My husband and I hosted his high school girls’ basketball team for a team dinner on Monday – the one that takes place every year just before the annual international schools tournament.

For each of the last 10 years, the team has had 2-3 talented players who led the team to top standings. In contrast, this year’s crop was simply a group of great kids, none of whom expected to continue in the sport at a higher level.

This team has surprised my husband – in a positive way. He told me that this was the most positive team he has coached in all his years with the high school.

Listening to their chatter over dinner, I heard the girls say things like,

“We each know our role on the team, and how we contribute. It’s not like in our other sports where it feels like the coach just had to pick an 11th person to fill a slot and that happened to be me.”

“I believe in you, and you deserve to believe in yourself more than you do. That would really help the team too if you were more confident. You’re definitely good enough.”

“Coach, I know you yell at us only because you want us to be better… and you know we can do it!”

Then someone said to the team captain, “You’re a better leader now – and you haven’t yelled at us once in the last three games!”, and everyone laughed, including the team captain.

Clearly, these girls felt at home with each other, despite coming from different backgrounds and belonging to different groups at school.

Great teams are “better when we’re together”

From a pretty humble start, the team has gelled into something greater than the sum of its individual parts and will be a contender for the top 3 at the tournament.

If you and I are lucky, we get to be part of a team like that – where we’re better together than we are individually. But so often, we see teams that underperform our expectations – the proverbial “team” of all-stars that gets outdone by a group that’s less talented, but who come together to form a true high performing team.

So, how do you create a team that is greater than the sum of its parts?

What Google knows about great teams, and why we should care

I was recently reading Charles Duhigg’s New York Times article about Google’s study of teams and came across some interesting conclusions on what makes them tick, and why some teams outperform others.

With collaboration becoming the norm, even for people who consider themselves independent contributors, there’s a real benefit to becoming a great team leader as well as team member.

For the organization, cracking the code on high performance teams means getting more things done and winning in the marketplace. (You can bet that Google isn’t studying teams as part of a navel gazing exercise.)

And on a personal level, being able to lead teams that produce great results can turbocharge your career, while simply being part of the team that achieves great outcomes carries with it a positive halo effect. Plus, it’s exciting to be part of a winning effort!

It’s how you treat each other that matters…

The single biggest conclusion from the Google study is that success as a team has little to do with who is on the team and instead, it’s how the group behaves and treats each other that matters.

This is all about group norms – the unwritten rules of behavior, the types of conduct that are accepted (or not), and the way team members allow each other to interact in the normal course. Ultimately, group norms determine the culture and who we are as a team and as an organization.

That’s why this finding is so powerful – these often subtle, invisible ways of interacting and relating are actually the drivers of our success and enjoyment at work.

…and the degree to which there is “psychological safety”

To get the most from your team, the key is to create “psychological safety”. That means an environment where team members can express themselves without fear of ridicule or punishment.

I don’t know about you, but I definitely do better, more creative work when I feel comfortable sharing ideas, making suggestions, and asking a “dumb” question. By the way, I’ve also found that those “dumb” or “naive” questions can sometimes transform the entire discussion.

That doesn’t mean avoiding all negative feedback or having to pretend you agree with what others propose. It’s about making it okay to take the risk of looking dumb and knowing people “have your back”.

Two keys to creating psychological safety

According to Google’s findings, the two most important aspects of creating psychological safety revolve around communication and empathy.

On the communication front, Google discovered it was about “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.” That is, it’s important for everyone to have an equal amount of air time. “As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well. But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.”

So if there’s a clique of “cool kids” who dominate the discussion, engineer a shift in the dialogue to hear from the quieter people. And if you’re a “motor-mouth” boss, stop talking so much.

Which leads to the related finding that listening is also critical to this communication point. (Yes, listening is a crucial communication skill!)

And when it comes to empathy, this isn’t just about being “touchy feely”. The Google team called it “showing sensitivity to the feelings and needs of other team members”.

It’s essentially about figuring out how someone else feels “based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues.” It’s also about sharing personal stories and forming human bonds.

All of this is about fulfilling the basic human desire to be seen, heard, understood, and respected.

To what extent are you letting your teammates know that you see, hear, understand, and respect them?

What can you do to improve team success?

Of course, it all comes down to what we can do. The actions you can take to make yours a great team that delivers outstanding success.

