Have you ever been a member of a high-performing, smoothly running team? If you have been, it’s an experience that you are not likely to forget. On this type of team there is usually a strong trust bond, people work cooperatively together to reach the common project goals, and often the project is even more successful than the project manager and customer could have imagined. These types of teams generally have some key characteristics in common that help make them the effective, high-performing teams that they are. In this guide, we’ll examine ten key characteristics of these types of teams, which are:
- Clearly defined goals
- Clearly defined roles
- Open and clear communication
- Effective decision making
- Balanced participation
- Valued diversity
- Managed conflict
- Positive atmosphere
- Cooperative relationships
- Participative leadership
Clearly defined goals
Clearly defined goals are essential so that everyone understands the purpose and vision of the team. It’s surprising to learn sometimes how many people do not know the reason they are doing the tasks that make up their jobs, much less what their team is doing. Everyone must be pulling in the same direction and be aware of the end goals. Clear goals help team members understand where the team is going. Clear goals help a team know when it has been successful by defining exactly what the team is doing and what it wants to accomplish. This makes it easier for members to work together - and more likely to be successful.
Clear goals create ownership. Team members are more likely to “own” goals and work toward them if they have been involved in establishing them as a team. In addition, ownership is longer lasting if members perceive that other team members support the same efforts. Clear goals foster team unity, whereas unclear goals foster confusion – or sometimes individualism. If team members don’t agree on the meaning of the team goals, they will work alone to accomplish their individual interpretations of the goals. They may also protect their own goals, even at the expense of the team.
Clearly defined roles
If the team’s roles are clearly defined, all team members know what their jobs are, but defining roles goes beyond that. It means that we recognize individuals’ talent and tap into the expertise of each member - both job-related and innate skills each person brings to the team, such as organization, creative, or team-building skills. Clearly defined roles help team members understand why they are on a team. When the members experience conflict, it may be related to their roles. Team members often can manage this conflict by identifying, clarifying, and agreeing on their individual responsibilities so that they all gain a clear understanding of how they will accomplish the team’s goals. Once team members are comfortable with their primary roles on the team, they can identify the roles they play during team meetings. There are two kinds of roles that are essential in team meetings.
Open and clear communication
The importance of open and clear communication cannot be stressed enough. This is probably the most important characteristic for high-performance teams. Many different problems that arise on projects can often be can be traced back to poor communication or lack of communication skills, such as listening well or providing constructive feedback. Enough books have been written about communication to fill a library. And I’ve personally written several articles on this subject alone for this site over the past few months.
Excellent communication is the key to keeping a team informed, focused, and moving forward. Team members must feel free to express their thoughts and opinions at any time. Yet, even as they are expressing themselves, they must make certain they are doing so in a clear and concise manner. Unfortunately, most of us are not very good listeners. Most of us could improve our communication if we just started to listen better—to listen with an open mind, to hear the entire message before forming conclusions, and to work toward a mutual understanding with the speaker.
We allow distractions to prevent us from giving our full attention to the speaker. We allow our minds to wander instead of focusing on the speaker. We allow our biases and prejudices to form the basis for our understanding. Instead, we should allow the new information we are hearing to form the basis for our understanding. Many benefits exist for working toward improving communication for your team, such as:
- Open communication encourages team members to express their points of view and to offer all the information they can to make the team more effective;
- Clear communication ensures that team messages are understood by speakers and listeners;
- Two-way communication increases the likelihood that all team members hear the same message;
- Good listening skills ensure that both the speaker’s content (words) and the intent are heard;
- Attention to nonverbal communication helps further identify feelings and hidden messages that may get in the way of teamwork;
If team members attend to no other high-performing team characteristic, working to improve their communication with other team members will increase trust, decrease problems and rework, and build healthy interpersonal relationships. Invest in improved communication – the payback can be enormous.
