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How to Make a Great Team

Levi Goertz

August 11, 2023

Why Should HR Leaders Care About Creating Great Teams?

Teams are the backbone of any modern organization. When they function optimally, they increase efficiency, innovation, and overall business performance. According to a study by Deloitte, teams that work well together can outperform individual contributors by over 50%.

Teams are not just a collection of individuals but a complex, adaptive system. The magic of high-performing teams lies in their capacity to generate a synergistic effect, providing organizations with a competitive edge in driving innovation, enhancing decision-making, and boosting employee engagement.

1. Driving Innovation - A study by McKinsey draws a distinctive connection between high-performing teams and innovation. According to their findings, companies that prioritize the development of high-performing teams are 1.5 times more likely to experience above-average growth in their industry. These high-performing teams, often characterized by a strong shared vision, effective communication, and a collaborative culture, bring together a broad range of skills and expertise. This fusion of capabilities breeds a rich environment for creative problem-solving and innovative solutions, thereby contributing significantly to the company's growth and success.

2. Enhancing Decision-Making - According to a study published in the esteemed journal "Nature," teams outperform individuals in decision-making about 66% of the time. The secret sauce? The ability to amalgamate diverse perspectives and knowledge, which effectively curbs individual biases and blind spots, leading to more robust decisions.

3. Increasing Engagement - Gallup's State of the American Workplace report indicates that employees who strongly agree that they can depend on their team deliver a 10% increase on customer ratings, a 21% greater profitability, and a 40% reduction in safety incidents. High-performing teams create an environment that promotes trust, shared values, and a sense of belonging, leading to increased job satisfaction and lower turnover.

High-performing teams have a quantifiable impact on business success. By emphasizing team effectiveness and cohesiveness, HR and L&D leaders can unlock significant performance improvements, leading to a stronger, more agile business in today's competitive market.

What Do Great Teams Look Like?

So, what truly sets a great team apart? High-performing teams have been the subject of extensive research and documentation. Instead of reinventing the wheel, let us summarize the existing high-quality research provided by acclaimed academics such as Amy Edmondson, corporate giants like Google, renowned consultants including Patrick Lencioni, and prestigious firms like McKinsey.

While factors like team composition, mandate, resource availability, and individual skill sets indeed influence team performance, the consensus is that the group's behaviors are the most significant determinant of their success. Valence has distilled the plentitude of research available on the topic into four key themes, each comprising several specific behaviors for the members of the teams:

1. Strong trust foundation

  • Feel safe with one another
  • Genuinely care for one another
  • Communicate well
  • Don’t let resentments build up

2. Commitment to Excellence

  • Focus on the most important things
  • Deliver on commitments
  • Hold selves to high standards
  • Actively surface and address problems

3. Operational effectiveness

  • Run efficient meetings
  • Have clear goals & roles
  • Make decisions quickly

4. Openness

  • Give honest feedback to one another
  • Admit if wrong or don’t know
  • Don’t let egos get in the way
  • Have fun together
  • Good ideas can come from anywhere

These behaviors are actionable and can be embraced by any team to enhance their effectiveness. This realization brings encouraging implications: achieving high performance within a team doesn't necessarily demand exorbitant budgets or extraordinary talents. Rather, it requires something universally attainable—the adoption of a set of positive group behaviors.

How do teams perform against these critical behaviors? 

Before we delve into strategies for enhancing team performance across key behaviors, it's helpful to understand the current state of teams against the key behaviors outlined. To provide a clear picture, we've analyzed data collected from thousands of teams between 2018 and 2023. These teams have self-assessed their performance against the 16 key behaviors over time and the trends are shown below.

Over this five-year period, we've observed positive trends in the 'Commitment to Excellence' and 'Openness' categories, growing by 6.14% and 4.02% respectively. Conversely, the 'Operational Effectiveness' category has seen a decline of -3.97%, primarily due to inefficiencies in meetings and decision-making processes. The 'Strong Trust Foundation' category has remained relatively stable, with a notable improvement in the 'we communicate well' behavior.

