share information is useful and important. But it’s a losing game trying to coach and expect a work group to win as a team. It’s like trying to win a baseball game playing by cricket rules. I have no idea how to play cricket – but I know you’ll never win a baseball game playing by them. They look similar, but they’re two completely different games.

2. Do teammates feel safe to freely admit mistakes and failures?

In 1999, researcher Amy Edmondson studied hospital teams to discover what differentiated top performing groups from the rest of the pack. Her assumption? The highest performing teams made the fewest medical errors.

Surprisingly she found the opposite: the highest performing teams seemed to make more errors. Or so she thought. Eventually she uncovered the truth: the best teams didn’t make more mistakes, they simply admitted their mistake more freely and more often than the low performing groups.

Why? Team members felt safe enough to openly share their missteps. Edmondson coined the term for her findings Psychological Safety. Put simply, it’s the belief that “one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”

Google similarly discovered psychological safety as the #1 trait in their effective teams: “Teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members.”

The most effective teams feel safe to take risks, make mistakes, and fail around each other.

The other 4 traits Google found?

  • Dependability: “Team members get things done on time & meet Google’s standard of excellence.”
  • Structure & Clarity: “Team members have clear roles, plans, and goals.”
  • Meaning: “Work is personally important to team members.”
  • Impact: Team members think their work matters and creates change.”

3. What is leadership doing (vs saying)? 

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” –Peter Drucker

It’s tempting to believe culture can be sculpted like a piece of raw clay. The truth is that a team’s culture is often created in the image of its leader. Not in words, but in deeds. Actions write the culture.

Teams look to its leaders’ actions, both consciously and unconsciously, for direction and clues on how to behave. This manifests most powerfully in psychological safety. How openly leaders share their mistakes and failures – and more importantly, how they react when their team shares their own mistakes and failures – sets the tone for the whole team.

The team leader who brought me in last week demonstrated this beautifully. She wasn’t merely giving lip service to “team building” and then outsourcing it to someone like me. She was an active participant in it. She shared openly and authentically. She led the way with her actions.

If you’re the leader, how can you set the tone? Some considerations:

  • Are you available to your team? Do they know you’re always available to help and that they shouldn’t be scared to come to you with questions?
  • Does everyone’s voice feel heard? Do you welcome diversity in opinion and seek out voices that are less powerful or different?
  • What group habits or rituals can you adopt? i.e. kicking off every team meeting by sharing a risk taken or mistake made in the previous week.

My dad has a saying: “I can’t hear what you’re saying because your actions are screaming loud and clear.”

What are your actions screaming loud and clear?


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