No one does anything worthwhile alone, and that’s why we all want–scratch that–why we all need–to build great teams.
But is team-building an art or a science?
Great question–one I asked Gregory Ciotti, a Customer Champion at HelpScout, a company that provides email support software for SaaS and ecommerce, if he could answer. (Gregory also has a very cool blog.)
Here’s what Gregory put together:
When it comes to assembling, motivating and keeping a great team happy so that they can flourish in your business, the truth is that it’s a bit of both.
There’s no way to overstate how important a great team is to a business’ success. The quality of the work you do will exceeds the quality of the team behind it. Yet to many an entrepreneur’s and manager’s dismay, teambuilding often seems as complicated as watch making–there are a lot of moving parts and things have to be just right in order to create something magical.
Fortunately, academic research on team culture and group dynamics sheds some much needed light on creating and motivating the perfect team.
Here’s a look at ten of the best studies available. Check them out to learn practical steps you can do to ensure your team is set up for success.
1. Teambuilding exercises can work. Building a great team and actual “teambuilding” exercises are often viewed in very different lights.
Teambuilding is a business topic that generally produces a few eye rolls. The first thing that comes to mind for many are all the superficial activities that force people together into some sort of awkward scenario with all of the participants hating the process and wishing it would end.
Teambuilding shouldn’t have that reputation.
The Small Group Research journal paper “Does Team Building Work?” analyzed data from 103 studies conducted between 1950 and 2007. This cumulative research provides the strongest scientific evidence to date that team building can have measurable, positive effects on team performance.
As you’ll soon see, the “secret” in making team building work is to keep things normal, and to avoid situations that feel invasive, awkward, or forced. Do NOT assemble your team and ask everyone to share their greatest fear–a huge majority of the people involved won’t appreciate this forced mix of their work life and personal feelings.
What far more practical things should you do instead?
2. The 5 best teambuilding activities. In light of the lackluster reputation of teambuilding, you probably aren’t surprised to read that research from Citrix has shown that 31 percent of office workers say they can’t stand teambuilding activities.
This negative association is a shame, because, as discussed in this Harvard Business School publication, a connected team is a motivated team. Further supporting research from the American Psychological Association (APA) finds that team building activities can help employees feel valued, and those that do are the most motivated to do great work.
According to that study, “Almost all employees (93 percent) who reported feeling valued said they are motivated to do their best at work.”
There are ways to circumvent the negative association and provide great bonding experiences for co-workers. David W. Ballard, head of APA’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program, shared in this U.S. News & World Report interview five simple team-building activities that have shown to be successful time and time again.
3. Great teams need non-work communication. A study from MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory shows that when it comes to predicting the success of a great team, the most important element is how well the team communicates during informal meetings:
“With remarkable consistency, the data confirmed that communication indeed plays a critical role in building successful teams. In fact, we’ve found patterns of communication to be the most important predictor of a team’s success.”
This doesn’t mean team members have to be best friends outside of work, but managers should recognize that non-work discussions are critical to creating a team that looks out for each other. Otherwise, co-workers may begin to view one another as just cogs in the machine.
How can informal conversations be regularly prompted within teams? According to the study, “We advised the center’s manager to revise the employees’ coffee break schedule so that everyone on a team took a break at the same time.”
In short, a simple nudge works far better than awkward, forced team-building exercises that mandate casual conversations.
4. Star performers are often dependent on their team. Your rockstar employee that seems to thrive due to natural talent may be more dependent on their team than you think.
A Harvard study published in 2006 revealed that the overall performance of heart surgeons improved over time (patient mortality was the outcome measured) when they were able to consistently work with their usual team at the primary hospital they performed in.
When the surgeons would cover for other doctors, the researchers found that this measured improvement didn’t translate to other familiar hospitals with unfamiliar personnel.
So even though these surgeons were well acquainted with the other hospitals (thereby sidelining worries about feeling confused or “out of place”), they didn’t have the same tacit understanding of their team members. As a result, they did not perform at the same level as they did at their primary hospital with their primary team.
This finding is very important for both employees and employers to consider when evaluating how a particular team is contributing to their rockstar’s consistency.
5. Remote teams can outperform local teams. Yahoo’s recent announcement they would end their remote working program created significant debate. But the research shows that not every company should write off the practice just yet.
