Potent teams have strong, healthy bonds

Karen Natzel, The Daily Record Newswire

The virtues of teamwork have been extolled by thought leaders, managers, coaches, MBA graduates and the like. However, a collection of intelligent and ambitious individual contributors does not in and of itself make a great team.

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Charles Duhigg, writing in a February article about Google in the New York Times magazine, revealed insightful truths about why some teams thrive and others fail. As one of the most public proselytizers of data-driven productivity measures, Google embarked on “Project Aristotle,” an initiative designed to explore what exactly makes good teams tick. Originally, researchers found it difficult to unearth patterns. Then, they started examining group norms, the unwritten rules that guide attitudes and behaviors. One of the most compelling findings: “… what distinguished the ‘good’ teams from dysfunctional groups was how teammates treated one another.” Healthy group norms had the ability to heighten the group’s collective intelligence, whereas the wrong norms sabotaged performance, even with talented individuals.

What are healthy group norms?

The team culture is defined by how people interact with each other – how they communicate, relate, trust and respect each other. Two compelling norms were consistent in high-performing teams:
1. Shared and equal platform. Team members spoke in roughly the same proportions, or what was referred to as “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.” People have and use the mic equally. People feel safe to speak up and feel like their contributions are heard.

2. High emotional intelligence. Strong teams were skilled in intuiting how others felt through their tone, expression and non-verbals. This empathetic, nuanced skill in conversations meant respectfully getting to the heart of issues and moving things forward.

Why do these norms matter? They form an expectation and culture of psychological safety – “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,” according to Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson. A culture shaped in this way holds a shared belief that it’s safe to take risks, which includes people being comfortable being themselves. This is a powerful foundation for team members to contribute more freely and fully to conversations, and ultimately, generate creative solutions and buy-in.

Bring authenticity to the workplace

A key performance indicator of a great place to work is camaraderie – that spirit of good friendship and loyalty; goodwill, lighthearted rapport and a sense of trust. It can’t be faked. It also can’t be built by people being disingenuous. Being authentic can feel a little risky and vulnerable. But, as researcher Brene Brown explains, “Vulnerability is the birthplace for innovation, creativity and change.”

Old school thinking would tell us to keep personal and professional lives separate. While it can be necessary and healthy to have some boundaries in place, people are not robots. We cannot turn ourselves “on” and “off” just by entering and leaving the workplace. If we’re not able to appropriately address the things that are bothering us (the frictions, the annoyances, the obstacles and frustrations), we are not going to be in a position to excel. Nor can we cultivate substantial, meaningful and resilient relationships without warmth and genuineness. It takes a lot of unnecessary energy to maintain anything that is artificial. When we step into our professional roles in an authentic way, we bring a certain candidness and intentionality to our work and our team. It also frees us up to give of our natural talents more generously.

What new norms can be adopted?

In light of this research, what norms should be fostered for team governance? Find ways to create a team dynamic that is inviting and fulfilling. Consider, for example:

• How well team members are known. Generally speaking, the deeper the understanding, the deeper the empathy. How can a team’s strengths be leveraged if decision makers don’t really know who they are, what motivates them, or how they think and feel? Make a concerted, honest effort to get to know the team. Come to each conversation with a sense of curiosity, with no other agenda than to listen and learn.

• How meetings are run. Is each team member able to participate fully? Are decisions made during meetings being communicated outside the immediate forum and into the rest of the organization? Meetings can serve as vital communication and team-building channels, or painful time wasters. Make them count.

• How feedback is provided. Are managers and their colleagues aligned about an issue after an important discussion? Oftentimes a manager provides feedback without ever really checking to make sure there’s a clear, shared set of expectations. Meaningful conversations mean both parties walk away with a deeper understanding of the issue and each other. It’s a creative, iterative, process. Don’t just communicate; connect as well.

• Whether the team has a clear, unifying purpose, shared goals and defined priorities. It’s easy for teams to lose sight of their common purpose. Connecting individual contributions to the good of the whole brings cohesiveness to a team, and helps people understand where and how they can have impact. Bringing clarity to the goals and priorities helps teams be aligned, with less competing agendas and more focused use of their resources.

The bond of potent teams is created in the authentic experience, not in a robotic formula. It’s built in those moments of how we treat each other; how we show respect, appreciation and empathy; and how we prove ourselves trustworthy in each and every conversation and action. These are the makings of forging real connections.


Karen Natzel is a business therapist who helps leaders create healthy, vibrant and high-performing organizations. Contact her at 503-806-4361 or karen@natzel.net.