A few recent developments in the world of work have likely influenced these shifts in team’s self-assessment over the past five years:

• Impact of Remote and Hybrid Work: The COVID-19 pandemic expedited the shift towards remote and hybrid work models. The complexities of virtual coordination have likely affected the operational efficiency, making it more challenging to host productive meetings and facilitate effective decision-making.  

• Advances in Technology and Digital Transformation: Increased use of specialized digital tools in the workplace has significantly contributed to improvements in communication capabilities across team members, likely leading to a rise in the 'We communicate well' category. 

• Increasing Burnout & Rapid Team Changes: Higher work pressures and rising incidents of burnout in the workplace over the past five years have likely put a strain on interpersonal relationships within teams. Additionally, frequent changes in team composition in many organizations due to high employee turnover, changing priorities, and uncertain economic environment have disrupted the familiarity and continuity within the team. All of these factors have likely impacted the decline in the team's self-scoring of safety and mutual care. 

• Matrixed Teams: Recent emergence of cross-functional teams requires robust communication to work effectively. The inherent diversity of these teams often fosters a stronger commitment to excellence. However, they may initially struggle with establishing operational efficiencies due to varied backgrounds and understanding across functions. 

• Decline of Formal Leadership Authority: The shift away from formal leadership could empower team members to communicate more openly and take more ownership of their work, fostering increased commitment to excellence. However, without a formal leader to guide meetings and processes, they may become less efficient, as may be seen in the data. 

How do you foster these behaviors?

Understanding and fostering the behaviors that underpin strong team performance is the cornerstone of team effectiveness. In this section we share a guide on how HR and L&D leaders can help teams improve across key behavioral dimensions. It highlights strategic steps teams can take to integrate these behaviors into their daily operations, focusing on raising awareness, engaging managers and teams, and prioritizing action over analysis.

(1) Empower the Team Leaders 

The impact of a team leader on the performance and cohesion of their team cannot be underestimated. Therefore, HR and L&D leaders play a critical role in empowering and equipping their people managers for success in building great teams. 

The great news is that it doesn’t take any extraordinary talents or specialized knowledge among team managers to be able to create great teams. The research shows that the main thing that is required is genuine care for team effectiveness and a commitment to devote time and resources to its cultivation from the team leader. Empowering managers who value teamwork, even if they initially lack some skills or knowledge, can often lead to teams outperforming those led by more skilled individuals who overlook team dynamics or fail to provide the necessary support. 

To enhance a team's performance on the 16 crucial behaviors, it's essential for managers to adopt the right mindset and demonstrate commitment. HR teams can help them do so by trying out the following strategies in their organizations: 

• Balancing Priorities: Managers often find themselves swamped with immediate tasks, leaving little room for focusing on team dynamics. HR and L&D leaders can provide strategies and tools to assist managers in integrating team development seamlessly into their daily tasks. The upcoming section of this paper will delve deeper into tools that can help establish a robust check-in routine within the team.

• Recognizing Team Contributions: Leaders need to appreciate not only individual efforts but also collective problem-solving within the team. HR can contribute to this by highlighting team successes during company-wide meetings, integrating team-oriented questions into regular feedback cycles, and encouraging team leaders to factor in team contributions during promotion considerations.

• Implementing 360-Degree Feedback: Direct feedback from the team can be a powerful motivator for managers. HR can drive this process by introducing 360-degree feedback mechanisms. Tools such as Valence Reflect 360, which focus on gathering growth-oriented feedback outside the promotional cycle, can stimulate candid conversations among team members and leaders, fostering a growth-centric mindset.

• Sharing Responsibility: While it's admirable for a manager to want the team to succeed, it's detrimental for them to shoulder all the burden. Managers often rely heavily on themselves for diagnosing problems, solving them, and implementing solutions. HR and L&D leaders can provide resources to encourage managers to distribute the responsibility for the team's success, promote a culture where everyone views team effectiveness as a collective responsibility, and encourage team members in taking ownership of solving their own challenges and roadblocks on the team.