Effective decision making
Decision making is effective when the team is aware of and uses many methods to arrive at decisions. A consensus is often touted as the best way to make decisions—and it is an excellent method and probably not used often enough. But the team should also use majority rule, expert decision, authority rule with discussion, and other methods. The team members should discuss the method they want to use and should use tools to assist them, such as force-field analysis, pair-wise ranking matrices, or some of the multi-voting techniques.
Effective decision making is essential to a team’s progress; ideally, teams that are asked to solve problems should also have the power and authority to implement solutions. They must have a grasp of various decision-making methods, their advantages and disadvantages, and when and how to use each. Teams that choose the right decision-making methods at the right time will not only save time, but they will also most often make the best decisions. This completes the four basic foundation characteristics: clear goals, defined roles, open and clear communication, and effective decision making.
If communication is the most important team characteristic, participation is the second most important. Without participation, you don’t have a team; you have a group of bodies. Balanced participation ensures that everyone on the team is fully involved. It does not mean that if you have five people each is speaking 20 percent of the time. Talking is not necessarily a measure of participation. We all know people who talk a lot and say nothing. It does mean that each individual is contributing when it’s appropriate. The more a team involves all of its members in its activities, the more likely that team is to experience a high level of commitment and synergy.
Balanced participation means that each team member joins the discussion when his or her contribution is pertinent to the team assignment. It also means that everyone’s opinions are sought and valued by others on the team. Participation is everyone’s responsibility. As a team moves from a forming stage to more mature stages of group development, team members must make certain that everyone is an active participant. If you have team members who did not participate early in the formation of the team, they will withdraw even more as the going becomes more difficult. To achieve the best participation, a team might start by asking some of these questions:
- Did everyone on the team give his or her point of view when we established the ground rules?
- Did everyone have input into our goals?
- When we solve problems, do we make sure everyone has spoken before we decide?
- Do we consistently ask the shy members of our team what we think?
- Do we seek opposing points of view?
- Do we ask all team members what they want?
- Two important things influence team participation: the leader’s behavior and the participants’ expectations.
A leader’s behavior comes as much from attitude as from anything. Leaders who are effective in obtaining participation see their roles as being a coach and mentor, not the expert in the situation. Leaders will get more participation from team members if they can admit to needing help, not power. Leaders should also specify the kind of participation they want right from the start. Will everyone share their own ideas and then decide what to do or will the group discuss the pros and cons of the leader’s idea? If everyone knows the answer, then there are no lingering questions.
Leaders need to create a participative climate. They must make it a practice to speak last to avoid influencing others. Often a leader may put an idea on the table “just to get things started.” But what happens? Everyone jumps on the idea and stops thinking. People may feel, “Well, if that’s what she wants, that’s it.”
Leaders need to reward risk-taking. Those “half-baked” partial ideas that people bring up may be just what gets the team moving toward a solution, idea, or new opportunity. Leaders must always protect the minority views. Anyone can think like everyone else. It takes courage to think and speak differently.
Leaders need input from everyone, but usually, some team members have been selected for their expertise and experience. To ask for input, the leader must recognize those people for their expertise and/or experience, direct questions to them, and lead the discussion that results so that everyone is included. That’s what participation is all about.
Participants must volunteer information willingly rather than force someone to drag it out of them. They should encourage others’ participation as well by asking a question of others, especially those who have been quiet for a while.
Participants can assist the leader by suggesting techniques that encourage everyone to speak, for example, a round robin. To conduct a round robin, someone directs all members to state their opinions or ideas about the topic under discussion. Members go around the group, in order, and one person at a time says what’s on his or her mind. During this time, no one else in the group can disagree, ask questions, or discuss how the idea might work or not work, be good or not good.
Only after everyone has had an opportunity to hear others and to be heard him- or herself, a discussion occurs. This discussion may focus on pros and cons, on clarifying, on similarities and differences, or on trying to reach consensus.
Participants can also encourage participation by establishing relationships with other team members between meetings. Another thing they can do is to call people by name. We all like to hear our names used by others—especially in positive ways!
