Skip to main content
All CollectionsCoaching & Guidance
The Secret Formula for Great Teams?
The Secret Formula for Great Teams?

Two Behaviors that All High-Performing Teams Have in Common

Stephen Franklin avatar
Written by Stephen Franklin
Updated over a week ago

Companies invest an enormous amount of time, resources, and money attempting to improve teamwork because they understand, and studies confirm, that strong teams tend to innovate faster, achieve higher output, catch mistakes more quickly, and find far better solutions to problems. Despite all these efforts, far too many teams continue to underperform. Why is that? How can organizations and leaders build highly effective teams capable of consistently delivering exceptional results?

It's not as complex as you might think

Thousands of books, articles, seminars, courses, etc. have focused on the simple question asked by leadership around the world; "How do I produce highly effective teams?". Fortunately, we can take some queues from one of the most profitable and, some would argue, most successful companies in history, Google. A few years ago, Google was asking a similar question; "Why do some teams excel while others do not?". To answer this, Google ran an expansive study to identify and study the common traits of their high-achieving teams. The internal project, called Project Aristotle, was a huge data study focused on teams and teamwork within their organization. The tech giant spent millions of dollars tracking 180 separate teams for three years. The goal of the project was simple, to find out what characteristics their highest performing teams had in common. In other words, the company wanted to know why some teams stumbled while others flourished. Initially, the researchers speculated that a team's performance would be mainly determined by characteristics such as expertise at their job skills, combined years of experience, individual educational accomplishments, and the intellect of the team members. Additionally, they suspected that the best teams also needed to have members who really liked each other, had the right mix of personality types, and where team members were friends outside of work. However, none of these seemed to matter. The researchers could not find any meaningful patterns in the data. Basically, there was no evidence that a team’s composition of personality types, skills, experience, education, or backgrounds made any meaningful difference in the overall performance of the team. The “who” part of the equation didn't seem to matter. However, as the researchers continued to study these teams, they did uncover two interesting behaviors that only their best teams seemed to consistently demonstrate.

Behavior #1 of highly effective teams

First, the researchers found that when successful teams collaborated, each of the team members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers called “equality and distribution of conversational turn-taking”. On some teams, everyone voiced their thoughts during each discussion or during each assignment, while on others, defacto leadership shifted among teammates from assignment to assignment and discussion to discussion. But in each case, at the end of the day, everyone had spoken around the same amount. In other words, as long as everyone got a chance to provide their input, the team did well, whereas, on teams where only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence and performance of the team declined.

Behavior #2 of highly effective teams

The second common behavior identified was that all the high achieving teams maintained a higher than average "social sensitivity", a fancy way of saying they were skilled at reading how others felt based on their tone of voice, expressions, and other non-verbal cues. A common test for social sensitivity is to show someone photos of a person's eyes and ask to describe what that person is feeling, an exam known as the “reading the mind in the eyes”. On successful teams, a higher percentage of team members scored above average on this test and the team's composite score was always above the average. These teams seemed to know when a fellow teammate was feeling frustrated, upset, or left out. Members of the less effective teams, in contrast, commonly scored below average and the team's combined score was almost always at or below the average. They seemed to be less sensitive towards their colleagues and therefore showed lower levels of empathy and caring.

It all starts with psychological safety

By the end of the project, researchers concluded that the individual characteristics of the team members didn't matter. Education levels, combined job experience, individual intellect, or even distinguished records of past success by team members showed little correlation with their current team's overall performance. Instead, what really mattered was how team members treated each other. Teams where every team member freely contributed their thoughts, ideas, and opinions and where teammates demonstrated respect through active listening and consideration created a psychologically safe atmosphere within the team. Teams that also exhibited empathy and concern for their teammates by recognizing and acknowledging each other's personal well-being further enhanced the sense of safety within the team. It was this atmosphere of high psychological safety that enabled the successful teams to maximize the talents, intelligence, creativity, and overall positive influence of each team member in a way that collectively exceeded the productivity of teams lacking the same sense of safety. Leveraging the full potential of each team member coupled with the amplifying effects of great teamwork enabled these teams to consistently outperform the other teams, even when those teams possessed more of the conventional indicators of high aptitude such as educational achievement, combined experience, and individual intellect.

Did this answer your question?