Out of the many great takeaways from Charles Duhigg’s article, here are four that I think are particularly worthy of your focus, especially as a team leader, and my take on them.

1. Establish positive group norms

In particular, establish norms on communication and empathy.

Keep in mind that group norms can override individual behavior, so make it work in your favor. For example, someone who generally is a complainer on his own can behave in a constructive way to conform to the group norm.

On the other hand, people who wouldn’t harm another on their own might well do so under the influence of the group. For example, instances of mob violence. And I’m also reminded of the classic novel, The Lord of the Flies where a band of boys get out of hand.

As a leader, what behaviors are you currently tolerating that could harm the group’s success?

2. Establish clear goals

Teams succeed best when the mission is clear, and that means focusing on goals for the process, not just the desired result.

When you tell people to hit a particular market share or sales target, that’s great, but it’s not totally in their control. And when you couple it with additional goals on process, such as making a certain quantity of calls or developing new product ideas, those can be milestones for people to hit that will ultimately generate the desired results.

Is your team clear on the overarching set of goals, and do these include milestones that are in your team’s control (and not just the end result)?

3. Establish a culture of dependability

When you get the team to value and model the behavior of doing what they say they will do, then you no longer have to be the enforcer all the time. You can save your chips for when you need to use them, and the team will do a fine job of holding each other accountable.

To what extent are you, as the leader, modelling the behavior of dependability?

4. Encourage people to forge real connections

Something powerful happens when people get to know each other. They find common ground, common goals, common interests. It starts with understanding where others are coming from, then seeing their potential, and finding ways to help them realize that potential.

In my husband’s team, through the course of the season, the girls came to see what their teammates could do. They encouraged each other on, and often saw potential where the teammate herself did not. What was so cool was that they were able to help bring out the best in each other, and come up with a successful team – both on and off of the court.

What are you doing to help your team forge connections?

Whether you’re the leader or one of the team members, here are 5 additional things you can do.

5. Talk about it

In the case of my husband’s basketball team, he got results from simply talking about the article with his team. The girls picked up on the listening and empathizing points, and implemented them immediately. And by the way, they also talk about issues to get them out in the open in a constructive way so they can be resolved.

When you bring interesting articles and topics to the team, it can introduce a level of thinking and discussion that enhances the performance of the group as a whole.

What’s the last time you shared something interesting and positive that could help the group?

6. Model the behavior

This is a great strategy when you’re not the leader and want to change the way things are done. As my former colleague, Vinay Jayaram, said on our recent webinar, on the Hidden Secrets To Your Career Success, just keep conducting yourself in the way you would like to see everyone behave. Over time, they are likely to come around. And if they don’t, then maybe it’s time to consider joining a different team.

7. Always come from a positive place

When people know that you have the team’s best interests at heart, they will take your feedback and words in the right way. And when someone knows that you’re trying to get the best out of them for the benefit of the team, they’re more likely to take and act on the constructive feedback you give.

8. Don’t be mean

Beyond coming from a positive place, it’s important to make sure you’re not being mean (as in hurtful).

Team dynamics expert, Steve Shenbaum, has a term “with love and grace” which my husband has adopted for his team. Everything is said “with love and grace”. If another team member says something to you with a anger or sarcasm, it’s okay to remind them by asking, “is that with love and grace?”.

9. Make amends when needed

In the end, we all make mistakes. No one is perfect. And I’m certainly not. When I find myself in a position of having acted against a positive group norm, such as blaming someone for something beyond their control or losing my temper at an innocent person, it’s time to go and set things straight.

Apologize when it’s called for. Preserving trust and relationship is far more important to success – both yours and the team’s – than your ego. But note that if you find yourself frequently needing to apologize, then it’s probably time to work on your ability to self-manage in the moment.

Three questions worth thinking about

We live in an age where it takes a team to deliver the bottom line results, not just a series of individuals handing off their bits to another individual. Now, more than ever, it literally pays to become a great team leader and an even better team member.

That’s why these three questions are worth thinking about.

  • What’s the answer when you and your teammates ask each other, “are we being good teammates?”
  • When you’re the team leader, what are you doing to set your team up to succeed?
  • Whatever your role, how can you help to create an environment where everyone can do their very best work?

Leave me a comment and let me know what you think.