(2) Raise Awareness & Implement an Action Learning Cycle

To successfully integrate these behaviors throughout their organizations, it's critical for HR and L&D leaders to leverage the network of people managers and team leaders. However, this must be coupled with the provision of effective resources and dedicated support to truly breathe life into these behaviors within the teams.

The journey starts with raising the awareness about these key behaviors among managers. Incorporating training focused on these behaviors into managerial programs, offering workshops, and equipping managers with the understanding of how these behaviors foster team effectiveness is the great first step to take in implementing the new culture. From there, managers become the educators for their teams. They are responsible for promoting awareness and stressing the significance of these behaviors during regular team interactions and planning sessions. The managers essentially become the torchbearers, illuminating the path to improved team dynamics and performance through these key behaviors.

Next, HR leaders should facilitate the establishment of regular check-ins for teams to self-assess their health and performance against these key behaviors. Teams can easily become entangled in the intricacies of day-to-day tasks, which can hinder their ability to reflect on team performance and pinpoint areas for improvement. Therefore, HR and L&D leaders’ role is to provide a structured approach that can assist managers and teams to take a step back occasionally. Imagine the daily work responsibilities as a dance floor where the team members are engrossed in their respective dances, immersed in their tasks and routines. While that's necessary most of the time, it's equally beneficial to occasionally step onto a 'balcony' and observe the dance floor from above. From this vantage point, teams can effectively reflect, identify areas that need improvement, and devise suitable action plans. Tools like Valence’s Align can be a significant ally for teams in this action learning cycle, which includes diagnosis, discussion, prioritization, commitment, follow-through, and repetition. Alternatively, HR teams could design internal processes and tools that mirror this cycle.

Lastly, celebrating team successes in living these behaviors shouldn't be an afterthought. As teams regularly assess their performance, recognizing and sharing the stories that exemplify the desired behaviors becomes crucial. Celebrating successes, whether on a team scale or company-wide, cultivates a culture that values these key behaviors, leading to wider adoption. HR and L&D leaders should advocate for managers to integrate recognition and celebration into their team's regular routines, further ingraining these essential behaviors. To amplify this impact, HR and L&D teams should also seize opportunities to highlight these success stories in broader venues like company-wide town halls, email newsletters, and other corporate communications. 

Programs that emphasize the awareness, assessment, and celebration are crucial in amplifying the significance of these 16 behaviors, fostering a collective understanding and appreciation within the organization. By emphasizing their impact on team dynamics and overall organizational performance, these behaviors become more than just abstract concepts - they evolve into tangible practices that individuals strive to embody. 

(3) Prioritize Action Over Analysis

HR and L&D professionals often find themselves involved in selecting, validating, and applying the most effective frameworks for team effectiveness programs. However, while choosing the right framework is important, its impact dims in comparison to the frequency of its application by managers and employees. 

Consider two scenarios for fostering high-performing teams. In the first, your favourite framework is applied once annually, a fairly common cadence for teams to dedicate to structured performance and teamwork improvements. In the second scenario, the team spends 30 minutes every month asking two straightforward questions: 'What did we excel in as a team this month?' and 'What can we improve?'. We believe that the second scenario carries more potential for long-lasting success.

A comparison with fitness illustrates this point well. Discussions about the best workout types - be it cross-fit, running, pilates, or yoga - are frequent and often lengthy. However, the key is not in painstakingly picking the perfect activity, but rather in finding one that suits you and consistently sticking to it. Differences between various workouts do exist, but the crucial determinant of ultimate fitness and health level of the practitioner is the time spent on physical activity, not the type of activity they chose. 

We propose a shift to this common dynamic: instead of investing 80% of HR and L&D efforts into determining the perfect frameworks, concentrate 80% of those efforts into the dissemination and consistent use of the ones that are more easily available. It doesn't matter if your focus aligns with our suggested approach of tracking the 16 behaviours or whether another framework speaks best to your organization. Avoid prolonged debates over the ideal choice and start applying the framework that aligns best with your organization. After all, it's the consistent usage and repetition that truly makes a difference, not just the framework itself.

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