A 2009 study from MIT’s Sloan School of Management found that virtual teams working for software companies were regularly outperforming on-location teams, as long as they had the proper systems in place.
What systems are required? According to the MIT study:
Those processes can be classified in two categories: task-related–including those that help ensure each team member is contributing fully; and socio-emotional–including those that increase the cohesion of the group.”
The group’s findings show these elements to be critical for remote-team success:
6. In-person brainstorming is not the best option for teams. Great teams are often denoted by their ability to unite to come up with stellar solutions to brain-busting problems.
Here are a few reasons group brainstorming can fall flat:
But brainstorming is important for teams–research shows it gets employees invested in the projects they are working on. When people feel like they’ve contributed, they tend to be more invested in making the project a success.
So what’s the solution?
According to this research, the answer may be a new form of online brainstorming known as electronic brainwriting. This practice consists of brainstorming through a chat program, which circumvents many of the face-to-face problems. The following rules are also recommended:
The Help Scout team prefers HipChat for this sort of quick communication, and the app is also perfect for setting up the electronic brainwriting sessions mentioned above.
7. Great teams benefit from having an analytical thinker. When it comes to assembling a great team, this study from Carnegie Mellon University suggests that having an analytical thinker on the team is a must to balance out big-picture strategists.
How is an analytical thinker defined? The study described this person as someone who pays close attention to “process focus,” which is the art of identifying and focusing on the sub-tasks needed to achieve the goal.
In other words, this detailed-oriented person sweats the small stuff; they’re a great complement to the broad thinkers who concentrate on executing overall strategy.
They key is to educate team members on appreciating the process of creation, which can help negate potential disputes. When the entire team understands the nature of the details, this analytical thinker can thrive without being at odds with those planning out strategy.
As a software company, we can offer a candid example–adding “this one button” or “that one little feature” is almost never as easy as it sounds. Very rarely are these small changes actually small, and big picture people need to be in tune with this side of an analytical thinker’s work, so that misunderstanding’s and disputes can be avoided.
8. Forming “micro-cultures” can be bad for teams. Varying degrees of friendship are bound to form within teams. Research shows that it’s common for closer bonds to be formed among team members who share similarities based on their social identity and by the department they work in (e.g., marketing, support, product, etc.).
In a psychological study on getting the most out of multidisciplinary teams, lead researcher Doris Fay found that multidisciplinary teams produced better quality innovations than more uniform teams, but that this boost in performance was only consistent if there wasn’t a problem of teams fracturing into smaller subgroups.
Team leaders need to ensure that each member feels committed to the unified cause and that everyone on the team has a voice.
While private friendships are obviously fine, office cliques and inter-departmental rivalries aren’t ideal for a positive, goal-minded environment.
9. Teams need “social sensitivity.” For a team to perform well across a range of challenges, it’s essential for its members to have the character trait of social sensitivity.
Recent research on this topic shows that the ability to read co-workers’ emotional states is pivotal in determining a team’s success. Detecting when co-workers may be frustrated, busy, confused or embarrassed has proven helpful to a team’s cohesion.
Seemingly small things–such as being able to take turns while speaking–can go a long way toward increasing social sensitivity among teams.
You may not be surprised to hear that women are often more attuned with this trait than men. This may be why additional research suggests that teams that lead (company boards) with at least one woman represented will regularly outperform all male boards.
Either way, this is an important trait to establish in your company culture. Check out how the Buffer team promotes these values by encouraging employees to ‘default to transparency’ and to be a “no ego doer” when working with others.
10. The best teams have extroverts and introverts. “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it’ll spend its whole life believing that it is stupid.”–Albert Einstein
Many companies actively encourage their employees to open up and be more extroverted. But be careful of this mentality; even though introverts don’t tend to make as strong of a first impression as extroverts, they have proven to be key members of teams.
Research shows that although introverts “start off with the lowest status” (i.e., their peers didn’t evaluate them as having much influence), as time progressed their status climbed whereas the extraverts’ status fell.
These underrated quiet types offer a unique way to balance a team, so be sure that any ‘wallflowers’ on your team are given a chance; their reserved nature may just mean that they are shy, not that they have nothing to contribute.