Remember that each and every member of a team has a responsibility not only to participate but also to ensure that everyone else is given the opportunity to participate.
Valued diversity is at the heart of building a team. Thus, the box is at the center of the model. It means, put simply, that team members are valued for the unique contributions that they bring to the team.
Diversity goes far beyond gender and race. It also includes how people think, what experience they bring, and their styles. The diversity of thinking, ideas, methods, experiences, and opinions helps to create a high-performing team.
Sometimes team members may realize that they do not have the kind of variety they need. They will note this, discuss it, and then do what is necessary to become more diverse. In the short term, the team may tap into expertise from another department for a specific project. In the long term, the team may identify the specific requirements it is missing so that the next person they bring in can fill the gaps.
Whether individuals are creative or logical, fast or methodical, the effective team recognizes the strengths each person brings to the team. Sometimes these differences are perceived by individuals as wrong. The high-performing team member sees these differences as imperative for the success of the team and respects the diverse points of view brought by others.
Yes, it is more difficult to manage a highly diverse team, but the benefits will show up in the end. It takes work and a very special group of people to encourage the differences that each brings to the team. Flexibility and sensitivity are key.
Conflict is essential to a team’s creativity and productivity. Because most people dislike conflict, they often assume that effective teams do not have it. In fact, both effective and ineffective teams experience conflict. The difference is that effective teams manage it constructively. In fact, effective teams see conflict as positive.
Managed conflict ensures that problems are not swept under the rug. It means that the team has discussed members’ points of view about an issue and has come to see well-managed conflict as a healthy way to bring out new ideas and to solve whatever seems to be unsolvable. Here are some benefits of healthy conflict:
- Conflict forces a team to find productive ways to communicate differences, seek common goals, and gain consensus;
- Conflict encourages a team to look at all points of view, then adopt the best ideas from each;
- Conflict increases creativity by forcing the team to look beyond current assumptions and parameters.
Conflict increases the quality of team decisions. If team members are allowed to disagree, they are more likely to look for solutions that meet everyone’s objectives. Thus, the final solution will most likely be better than any of the original solutions that were offered. Conflict allows team members to express their emotions, preventing feelings about unresolved issues from becoming obstacles to the team’s progress.
Managed conflict encourages participation. When team members feel they can openly and constructively disagree, they are more likely to participate in the discussion. On the other hand, if a conflict is discouraged, they withdraw. Teams can benefit tremendously from the conflict they experience. Make it a point to maintain an environment in which conflict is not only managed, but encouraged.
Positive team atmosphere
To be truly successful, a team must have a climate of trust and openness, that is, a positive atmosphere. A positive atmosphere indicates that members of the team are committed and involved. It means that people are comfortable enough with one another to be creative, take risks, and make mistakes. It also means that you may hear plenty of laughter, and research shows that people who are enjoying themselves are more productive than those who dislike what they are doing.
Trust is by far the most important ingredient of a positive atmosphere. How do team members reach a point where they can trust one another? What are the characteristics that make some people seem more trustworthy than others? Trust and credibility can be described behaviorally. They can be seen in a more logical way than you might think. Consider this …. What do people need to do to build trust with you?
What came to mind first? Was it honesty? Dependability? Sincerity? Open-mindedness? If so, then you’ve just identified some of the characteristics and behaviors that build trust. It’s important to keep in mind that what one person sees as trustworthy is not necessarily what another sees. We each have different values. So when you want to build trust and credibility with others, it’s as important to know what those individuals value as it is to know what your strong suit is already.
Let’s examine some characteristics and behaviors that build trust:
- To build trust with some people, you will need to be honest and candid. The messages this sends are: “I say what I mean.” “You will always know where I stand.” “You can be straight with me.”
- To build trust with some people, you will need to be accessible and open. The messages this sends are: “I’ll tell you what works best for me.” “Tell me what works for you.” “Let’s not work with hidden agendas.”
