Before successful teams can be built, leaders need to understand some universal truths. First, humans are generally social animals. Second, working as a team is often a frustrating and negative experience. Some people feel they carry the ball for all. Others feel trampled on by the more assertive members. Third, people have many creative ideas, most of which never get any serious discussion. You’ve probably been part of dynamic, engaged teams where work was fun. And you’ve probably been part of disengaged teams where people sabotaged each other to protect their turf.
What makes up successful teams?
There are five key elements to successful teams, all requiring the active engagement of a leader. It’s best when the formal leader is actively involved, but some teams evolve their own leaders who lead the team to high performance. There are rare “leaderless” teams who intentionally have no formal leader. But the successful ones have members who step up and take on essential leadership roles.
1 – The right people.
The first key element in building a strong, successful, highly motivated team is to have the right people. Team members need to have the skills and experience needed to do the work. It’s a bonus if they are enthusiastic, but that’s not required at the start. It’s the leader’s job, to build motivation and enthusiasm.
2 – A purpose or mission that is meaningful to the team members.
Great teams start with a purpose or mission that is meaningful to the team members. “Running a production line” is not meaningful, but producing a great product with minimal defects ramps it up a bit. Building a great product that provides something specific of value to the eventual owner (e.g. a tool they need for their job) is even better. The key is moving from “doing our job” to “creating a great outcome for our customers”. Without external meaning, people feel like cogs in a machine, not the operator of the device. A strong team leader communicates a motivational mission.
3 – Clear objectives that set targets in the short and medium term.
To accomplish the mission, a team needs clear objectives that set targets in the short and medium term. They also need a clear delineation of tasks and roles to meet the objectives. This is generally best when the team develops objectives collaboratively. Communication is again key. The same word can mean different things to different team members, so specificity and clarity are important. Listening is also critical. If all team members learn to listen fully and accurately, including asking questions and confirming understandings, the team has a great chance of success.
This can get complicated as people have different communication styles and different preferences for how they communicate. Some people like to get deep into details before they take action, while others just want the big picture first and they sort out the specifics moving forward. Some people want team communication to be informal, friendly, and ongoing. Others want communication limited to what they need to know to do the job. The key here is that team members need to learn to flex a bit and adapt to each other’s style, not insist that others adapt to theirs.
4 – A clear decision-making system that includes all team members.
Another key to successful teams is having a clear decision-making system that includes all team members. Where it’s feasible, consensus, when everyone can “support” the team’s decision is best – even though everyone may not be enthusiastic about it. The power of a consensus process is that everyone’s voice is heard. People feel respected and an essential part of the team. Anyone who opposes a decision gets a chance to suggest changes that would enable them to support it. This can often lead to an improved decision as normally quiet, drowned-out voices are heard. However, consensus can bog down a team if not achieved quickly. It may not always be possible when speed is important, or it simply can’t be reached. Regardless, the process of polling everyone and hearing their concerns helps build a strong team.
5 – An accountability process and leadership.
Along with decision-making, a team needs an accountability process and leadership. Team members can go a long way to holding each other accountable, and day-to-day, mutual accountability is great. In some cases, a leader will be needed to resolve critical issues. A leader is also needed for administrative reasons to set agendas, communicate with external groups, convey information, etc. More than one member can take on aspects of the leader role.
So we come back to where we began – leaders are needed to support the dynamics of team growth to lead teams to success. To do that, they need to communicate a sense of mission, direction, objectives, engagement, and mutual accountability. And if it’s only the leader doing this, the team will not succeed. The bottom line is communication. Great communication is what builds great teams. Communication is how leaders and team members engage with each other and without solid engagement, a team does not exist.
We developed the T.E.AM. Communication Styles® model to help teams better understand each other’s communication styles and learn how to work together constructively to produce great outcomes. We’re happy to share this with you. Let me know if you’d like to schedule a time to talk.