10 Research-Backed Steps To Building A Great Team



How do you build a great team?

A great team is not just a group of great individuals.

Research studies have shown the elements that go into making a productive group aren’t always obvious and often defy conventional wisdom.


1) Don’t just look for smarts, look for social skills

What makes for smart teams? It’s not average IQ; it’s team social skills:

The three factors are: the average social sensitivity of the members of the group, the extent to which the group’s conversations weren’t dominated by a few members, and the percentage of women in the group.  (The women in the study tended to score higher on social sensitivity than the men.) In other words, groups perform better on tasks if the members have strong social skills, if there are some women in the group, and if the conversation reflects more group members’ ideas. 


2) The best predictor of team success is if they like one another

Via The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work:

…a study of over 350 employees in 60 business units at a financial services company found that the greatest predictor of a team’s achievement was how the members felt about one another.

How well do they need to get along? Remember the 5 to 1 ratio.

From The Ape in the Corner Office: How to Make Friends, Win Fights and Work Smarter by Understanding Human Nature:

It turned out that the fifteen high-performance teams averaged 5.6 positive interactions for every negative one. The nineteen low-performance teams racked up a positive/negative ratio of just .363. That is, they had about three negative interactions for every positive one…

Is your team fist bumping, high-fiving and hugging? “The teams that touched the most cooperated the most, and won the most.”

Via Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior:

So are touchy-feely people more successful at getting things done? There is no data on whether bosses who dole out the occasional pat on the head run a smoother operation, but a 2010 study by a group of researchers in Berkeley found a case in which a habit of congratulatory slaps to the skull really is associated with successful group interactions. The Berkeley researchers studied the sport of basketball, which both requires extensive second-by-second teamwork and is known for its elaborate language of touching. They found that the number of “fist bumps, high fives, chest bumps, leaping shoulder bumps, chest punches, head slaps, head grabs, low fives, high tens, half hugs, and team huddles” correlated significantly with the degree of cooperation among teammates, such as passing to those who are less closely defended, helping others escape defensive pressure by setting what are called “screens,” and otherwise displaying a reliance on a teammate at the expense of one’s own individual performance. The teams that touched the most cooperated the most, and won the most.


3) The most creative teams are a mix of old friends and strangers

Via Imagine: How Creativity Works:

“The best Broadway teams, by far, were those with a mix of relationships,” Uzzi says. “These teams had some old friends, but they also had newbies. This mixture meant that the artists could interact efficiently— they had a familiar structure to fall back on— but they also managed to incorporate some new ideas. They were comfortable with each other, but they weren’t too comfortable.”


4) Team morale is about good storytelling

What inspires team morale? Great stories:

Institutions that can communicate a compelling historical narrative often inspire a special kind of commitment among employees. It is this dedication that directly affects a company’s success and is critical to creating a strong corporate legacy,” said author Adam Galinsky, Morris and Alice Kaplan professor of ethics and decision in management.


5) Effective team performance requires clear goals

Via Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration:

One study of more than five hundred professionals and managers in thirty companies found that unclear objectives became the biggest barrier to effective team performance.


6) After goals, define roles

Via Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing

Clarifying who is going to do what— identifying distinct roles— is one of the most proven ways to increase the quality of teamwork. The egalitarian notion that team members should be equal in status and interchangeable in their roles is erroneous. Teams work best when participants know their roles, but not every role needs to be equal. Dr. Eduardo Salas, at the University of Central Florida, is one of the most widely cited scholars studying team efficiency. He has devoted his life to understanding the vast sea of team-building and team-training processes— analyzing teams used in the military, law enforcement, NASA, and numerous corporate settings. The only strategies that consistently deliver results are those that focus on role clarification: who’s going to do what when the pressure gets intense.


7) Want fast teamwork? Then focus on being smooth

Via The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking:

the Formula One pit crew with whom he worked, whose members were told that they would no longer be assessed on the basis of speed targets; they would be rated on style instead. Instructed to focus on acting “smoothly”, rather than on beating their current record time, they wound up performing faster.


8) It’s okay to treat stars differently

Via Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing

Doesn’t giving stars special treatment undermine the motivation of the rest of the team? Researchers have looked at the pay of NBA stars, compared with that of their lesser-famous teammates. On average, if certain teammates are getting what is perceived to be an unjustified windfall, that hurts performance: team members won’t work as hard to grab what they see as the short end of the stick. But as long the star treatment is warranted, it doesn’t hurt performance… Stars aren’t the same. Stars face elevated levels of scrutiny: the expectations for their performances are much higher.


9) Have men and women on your team

Teams with men and women performed better:

For MBAs, at the top, the best performing group is two men and one woman. The differences in performance are explained by differences in decision-making. We observe that three women teams are less aggressive in their pricing strategies, invest less in R&D, and invest more in social sustainability initiatives, than any other gender combination teams. Finally, we find support for the hypothesis that it is poor work dynamics among the three women teams that drives the results.


10) Research shows a team really is only as strong as its weakest link.

Team trust is not determined by an average of the members, it’s at the level of the least trusted member:

Findings from two studies demonstrate that perceptions of team trust are indeed lower than the average ratings of individual trust and are statistically equivalent to the least trusted member. In addition, compared with average individual trust levels, perceptions of collective team trust were found to be more predictive of (a) impasse rates in distributive negotiations and (b) the level of joint gain in integrative negotiations.

Want to build trust? Make sure your team jokes around together.

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