- To build trust with some people, you will need to be approving and accepting. The messages this sends are: “I value people and diverse perspectives.” “You can count on being heard without judgment or criticism.”
- To build trust with some people, you will need to be dependable and trustworthy. The messages this sends are: “I do what I say I will do.” “I keep my promises.” “You can count on me.”
Interestingly, these seem to be very strong, positive messages. But some people may perceive them differently. Like everything that involves human beings, there is not one clear way. Generally, to build trusting relationships with others, people must also provide credible evidence. There are two types of evidence: objective and subjective.
Objective evidence includes facts and figures or other measured and quantified data. Subjective evidence includes the opinions of others who are highly regarded (friends, family, or competent colleagues) and perceived as relevant resources and knowledgeable about the subject.
Of course, trust is not built overnight. Individuals have their own requirements for how long it takes to build trust with them, including these four:
- One time or until you prove otherwise: “I guess you might call me optimistic. I tend to start with a clean slate.”
- A number of times: “I need some history. I tend to let my guard down after a few positive interactions with people or after people have demonstrated their trustworthiness.”
- A period of time: “I need some history, too, but I tend to prefer a period of time to a specific number of times before I am comfortable placing trust in people.”
- Each time: “I value consistency. Call me pessimistic if you like, but I think I’m just being realistic. I guess I can be hard to convince.”
Building trust in a team will be one of your greatest challenges. If a team you work with has done a good job of building trust, the other aspects of a positive atmosphere will come more easily. Those aspects include individuals who are committed to the team’s goals; an atmosphere that encourages creativity and risk-taking; people who are not devastated if they make mistakes; and team members who genuinely enjoy being on the team. A positive atmosphere is one of the characteristics of a mature team.
Directly related to having a positive atmosphere are cooperative relationships. Team members know that they need one another’s skills, knowledge, and expertise to produce something together that they could not do as well alone. There is a sense of belonging and a willingness to make things work for the good of the whole team. The atmosphere is informal, comfortable, and relaxed. Team members are allowed to be themselves. They are involved and interested.
Cooperative relationships are the hallmark of top performing teams. These top teams demonstrate not only cooperative relationships between team members but also cooperative working relationships elsewhere in the organization.
Although it takes more than a list of ideas to build positive, cooperative relationships, there are several actions you can take. Teams can be made aware of the following areas:
Recognize and value the different strengths that each member brings to the team
Focus on each person and on why he or she is on the team. The team should be certain to utilize each person’s unique strengths.
Provide a forum in which team members can give and receive constructive feedback
One of the best measures of a positive, cooperative relationship is whether people are honestly providing feedback to one another.
Conduct self-evaluations as a part of normal business
Individuals can evaluate themselves as well as the team. Remember that it is everyone’s responsibility to encourage growth and learning.
Build an environment of trust and cooperation
Trust is the linchpin between a positive atmosphere and cooperative relationships. It’s like the chicken and the egg. It’s difficult to tell which came first. The team members should demonstrate a team spirit that values cooperative relationships outside the team as well.
Celebrate the team’s successes
Most teams are very task-oriented and forget to celebrate their successes. Don’t forget to reward yourself as a team. Some ways could include going out to lunch together, having a picnic, or publicly announcing an achievement to the rest of the organization. Completing assignments brings closure to the task aspect of teamwork. Celebrating team accomplishments brings closure to the interpersonal aspect of teamwork. To maintain the highest possible performance on a team, all team members should be responsible for relationship building.
The participative leadership block is not at the top of the model because it is the most important.
It is at the top because it is the only block that can be removed without disturbing the rest.
Participative leadership means that leaders share the responsibility and the glory, are supportive and fair, create a climate of trust and openness, and are good coaches and teachers.
In general, it means that leaders are good role models and that the leadership shifts at various times.
In the most productive teams, it is difficult to identify a leader during a casual observation.
In conclusion, a high-performing team can accomplish more together than all the individuals can apart.