What makes a team tick?

April 25, 2016 12:00 am | Updated May 23, 2017 01:06 pm IST

Team work is not just about working with like-minded persons. Find out the key ingredient that facilitates synergy

In today’s hyper-connected and specialised world, most work is the result of team effort, and often involves multiple teams collaborating with one another. The LIGO project that has recently made waves (pun intended) in the news included scientists from many universities and research institutes spread across the globe. Nowadays, most jobs involve working with others, be it a cashier in a bank, a chef in a hotel, a journalist writing for a newspaper or a lawyer fighting cases in court. While some jobs demand a high degree of synergy between team players, most others require some form of collaboration. Ironically, in order to succeed in our increasingly competitive world, we need to learn how to be an effective team player.

And, like most collectives, a team is more than a sum of its parts. Even though members may excel at what they do individually, the performance of a team depends more on group dynamics. Knowing what makes a constructive team can help you in myriad ways. From learning to work in a group to leading one, understanding how groups work best can also aid you in picking which teams to work with. Further, when things are not going right with a team, you have a troubleshooting framework to identify possible roadblocks.

In an article published in February, 2016 in The New York Times Magazine , writer Charles Duhigg describes a study undertaken by Google to understand why some of its teams succeeded while others faltered. Named Project Aristotle, the study sieved through reams of data, looking for possible patterns that characterise effective teams. After analysing the performance of over 100 groups over a span of a year, Julia Rozovsky, who took over as lead researcher, found that “group norms” were essential in identifying teams that worked seamlessly versus those that didn’t deliver. But the research team was still not able to pinpoint which norms were the key, as some groups that seemed to differ diametrically performed similarly.

As Rozovsky and her team culled through the research literature, they came across the construct of “psychological safety” put forth by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson. According to Edmondson, the concept refers to “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” In other words, teammates are comfortable in the presence of others and are secure in revealing more vulnerable aspects of themselves. The concept of psychological safety turned out to be the elusive pattern that the team at Google had been searching for.

Psychological safety

So, how does one create a psychologically safe environment for a team? As Edmondson points out, psychological safety does not imply that we team up with our friends or other like-minded people. On the contrary, it refers to a ‘climate’ where teammates can have meaningful exchanges as they work towards a common set of goals and no person feels defensive for stating a position or expressing a doubt. Importantly, the concept embraces viewing mistakes not as character flaws or indictments of incompetence but as part of the learning process. If a team stands on the twin pillars of “trust and respect,” members are more likely to feel comfortable making errors. When individuals do not feel belittled by others, they are more open to receiving constructive critiques, which is essential for doing excellent work, no matter what the field.

In a related vein, an article in The Economist cites the work of psychology professor Benjamin Voyer who identifies three Cs of efficient teamwork — collaboration, communicating and coordination. Collaboration involves having a common goal and includes being able to see the perspective of other team members. If one member of the team thinks he is above the rest, and does not pay heed to other’s suggestions, the team will not work well together. Every person on the team should be able to see the point of view of other members. Secondly, team players have to communicate with each other without feeling threatened. A “psychologically safe” team facilitates an open exchange of views. Finally, teammates have to coordinate with one another so that different pieces of the work fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Based on these findings, how do you know that a team is right for you? Foremost, you need to feel comfortable being yourself among teammates. You don’t need to be close friends or even socialise together. However, you should not have to wear a mask and pretend to be someone else when you are with them. Further, if you have a personal problem, you should feel confident that other members will be empathetic and not judgmental.

A team works well only if all members are allowed to contribute. Even if a team has a leader, everyone has to be able to contribute and given a chance to speak up. In addition, tasks and goals should be well-defined and clearly communicated so everyone in the group is on the same page.

Importantly, when the team hits an obstacle, individuals should feel comfortable airing their views. If one person is slacking off, at least one other member should be able to approach the individual to find out why the person is not meeting expected targets. Finally, it would be a good idea for teams to introspect every once in a while to make sure that they have the ingredients required to work synergistically.

The author is director, PRAYATNA. Email: arunasankara@gamil.com.

Team players have to communicate with each other without feeling threatened.

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